With Euro 2016 rapidly approaching, SASoccermag.co.za previews Group E, which is arguably the ‘Group of Death’ featuring 2012 losing finalists Italy, Belgium, Ireland and Sweden.
Italy, who were thrashed 4-0 by Spain at the final hurdle four years ago, will be hoping their youthful squad can go one better in the latest edition of the European Championships. The Italians, whose only European crown came on home soil back in 1968, will face tough opposition in the form of a highly-rated Belgian side, as well as the likes of the Republic of Ireland, and a Zlatan Ibrahimovic-led Sweden.
The group kicks-off when the Ireland take on Sweden on Monday 13 June at the Stade de France, Saint-Denis.
Favourites to progress
It’s a toss-up between Italy and Belgium for the top position in group, while Sweden could prove dangerous dark horses. Ireland, meanwhile, are likely to finish bottom of the group, despite having a useful side at their disposal.
Ireland are ranked at 31 in the world by Fifa, and will be hoping their handful of Premier League stars can produce their best form.
Sweden are ranked all the way down at 36 in the world but the side are more than capable of causing an upset or two so long as they have the likes of superstar forward Ibrahimovic leading the line.
Italy, for their part, have a good mix of youth and experience at their disposal, despite entering the tournament without the likes of inspirational midfielder Andrea Pirlo. The Italians have long had a knack for producing their best football when it matters most, despite not being among the bookmakers’ favourites for the tournament.
Finally, Belgium will favour their chances as the outfit is littered with a host of big name players. Furthermore, the side is ranked as high as 2nd in the world, making them the highest-rated side in the competition.
Players to watch
With the aforementioned Ibrahimovic key to Sweden’s hopes, Ireland’s key player is likely to be in-form attacker Shane Long of Southampton. The 29-year-old scored 13 goals across all competitions this season and will need to be at his best in order to keep the Irish fans interested in the competition.
Belgium are the glamour side in the group as they have the likes of Manchester City star Kevin de Bruyne, Everton striker Romelu Lukaku, Chelsea stars Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois, as well as likes of opinion-splitting Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini to call upon, among others.
The Italians, meanwhile, are supplemented by a host of Juventus players. The Serie A champions contribute the bulk of the side’s defensive options, including inspirational goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. Further forward, Thiago Motta and Daniele De Rossi are likely to to steady the midfield, while former AC Milan prodigy Stephan El Shaarawy is the side’s biggest name striking option.
Match not to miss
Belgium’s clash against Italy is likely to be the biggest match of the group, as Belgium look to continue their attacking philosophy, while Italy are notoriously defensive in nature. The match will take place on match day one, meaning that should either side taste defeat on the day, they will be under severe pressure in the remained of their group stage fixtures.
The match will take place on Monday 13 June at the Stade de Lyon, Lyon.