The year of the underdog? Five dark horse nations to watch at EURO 2016

As the European Championship in France moves ever closer and pubs around England begin to adorn their walls with St. George’s Cross flags, the expectation on Roy Hodgson’s men is higher than ever.

While England are considered among the favourites to win the tournament, there are 23 other teams who are keen to make their mark on the European game, and the gulf in quality between all the represented nations is smaller than some may think.

The opportunity to qualify for the knockout rounds in this year’s tournament has been made unusually easy by UEFA in order to expand the reach of the competition. Expect to see some ‘lesser known’ teams battling it out with the European elites in the later stages.

With the start of EURO 2016 just a week away, we review FIVE teams who could prove dark horses in France this summer…

Austria

austria

With an almost perfect record during qualifying, Austria strolled to EURO 2016, qualifying for their first major tournament in 18 years.

The regeneration of the national team during those disappointing two decades has been nothing short of remarkable.

With undeniable defensive strength with Aleksander Dragovic, Kevin Wimmer and Christian Fuchs, attacking threat through Marko Arnautovic and Marc Janko and one of the world’s best in David Alaba, Marcel Koller’s team could prove a real handful, and should sail through their comparatively weak group.

Slovakia

slovakia

While many consider Slovakia as the whipping boys of Group B, they could transpire to be England’s most challenging opponents of the opening round in France.

This will be Slovakia’s first ever appearance at a European Championship, however, their squad is blessed with plenty of experience and talent including Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel and Napoli’s majestic midfielder Marek Hamsik.

While Jan Kozak’s team may struggle to score goals, expect them to provide a resolute back-line that any opponent will struggle to break through. Just ask Spain, who were on the end of a 2-1 defeat during qualifying.

Poland

poland

While talent can be found across the Poland squad, you will find no individual more gifted than Robert Lewandowski, arguably the best No.9 in the world right now.

Add to this the threats of Ajax’s Arkadiusz Milik, Fiorentina winger Jakub Blaszczykowski and Sevilla’s midfield stalwart Grzegorz Krychowiak and you have the makings of a seriously good team.

Poland will face neighbours Germany in their group, just as they did in qualifying. Expect that clash to be one of the best games during the group stages.

Iceland

iceland

How did a country of just 320,000 people manage to produce a football team capable of qualifying for the European Championship?

Ask an Iceland fan and they will explain to you that squad unity has been the key.

Despite not having the most talented players, Iceland produced some remarkable results during qualification, defeating the Netherlands twice and also claiming victories over Turkey and the Czech Republic.

Should this squad remain a compact, cohesive unit, they may just spring a surprise or two this summer, especially if Gylfi Sigurdsson is on form.

Croatia

croatia

In Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Ivan Rakitic, Croatia have arguably the best starting midfield in the entire tournament.

Still, Ante Kacic and his team will be considered a dark horse, especially in a group containing current holders Spain.

However, should they carry their qualifying form over to the group stages, especially their sublime defensive record, Croatia could well prove a genuine threat in France this summer.