Berlin: Reigning world champions Germany and Poland are the favourites to advance to the next round from group C in Euro 2016.
Ukraine and Northern Ireland are the group's underdogs. While Ukraine may challenge Poland and Germany to some degree, Northern Ireland are regarded as rank outsiders, reports Xinhua.
Bastian Schweinsteiger. Pic/ AFP
The teams' aims could not be more different. While the 1996 European Champion Germany is targeting the tournament win, Poland would be happy to get to the quarterfinals while Ukraine would be happy with a place in the last 16. There will Northern Ireland party with every goal and point they manage to score or win in the three group matches.
Ahead of the tournament, head coach Adam Nawalka's Polish team seems to be the only team in a position to seriously challenge Germany -- they play each other in the second group match on June 16. Beating Germany at home in the qualifying tournament gave the Poles a massive motivational boost. The 3-1 loss in the re-match was their only defeat in the last two years. Poland scored the most goals in qualifying (33) and the attack is the team's biggest strength as Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich/13 goals) and Arkadiusz Milik (Ajax Amsterdam/6 goals) are class international acts.
The defence in the well balanced and experienced team is the weakest part. At the back however they are the second worst team of all participating nations after conceding 10 goals in qualifying. Using a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 system, Poland can count on a strong midfield and excellent attacking play down the flanks. Lewandowski, defender Kamil Glik (AC Turin) and Grzegorz Krychowiak (Sevilla) are the team's kingpins. The games against Germany and Ukraine will be crucial to Poland if they are to have an easy time.
Soon after the brilliant performance in Brazil and the happy end in the 2014 World Cup final against Argentina, Germany coach Joachim Loew's team suffered a downturn -- one that has been going on for two years without the Germans ever being able to fully counteract it.
Loew had to begin a rebuilding process after Miroslav Klose, Philipp Lahm, Per Mertesacker retired. He also is facing an injury crisis as captain Bastian Schweinsteiger (Manchester United) and central defender Mats Hummels (Borussia Dortmund) are struggling to recover in time.
However the loss of several World Champion players could turn out to be an advantage as Loew has had to call upon new faces and fresh minds. Mario Gomez (Besiktas Istanbul) is back in top form and could replace Klose as a spearhead. But Loew has many other possibilities as his team is able to use several different systems like 4-2-3-1 or 3-5-1-1. Mario Goetze seems back in a better frame of mind after a disappointing season at Bayern Munich. Andre Schuerrle (VfL Wolfsburg) is much-improved while keeper Manuel Neuer, defender Jerome Boateng and striker Thomas Mueller (all Bayern Munich) have been playing at a consistently high level and are vital to the team.
Like in Brazil, Loew is trying to create a special team spirit by choosing the appropriate squad members.
Many are not sure whether Mykhaylo Fomenko will get his team on the right track. After all Ukraine's head coach has to deal with a totally different situation as the country is stuck in a political crisis which has also influenced its national team. To say it clearly: Under these circumstances it was a surprise that Ukraine managed to qualify at all having losing five previous play-offs for major tournaments. Things came good in 2016 when they won the two-legged play-off against Slovenia. The curse seems to over.
Ukraine prefer a defensive game within a 4-5-1 system. The team relies on a strong physical game and their two top stars are striker Andriy Yarmolenko (Dynamo Kiev) and midfielder Yeven Konoplyanka (Sevilla).
For Northern Ireland, the European Championship finals are seen as being an adventure. The team and coach Michael O'Neill are loving the underdog role. For the team made up mainly of second and third division players, the three group games are like a final and expectations are non-existent despite the wish not to lose all of their three games without scoring any goals.
Playing three games on a high level will be a challenge for an inexperienced but determined team that has an unbeatable will, is very strong physically and has the ability to play many tactical systems such as 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 4-1-4-1, 5-3-2 and 4-5-1. If there is any star in the team at all it might be striker Kyle Lafferty (Birmingham City) who scored seven goals in the qualifying games.