With the domestic season finally over, the European Championship in France is now just a matter of weeks away – set to officially kick off on June 10th.
As the first ever Euro tournament involving 24 teams, bumped up from the previous format of 16, the 2016 edition looks set to be a real classic, especially with no standout favourite to lift the title.
The new format has accommodated for an extra knockout round also and seemingly inspired some of Europe’s lesser sides to claim a place in the group stages, with the likes of Wales and Iceland making their Euro debuts.
But how clued up are you on this year’s teams – or more accurately, the stars who look set to take centre-stage as their countries hone in on the Euro crown?
If the answer is ‘not particularly’, then don’t fear. Football FanCast is here to fill you in with our list of the top ten key players at Euro 2016.
Arguably the most lethal finisher in world football, Robert Lewandowski has finished the 2015/16 campaign with an incredible 42 goals in 51 appearances for Bayern Munich, including five goals against Wolfsburg in the space of nine minutes back in September.
The 75-cap international faces a tough task of maintaining that potency at the Euros this summer, especially with Poland facing bitter rivals Germany and Ukraine in Group C. But Poland have forged their game around getting Lewandowski the ball as often as possible and the 27-year-old will have chances to put his name on the scoresheet.
Sergio Busquets may rarely grab the headlines but he’s been at the backbone of Spanish football’s era of dominance over club and international football, winning three Champions League titles with Barcelona alongside a World Cup and a European Championship with Spain
Manager Vincente del Bosque once said “You watch the game, you don’t see Busquets. You watch Busquets, you see the whole game,” suggesting the .defensive midfielder will continue to remain at the heart of his starting Xi, anchoring the tiki-taka enthusiasts circling him, for the coming tournament in France.
Lacking true star quality in attack, Italy’s progression through the Euros will largely hinge upon the kind of stanch defence that has become synonymous with Azzurri throughout the years. Juventus centre-half Giorgio Chiellini will play an intrinsic role at the heart of their backline; he’s rated as one of the top centre-backs in world football and is the most experienced outfield player at Antonio Conte’s disposal after international centurion Daniele De Rossi, with 82 caps to his name.
Eden Hazard’s miraculous decline since claiming last season’s PFA Player of the Year award – barring a few show-stopping performances at the end of the campaign – has thrust Kevin De Bruyne to centre-stage ahead of what looks set to be an incredibly exciting tournament for Belgium.
The Manchester City midfielder has justified his £55million price-tag increasingly as the season’s gone on, eventually finishing up with seven goals and nine assists in 25 Premier League appearances alongside a further three strikes in the Champions League. The 24-year-old’s return for Belgium – 12 goals and 38 caps – is nothing to be sniffed at either.
Wales progression through the first European Championship they’ve successfully qualified for will almost entirely depend on Gareth Bale’s ability to regularly conjure up magic in the final third. The 26-year-old hasn’t exactly set the world alight since moving to the Bernabeu three years ago, despite a decent return of 58 goals in 123 appearances across all competitions, but remains the Dragons’ attacking talisman with seven goals in qualifying.
The winger-forward will view Euro 2016 as a chance to silence the lingering doubters and the chance of inspiring a shock win over Group B opponents England on June 16th undoubtedly appeals.
In recent weeks, there has been a great debate over whether Wayne Rooney is a striker or a midfielder, whether he should start for England at Euro 2016 or whether he should have even made Roy Hodgson’s squad in the first place, despite captaining the Three Lions through qualifying and breaking Bobby Charlton’s all-time top scorer record in the process.
But in terms of proven ability and experience, the 30-year-old remains head and shoulders above the rest in an otherwise youthful England team. And after so many tournaments of disappointment, the timing feels right for Wazza Roo to truly make an impact on the world stage – especially following a strong end to the season in the deep-lying midfield role.
Their squad may be almost overflowing with top-class names but Germany have always prided themselves on functioning effectively as a unit and no player epitomises that trend better than attacking utility man Thomas Muller.
The Bayern Munich star possesses no overriding technical or physical attribute but is quite simply a force of nature when it comes to scoring goals, especially at international level. He’s bagged eleven across the last two World Cups and 31 overall for Die Mannschaft – not to mention a career-best 32 strikes at club level this season.
A master of the wonder goal and arguably the greatest striker of his generation, notching up an incredible 454 goals in 789 appearances – including 62 goals for Sweden – throughout a trophy-laden career. Now aged 34, Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be desperate to leave a final mark on the world stage during what is likely to be his last ever major international tournament.
In 2014, the 6 foot 5 star claimed a World Cup without him isn’t worth watching – so we can only assume a European Championship with him will be one of the greatest footballing spectacles you’ll ever witness. Unfortunately, however, progression through the tournament doesn’t seem too likely; Sweden find themselves one of the toughest groups alongside Belgium, Italy and Ireland.
Portugal’s squad is overflowing with exciting young talents, not least including Andre Gomes, Renato Sanchez, William Carvalho and Rafa Silva, but Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo remains the indisputable star of the show.
The European Championship is the only tournament in which the 31-year-old icon doesn’t face the prospect of being overshadowed by Argentinean Ballon d’Or nemesis Lionel Messi and he’ll relish the opportunity to have the stage to himself – even if Portugal aren’t considered one of the favourites to lift the 2016 title.
France turned world football on its head the last time they hosted an international tournament – the 1998 World Cup – and will be hoping for a similar impact this time around. The strength of Didier Deschamps’ squad lays in its depth rather than inclusion of world-class names but if there’s one player who certainly belongs in that bracket, it’s dynamic midfielder Paul Pogba.
Aged 23, the former Manchester United youngster is already revered as arguably the best in the business, combining physicality and flair with a sturdy supply of goals. Juventus are hoping to seal a record-breaking sum for the 29-cap international this summer and performances for France could well convince one of his many admirers to pay up.