KARACHI: The hype surrounding Group E when the Euro 2016 draws were announced back in December last year certainly seems a bit exaggerated now.
Group E, labelled as the ‘group of death’, sees Italy, Belgium, Sweden and Republic of Ireland pitted against each other.
Surely when the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Gianluigi Buffon, Robbie Keane and Daniele de Rossi take on each other in France, epic battles and many breathtaking moments will certainly be on show.
Yet, despite the abundance of world-class talent in this group, a closer looks at the sides may well leave the fans feeling a bit short-changed. Skipper Ibrahimovic is Sweden’s only star player and four-time world champions Italy are still recovering from their World Cup-winning golden generation.
Meanwhile, Republic of Ireland, spectacular as they have been in qualifying, have only managed to reach the Euros just twice, winning only a single game in those two campaigns combined.
World number two Belgium are the only side from the group expected to trouble Europe’s big guns but given their lack of experience on the big stage, it wouldn’t be a major upset if the Red Devils find themselves on an early flight home.
So the ‘group of death’ is not exactly as deadly as many would have hoped it to be, but it can certainly deliver some of the most fiercely-fought battles of Euro 2016.
Marc Wilmots’ men boast some of the biggest names in world football at the moment. Their spectacular qualifying campaign saw them make the Euros for the first time in 16 years, having been co-hosts in 2000.
It was their first successful qualification campaign since 1984.
Chelsea superstar Hazard and City’s £55 million man De Bruyne lead the goalscoring charts for the Red Devils and the duo will be the fulcrum of their attacks.
Hazard endured a tumultuous season this year with Chelsea and has been nowhere near his usual self. However, he showed glimpses of his usual best towards the end of the season and Wilmots must be hoping his star player can find his old form.
Other big names include Everton’s Romelu Lukaku, Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini, Atletico Madrid’s Yannick Carrasco, Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois, Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld and Barcelona’s Thomas Vermaelen.
Wilmots’ men must find a way of overcoming the jitters of playing at such a big stage if they are to lift their first-ever European crown. However, given the size of the clubs these players usually play for, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), Jean-Francois Gillet (Catania), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool)
Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham), Jason Denayer (Manchester City), Laurent Ciman (Montreal Impact), Jordan Lukaku (Oostende), Thomas Meunier (Club Brugge), Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham), Christian Kabasele (Genk)
Midfielders: Mousa Dembele (Tottenham), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Radja Nainggolan (Roma), Axel Witsel (Zenit)
Forwards: Michy Batshuayi (Marseille), Christian Benteke (Liverpool), Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Romelu Lukaku (Everton), Dries Mertens (Napoli), Divock Origi (Liverpool)
One of Europe’s most decorated nations with four World Cups and one European Championship triumph, the Azzurri are certainly a force to be reckoned with.
Their qualifying run, where they topped Group H with ease, certainly means they will be fancying their chances in France but, they somehow lack the intimidation factor that they usually do.
Antonio Conte’s men have a typical Italian style of play with much of the focus on defence. That has served them well till now with the Azzurri among the only four teams at the Euro to progress from the qualifying rounds without suffering a single loss.
But while this strategy has worked so far, Conte’s men would be up against much stronger opposition than the ones they faced in qualifying.
Their 16 goals in nine lowest of their group rivals and the 2006 world champions certainly lack attacking prowess, with top-scorer Graziano Pelle boasting just three strikes to his name.
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Federico Marchetti (Lazio), Salvatore Sirigu (Paris Saint-Germain)
Defenders: Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Angelo Ogbonna (West Ham)
Midfielders: Federico Bernardeschi (Fiorentina), Antonio Candreva (Lazio), Matteo Darmian (Manchester United), Daniele De Rossi (Roma), Mattia De Sciglio (AC Milan), Stephan El Shaarawy (Roma), Alessandro Florenzi (Roma), Emanuele Giaccherini (Bologna), Thiago Motta (Paris Saint-Germain), Marco Parolo (Lazio), Stefano Sturaro (Juventus)
Forwards: Eder (Inter), Ciro Immobile (Torino), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli), Graziano Pelle (Southampton), Simone Zaza (Juventus)
Republic of Ireland
With a whopping 22 goals in qualifying, Republic of Ireland are the surprise package at this year’s Euros. Having previously made only two appearances at the continental event, this is Martin O’Neill’s men big chance to progress from the group stages for the first time in their history.
Bouyed by the impeccable form of leading goalscorers — 35-year-old skipper Robbie Keane and Jon Walters — The Boys in Green can dare to dream of writing their own history and give Keane, who most certainly will be featuring in his first and last European outing, a fitting farewell.
Goalkeepers: Shay Given (Stoke), Darren Randolph (West Ham), Keiren Westwood (Sheffield Wednesday)
Defenders: Seamus Coleman (Everton), Cyrus Christie (Derby), Ciaran Clark (Aston Villa), Richard Keogh (Derby), John O'Shea (Sunderland), Shane Duffy (Blackburn), Stephen Ward (Burnley)
Midfielders: Aiden McGeady (Sheffield Wednesday), James McClean (West Brom), Glenn Whelan (Stoke City), James McCarthy (Everton), Jeff Hendrick (Derby County), David Meyler (Hull City), Stephen Quinn (Reading), Wes Hoolahan (Norwich), Robbie Brady (Norwich), Jonathan Walters (Stoke)
Forwards: Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), Shane Long (Southampton), Daryl Murphy (Ipswich)
This is surely Ibrahimovic’s last Euro and, despite the great Swede’s goalscoring prowess, he has not been able to take his country anywhere noteworthy.
It’s not as if he doesn’t do his job well. His 11 goals in qualifying are second only to Robert Lewandowski’s 13.
This in no way is meant to discredit his teammates’ contribution but when it comes to shining on the big stage, the Blågult only have the towering striker to rely on and there is a limit to what a man can achieve on his own.
Thus unfortunate as it may be, Ibra will have to fight this battle alone one more time knowing in his heart that his side will not be going very far in the tournament even if they somehow manage to make it past the group stages.
Goalkeepers: Andreas Isaksson (Kasimpasa), Robin Olsen (København), Patrik Carlgren (AIK)
Defenders: Ludwig Augustinsson (Kobenhavn), Erik Johansson (København), Pontus Jansson (Torino), Victor Lindelof (Benfica) Andreas Granqvist (Krasnodar), Mikael Lustig (Celtic), Martin Olsson (Norwich)
Midfielders: Jimmy Durmaz (Olympiakos), Albin Ekdal (Hamburg), Oscar Hiljemark (Palermo), Sebastian Larsson (Sunderland), Pontus Wernbloom (CSKA Moskva), Erkan Zengin (Trabzonspor), Oscar Lewicki (Malmo), Emil Forsberg (Leipzig), Kim Kallstrom (Grasshoppers)
Forwards: Marcus Berg (Panathinaikos), John Guidetti (Celta), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Paris), Emir Kujovic (Norrkoping)
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