Daniel McDonnell: The 16 major talking points for Euro 2016
Published 04/06/2016 | 02:30
Can a star-studded Belgium squad live up to expectations and will Ronaldo sacrifice the money shot for the benefit of his team? Here are the leading storylines to watch for at the first 24-team European Championships
Will the 24 team tournament dilute the quality?
It might, but in reality it's just going to elongate the event instead of having a negative impact on the entertainment value. The same handful of nations are likely to be fighting it out at the business end and, in truth, there isn't much difference between the teams ranked from 10 to 24 coming into the competition.
Some of the smaller nations that have made the cut would have made it under the old format, and the expansion ended up benefiting nations that will bring quite a lot of fans and enhance the tournament experience.
With the European representation at the World Cup eroded because of FIFA politics and Sepp Blatter's vote grabbing, the Euros might be the only chance that some countries get to enjoy the buzz of an international summer. The idea to spread the whole competition around the continent in 2020 will have a much more damaging impact on the tradition of the event than adding extra sides into the mix.
THE SECURITY THREAT
France remains in a state of emergency until the end of July and this means that fans are just going to have to cope with the delays that come with a heavy security operation. It's all for a good reason.
The country is well equipped to cope with the volume of people that will come its way and it appears that fans from multiple nations are ready to travel en masse, regardless of what fears they might have.
On Wednesday, the hosts will stage the regular pre-tournament briefing that is generally a dull affair which trains in on logistics. This time around, it will be a major news story with the viable terror threat on top of the agenda.
All supporters - and media members who like to chronicle their every move - can do is accept that getting to stadiums early will be a necessity and long queues for checks will be a reality. It might be frustrating, but people should be wise enough to avoid moaning about it. That's probably an optimistic aspiration.
WILL RASHFORD GET ON THE PITCH?
Marcus Rashford's rise from the youth team to the brink of a major tournament appearance is an extraordinary story, but it's not an unusual one from an English perspective.
From Michael Owen to Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott, they have a recent history of gambling on a youngster that is turning heads. Walcott was the extreme example in 2006, given that he hadn't any Premier League experience and it didn't exactly set him up for a glittering international career; his only major tournament appearance came at Euro 2012.
Rashford appears to be a natural finisher and, while England are well set in the striking department with Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, Rooney and Daniel Sturridge, there is momentum behind the Manchester United teenager and it wouldn't be a huge surprise if Roy Hodgson bowed to pressure to pitch him in at some point, particularly if things are going badly and it perpetuates the building -for-the-future argument.
WILL CRISTIANO TAKE AN EARLY PENALTY?
Cristiano Ronaldo has form when it comes to waiting until the end of a penalty shoot-out. Four years ago, Portugal lost their semi-final to Spain after taking just four penalties. Ronaldo, who was waiting to take the fifth, never got to contribute despite his prowess from 12 yards.
The captain was heavily criticised for taking the gamble, which paid off in last weekend's Champions League final.
Portugal have an opportunity to advance to the latter stages as they have landed an eminently winnable group, which contains Austria, Hungary and Iceland. If they end up in another shoot-out then it will be interesting to see if Ronaldo has learned a lesson. He might just have to miss out on the money shot.
CAN IRELAND COPE WITHOUT ROBBIE KEANE?
Marcel Desailly came to Dublin this week, earned a substantial amount of money, and then gave a series of interviews where it became apparent that he has no real idea about what's going on with the Irish football team.
He did what all good ex-pros do in these situations; he veered towards talking one of the few players that he was familiar with. Desailly spoke of Robbie Keane's importance, stating that he could have a Zinedine Zidane 2006 World Cup style impact.
Keane does have fitness issues to overcome before he can declare himself fit - he was cycling around Fota Island yesterday - but it will be a surprise to many football fans and pundits outside Ireland when it becomes apparent that he won't be starting any games even if he's in peak condition.
The challenge is set for another player to step up and prove that they also have the star quality which made Keane such a recognisable face after his 2002 exploits.
CAN GARETH BALE CARRY WALES ANY FURTHER?
The sight of Gareth Bale clutching his groin after dispensing his penalty for Real Madrid prompted panic in Wales given his obvious importance to their hopes of succeeding in France. They are not quite a one man team - Ashley Williams and Aaron Ramsey are valuable too - but it's Bale that makes them tick.
In the Real Madrid team, he is just another talented player yet his superstar status becomes apparent when dropped into the Welsh dressing room.
He is fully committed to them too, a popular member of the group that stepped up at all the key moments in qualifying. He is capable of stretching England's suspect defence and the meeting between the neighbours in Lens on June 16 could be one of the games of the competition.
WILL BENZEMA ABSENCE HAUNT FRANCE?
Hosting a tournament generally unifies a dressing room and France could do with that.
They've spectacularly mastered the art of a mid-competition meltdown, with South Africa 2010 the stand-out fiasco, but they've got the scandal out of the way early this time.
Karim Benzema's alleged role in a plot to extort money from his team-mate Mathieu Valbuena arising from a sex tape raised the bar and, while the investigation continues, the decision was taken to exclude Benzema from the finals. As it happens, Valbuena hasn't made it either.
France have a fine team and a convenient route to the knockout stages. Up front, they have the flaky Olivier Giroud, Mexican-based Andre Pierre Gignac and impressive youngsters Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman. Martial is on the way to becoming an outstanding player, but there is a danger they will end up missing Benzema when it comes to the crunch. The fall-out would prompt the usual post-tournament round of finger pointing.
