With an ageing squad, political turmoil at home and a tough group; Ukraine boss Mykhaylo Fomenko could do without a player feud on the eve of the tournament. Midfielder Taras Stepanenko recently condemned Ukraine team-mate Andriy Yarmolenko after the pair clashed during a league game.
Dynamo Kiev winger Yarmolenko lashed out at the Shakhtar Donetsk player with both subsequently being dismissed following a melee between the teams who provide the bulk of Ukraine’s squad. Fomenko has urged the pair to kiss and make up, but it’s a worrying rift as they look to improve on a group stage exit four years ago.
Time has flown since they jointly hosted Euro 2012 with Poland, when the pressure of throwing the party seemed to burden the Yellows. Their first European Championship ended up being a pretty miserable experience as they earned just one victory (over Sweden) in a testing section that also featured France and England. However, going through that should benefit the eastern European side this time around but, worryingly, not a lot has changed since then. Well, apart from veteran coach Fomenko being in charge.
The famed former Dynamo Kiev man has been tasked with rejuvenating Ukraine’s fortunes. Their hearts were broken against France in a play-off qualifier to reach the 2014 World Cup but they did learn from that experience and fared a lot better this time around – beating tricky opponents Slovenia over two legs. It was in fact their first win in five play-off ties that they’ve been involved in and bodes well for the knockout football ahead. They showed grit to come through that contest and Ukraine will need that in abundance as they look to jostle for second spot in Group C, behind Germany, and obviously in front of Poland and Northern Ireland.
Fomenko has a tried and trusted formula of getting the best out of his players and they will get stuck in, as well as pull every trick in the book, to frustrate teams. There’s too much of a reliance on Andriy Yarmolenko but on his day, he is a proven match-winner and they always have a chance of nicking a goal with him in the side. Sevilla’s Yevhen Konoplyanka is another player who offers genuine quality.
Playing Germany first-up is a baptism of fire for Ukraine and a heavy defeat could really leave them facing an uphill struggle to qualify, given the apparent splits in the dressing room. There is plenty of experience and leadership in the team but goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov is partial to the odd inexplicable howler while the continued faith in Vyacheslav Shevchuk leaves them vulnerable to pace and genuine width.
STAR MAN – ANDRIY YARMOLENKO
Remarkably for a player as talented as Yarmolenko, he is yet to be tempted away from Dynamo Kiev. They have snubbed numerous bids while he has showed great loyalty. A move is surely imminent, however, and a good tournament could put him on the radar of some big clubs. Pace, skill, a powerful and accurate shot, the 26-year-old is effective wide or through the middle. He’s tall but graceful and glides when he runs with the ball.
It looks like it will be a head-to-head battle with Poland for the second automatic qualifying spot in the group with the lottery of the best third placed teams a Plan B. Ukraine will do well to make it into the last 16.
Given they have been World Cup regulars and two-time semi-finalists in the global footballing showpiece, it’s difficult to fathom that Poland only qualified for their first European Championships eight years ago.
The Poles have twice recorded third place finishes at the globe’s premier football event, Grzegorz Lato’s goal enough to beat the mighty Brazil in the third/fourth-place playoff in 1974. In 1982 they beat Michel Platini’s France 3-2 in a five-goal thriller. On the European stage, however, it’s been quite a different story. They made their first finals in 2008 at the 13th attempt and qualified as joint hosts with Ukraine four years ago.
They haven’t exactly set the world alight either – finishing bottom of their group on each occasion. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like bettering their first two attempts should prove much of an obstacle – except they have a tricky group, which includes world champions and old foes, Germany, as well as Ukraine and debutants Northern Ireland. They do, however, come into the tournament off the back of an impressive qualifying campaign. They stunned Joachim Low’s World Cup winners with a 2-0 victory in Warsaw in October 2014, and their only loss in the group was a 3-1 defeat in the reverse fixture in Frankfurt a year later.
They also have one of the best strikers at the tournament in Bayern Munich sharpshooter Robert Lewandowski, who topped the charts in qualifying with 13 goals in 10 games. His haul also saw his country score the most goals in qualifying, with 33, two ahead of England. They have players excelling in club football across Europe, including Grzegorz Krychowiak, the in-demand Sevilla midfielder.
