Comprising of 24 nations for the first time, the European Championships finally get under way on Friday after a great deal of anticipation, tinged with concerns over security. The Stade de France was a venue very much caught up in the tragic events of November, but hopefully the football will be the only topic of conversation after it holds the first match of the tournament as hosts France take on Romania.
Due to the steady progress the team has been making over the course of former World Cup winning captain Didier Deschamps’ time in charge and the emergence of numerous talented youngsters over recent years, France are right among the favourites to lift the trophy on July 10. Expectations are high, but with home advantage and quality in all areas of the team they could very well go the distance.
First of all they will have to make it through Group A, and it certainly looks to be a kind draw on paper. With up to three sides set to advance to the knockout rounds it seems inconceivable that France will go out at this stage. Indeed, it will be an even bigger shock than when they failed to score and finished bottom of their group at the 2002 World Cup, which they came into as world and European champions.
This opening game is likely to be a test of patience for France, as Romania will likely set out to defend in numbers and attempt to nick whatever they can on the break. Even in the absence of Karim Benzema, nullifying the threat of Antonie Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial will be tough, but the side in yellow do have pedigree as they conceded just two goals in their qualifying group.
Defeat will not be catastrophic for Romania as they know victory from one of their following two games may just be enough, but they are a side that lacks genuine attacking quality. This is their first appearance at a major tournament since 2008, where they finished above France as both sides failed to make it out of their group.
The other match in Group A takes place on Saturday as Albania face Switzerland in Lens. It will be an interesting affair for one reason or another as recent Arsenal signing Granit Xhaka represents the Swiss and in doing so will come up against his brother Taulant, who plays for Basel.
It has to be said that Albania are one of the rank outsiders of this competition and are widely expected to finish bottom of the group. Their qualifying campaign was highly eventful and began with a famous win in Portugal, but they will need to produce some big performance here in order to ruffle a few feathers.
As for Switzerland, they will feel that anything other from a victory from this game would constitute a very poor result. After a poor start they qualified reasonably convincingly behind England and now place more of an emphasis on attacking football, and are predicted to go through along with France as one of the top two in the group.