CAN KYLE LAFFERTY SEIZE THE DAY?
Northern Ireland striker Kyle Lafferty was once described by his former chairman at Palermo, Maurizio Zamparini, as 'an Irishman without rules', an 'unmanageable womaniser' that 'disappears for a week and takes a plane to go hunt for women in Milan.'
Much as Lafferty disputed those specific criticisms, it's fair to say that the player's club career has failed to take off because of concerns that various employers have expressed about his attitude.
Michael O'Neill has managed to draw the best from him, however, with Lafferty a talismanic figure as they overcame a dreadful recent competitive record to comfortably qualify for France as the winners of their group. They got there courtesy of O'Neill's tactical acumen which kept them competitive in every match with Lafferty providing seven goals that carried the outsiders onto the elite stage.
WHO WILL BREAK THE AGE RECORD?
This tournament actually is a place for old men. Lothar Matthaus was 91 days past his 39th birthday when he lined out against Portugal in Euro 2000, a feat that is about to be overtaken.
Two goalkeepers travelling to France are older than Matthaus. Ireland's Shay Given turned 40 in April but is unlikely to get on the pitch unless misfortune strikes Darren Randolph. However, Hungary's ex-Crystal Palace netminder Gabor Kiraly is 19 days older than Given and expected to write his name into the history books.
WHAT ABOUT SPAIN'S VETERAN?
After mastering life without a striker, Spain struggled in Brazil as recent convert Diego Costa looked painfully uncomfortable with his role. They exited ignominiously and Vicente del Bosque has decided that he can do without the Chelsea star this summer.
Instead, he has opted for a real fairytale story, the 35-year-old Athletic Bilbao attacker Aritz Aduriz. He was called up this year after a six-year absence from the fold - and his previous was a brief appearance that resulted in one cap.
Following the best season of his career, he will be in France when the likes of Costa and Fernando Torres are at home.
THE TEAM TO DISLIKE?
These days, the head of the Croatian FA is their former striker Davor Suker, a star of the late 1990s.
He's not afraid to shake things up, as evidenced by his change at the top last September when he sacked his former team-mate Niko Kovac with two games remaining in the qualifiers.
Suker duly appointed experienced 62-year-old coach Ante Cacic, who is barely known outside Croatia, yet the real talking point was his choice of assistant.
Josip Simunic was added to the ticket, a man whose international career ended in shame when he served a 10-match FIFA ban for making a fascist salute during a 2013 game with Iceland. Their volatile operation are unlikely to win too many friends.
CAN YOU WRITE OFF THE ITALIANS?
Italy have been here before. In 2006, they won the World Cup when expectations had plummeted and its football community was in crisis due to a match-fixing investigation.
Four years ago, they were hopeless in the pre-tournament friendlies and went on to reach the final in Kiev.
Ahead of his departure to Chelsea, Antonio Conte has coped with the loss of key men Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio and resisted the temptation to bring back Andrea Pirlo, insisting that he must 'pay the consequences' for taking the MLS pay cheque.
Granted, Italy exited the Brazil World Cup at the group stage and do have a shortage of quality. Yet they have an array of seasoned defensive operators which makes them dangerous to underestimate.
WHO WILL BE THE PEOPLE'S CHAMPIONS?
The Poles really got on board the Irish express, but Ireland offer no real novelty value compared to some of the other protagonists.
Iceland have never competed on this stage and they are the smallest country to reach the top table with a population of just 329,000. They shocked the absent Dutch along the way.
There's also a great story in Albania, with the country's turbulent history meaning that the diaspora spread around the world have often contributed to the success of others. For example, Swiss duo Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka have Albanian heritage. That said, Kosovo's acceptance into UEFA means future generations could be split down the middle.
WHAT WILL ZLATAN DO?
His farewell to French football was spectacular. With a couple of minutes remaining in the league win over Nantes, the game stopped as he called his children onto the pitch, picked them up, kissed them and then walked off to a standing ovation from team-mates, opponents and fans.
PSG had already used all three subs so they played out the final minutes with 10 men. Ibrahimovic has always enjoyed the drama and this may well be his last major tournament. He will not go quietly, despite Ireland's best intentions.
ARE BELGIUM THE REAL DEAL?
They like Marc Wilmots in Belgium, but that status could be affected if they continue to underachieve this summer.
It hasn't always been straightforward in the dressing room. Kevin de Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois were once involved in a love triangle which was played out through the media, while the recruitment of Adnan Januzaj in 2014 caused some disquiet. He's well out of the picture now anyway and might even declare for Kosovo.
Vincent Kompany will be missed and their defence has been weakened by bumps and bruises. Still, there is a sense that now is the ideal moment for this generation to click.
CAN GERMANY DOUBLE UP?
The World Cup winners are second favourites behind France, even though they shed their nearly-man tag in Brazil
It was an entertaining tournament, but they are unlikely to be remembered as great champions unless they add another trophy to their legacy. They rode their luck on a couple of occasions en route to glory in Rio, most notably a round of 16 tie with Algeria, and Joachim Loew's charges showed they were vulnerable in a qualifying group, where they tasted defeat in Warsaw and Dublin.
Still, the popular website transfermarkt this week valued their squad at £421m with Spain next best at £418m and the rest some distance behind. In a strange way, they are creeping under the radar.