The Poles are in excellent form, having only suffered one defeat in the last two years, and head to France rightly full of confidence.
The Poles are a well-rounded team and are strong in both attack and defence. Their 33 goals during qualifying shows their class going forward, and they only conceded 10. Although star man Lewandowski’s 13 strikes saw him top the charts, they have goals all over the pitch, with 10 of his team-mates also chipping in, including Arkadiusz Milik (six) and Kamil Grosicki (four).
Poland’s biggest obstacle, it seems, will be themselves. If they are able to finally get the monkey off their backs and emerge from the group after two miserable attempts previously, they could make a deep run at the tournament. Selection issues remain, including who to partner Kamil Glik at the heart of defence and who can pull the strings in the No10 role.
STAR MAN – ROBERT LEWANDOWSKI
The Bayern Munich striker is a genuine superstar and his form in front of goal will go some way to determining how far his side will progress in the competition. The 27-year-old has enjoyed a stunning season at club level, netting 42 goals in 51 games in all competitions for the Bavarian giants, while 16 goals in his last 15 internationals is sensational. Netted 13 times in 10 Group D games, which saw him named both top goalscorer and best player in qualifying. Will relish carrying the burden of a nation’s hopes on his shoulders.
With Lewandowski leading the line, supported by an able cast including Lukasz Piszczek, Glik, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Krychowiak, the White Eagles should at the very least get out of the group.
An appearance at a major tournament has been an exceedingly long time coming for Wales – nearly six decades to be precise. Not since the legendary days of the country’s greatest player, John Charles, have the Dragons roared on the international stage.
It was in Sweden at the 1958 World Cup that Wales last mixed it with the big boys. Little would they have known then that it would be another 58 years before they next qualified for a major finals.
A talented squad back then, led by Juventus’ Charles made the quarterfinals only to run into a 17-year-old named Edson Arantes do Nascimento – more commonly known as Pele. Fast forward 58 years, Wales have finally reached the promised land following 28 consecutive failed attempts to make either the World Cup or European Championships.
There have been some ‘ever so nears’ and ‘what ifs’ in the ensuing years, most notably Terry Yorath’s talented squad that fell short of reaching the 1994 World Cup and Mark Hughes’
team that fell to Russia in a play-off to qualify for Euro 2004.Despite an immense feeling of pride, joy and overwhelming relief at putting to rest the decades of hurt for Welsh football, this talented side should not be content with simply representing their nation in France.
They won’t be among the favourites but will fancy their chances of emerging from a group containing old foes England. And, with the likes of Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale, Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey, Swansea City centre-half Ashley Williams and Liverpool schemer Joe Allen in their ranks, a nation dares to dream. Bale seemed like he was on a one-man crusade in qualifying and in him Wales possess one of the tournament’s most potent individual match-winners.
Wales are a solid team and any side facing them will have to scrap for everything.They are resolute in defence, just four goals conceded in qualifying was bettered only by Romania, Spain and England. They also kept seven clean sheets. Bale is the shining light but they have good players down the spine, including Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Ashley Williams.
Beyond Bale, Wales lack a credible goal threat. The Madrid star scored seven in qualifying, with Aaron Ramsey (two), David Cotterill and Hal Robson-Kanu adding the others, meaning no out-and-out striker found the net. There’s also a chronic lack of depth. Wales have a couple of star names but a number of players in the squad are barely household names at their clubs.
STAR MAN – GARETH BALE
There is no denying that if the Dragons are to fire in France, they are going to need their best player to shine. It’s a good thing Bale, unlike the previous golden boy of Welsh football, Ryan Giggs, always rises to the occasion for his nation. Bale, 26, just 10 caps shy of surpassing Giggs, was instrumental in qualifying, netting seven of Wales’ 11 goals. There’s an argument they are too reliant on their talisman, but when your best player is one of the game’s greatest talents, he’s always going to stand out. He will relish the big stage.
They’ve made their first major tournament in 58 years, but Wales won’t feel they are there to make up the numbers. Getting out of the group will be a triumph, any progress beyond that will be a real fairytale.