Group E teams: Italy, Belgium, Sweden, and Republic of Ireland
Italy finished runners-up to Spain at the last European Championships after they lost to the Spaniards 4-0 in the final that turned out to be embarrassingly one-sided. Much has changed in the Azzurri line-up since. Most importantly, they have a strict disciplinarian at the helm unlike the likes of Marcelo Lippi, Roberto Donadoni and Cesare Prandelli of the recent past.
Antonio Conte is known for his work ethic and the no-nonsense attitude when it comes to his sides. The former Juventus manager has got the Italians playing good football again and they certainly look like a strong contender for the title in France next summer, although the lack of a top quality forward to lead the attack could prove to be the Achilles’ heel for the side.
Belgium were considered the dark horses at the World Cup in Brazil, but those in the know well predicted that a lack of experience of major tournaments could haunt the Red Devils’ campaign at the 2014 World Cup. And it certainly proved to be the case as they went out of the tournament after narrowly losing to Argentina in the quarter-finals.
Marc Wilmots isn’t considered the right man to lead the side and despite the presence of quality players in Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Cristian Benteke amongst others, if Belgium aren’t considered the favourites it is more down to their manager’s lack of ability to get the best out of his charges than the lack of quality at his disposal. Nevertheless, it will take some doing to keep them out of the knockout stages.
It took the playoffs for Sweden to book their place in France, and they did it on the back of a great performance from their main man, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. At the same time, the over reliance on the Paris Saint-Germain forward could prove to be their undoing.
Republic of Ireland are expected to be the whipping boys of the group, but if they manage to trouble their opposition all the better.