Paris (AFP) – Stars to watch for at Euro 2016:
Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal
A three time world player of the year, Cristiano Ronaldo again rose to the occasion to fire Portugal to Euro 2016. The Real Madrid striker scored five of his country’s 11 goals in qualifying, but an international title remains a glaring absence from his exhaustive list of honours. Snapped up by Manchester United in 2003 as an 18-year-old, Ronaldo helped the Red Devils to three successive Premier League crowns and the 2008 Champions League. He became the world’s most expensive footballer when Real Madrid splashed out 94 million euros for him in 2009, but Ronaldo has more than delivered a return on the investment after leading the Spaniards to the 2012 La Liga title and two Champions League victories in the past three seasons. However, an agonising defeat to Greece in the Euro 2004 final on home soil is the closest Ronaldo has come to international success.
Gareth Bale – Wales
With seven goals and two assists in qualifying, Bale did more than any other player to end Wales’s 58-year wait to qualify for a major tournament. After coming through the ranks at Southampton, he exploded onto the global scene at Tottenham Hotspur, where he was twice named England’s Player of the Year, before moving to Real Madrid in 2013 in a world-record 100.8 million euro transfer. Lightning quick, superb in the air and with a jackhammer left foot, he operates in a free role for Wales and his devastating pace on the counter-attack will be a source of concern for every defence he encounters. He has won two Champions League titles in three years at Real and his heart-sign goal could become a feature of Euro 2016.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic – Sweden
The Swedish striker is steeling himself for a final farewell to France after four glorious years at Paris Saint-Germain. Having landed league titles with Ajax, Inter Milan, Barcelona and AC Milan, Ibrahimovic sent records tumbling during a trophy-laden spell at the Parc des Princes as PSG established themselves as the dominant force in French football. Time may be ticking down on the Swede’s international career, but Ibrahimovic reinforced his reputation as one of the greatest strikers of his generation with 11 goals in qualifying — three against Nordic rivals Denmark in a 4-3 aggregate play-off victory. The 34-year-old, Sweden’s record goalscorer, is undoubtedly the key to his country’s hopes at Euro 2016 but has never gone beyond the quarter-finals at a major tournament.
Marcus Rashford – England
On February 25 this year, 18-year-old Marcus Rashford awoke a virtual unknown. By the time he went to bed he was a sensation, having scored twice on his Manchester United debut in a 5-1 Europa League win over FC Midtjylland. More goals followed — a brace against Arsenal on his Premier League debut, a classy derby winner at Manchester City, a stunning effort at West Ham United in the FA Cup — and he ended the campaign with eight goals in 18 appearances, as well as an FA Cup winners’ medal around his neck. Manchester-born, he came through United’s youth academy and has won admirers everywhere with his athleticism and remarkable calmness in front of goal. After scoring within three minutes on his England debut against Australia, he was handed a surprise place in Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2016 squad.
Anthony Martial – France
Derided as an expensive panic buy when Manchester United forked out an initial £36 million ($52.6 million, 47 million euros), Anthony Martial silenced critics with an impressive debut season at Old Trafford. The 20-year-old finished with 17 goals and emerged as one of the few bright spots as United missed out on Champions League football. Hailing from the same Paris suburb as Thierry Henry and Patrice Evra, Martial is following a path to stardom similar to that of the one taken by Henry. After breaking into Didier Deschamps’ squad in September, the forward has established himself as a key cog in a side chasing a third European title. The goals have yet to flow at international level, but France are waiting for the floodgates to open once Martial gets off the mark.
Renato Sanches – Portugal
Born and raised in Lisbon, the 18-year-old Renato Sanches made his first-team debut with Benfica in October, then earned his first international cap in March before Bayern Munich shelled out an initial 35 million euros — a fee that could rise to 80 million euros — to tie down one of Europe’s most promising youngsters. Injuries to Bernardo Silva and Tiago opened the door for the teenager’s inclusion in Fernando Santos’ 23-man squad, with Sanches the youngest player to feature for Portugal at a major finals since Cristiano Ronaldo at Euro 2004. After drawing rave reviews from Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone for his commanding displays in the heart of midfield, Portugal will hope Sanches can provide fresh impetus to a side heavily reliant on Ronaldo.
Gianluigi Buffon – Italy
At 38, the evergreen Buffon has shown few signs of slowing down and remains Italy’s undisputed number one. A star of the Azzurri’s 2006 World Cup winning side, Buffon is still at the top of his game a decade later. He set a new Serie A record by going unbeaten for 974 consecutive minutes as Juventus claimed a fifth straight league championship. He joined the Turin giants from Parma in 2001 for a reported 53 million euros, making him the world’s most expensive goalkeeper. Having signed a two-year contract extension in May, Buffon is planning to hang about until the 2018 World Cup before calling time. Twice a Champions League runner-up — in 2003 and 2015 — Buffon will captain an Italy side seeking redemption after a 4-0 thrashing by Spain in the Euro 2012 final.
Iker Casillas – Spain
A winner of two European championships and the 2010 World Cup, Casillas will forever be associated with the golden era of Spanish football. However, the 35-year-old endured a torrid 2014 World Cup in Brazil and then made an ignominious and tearful departure from boyhood club Real Madrid a year later. After breaking into the Real first team at just 18, Casillas won three Champions League titles and La Liga five times before leaving for Porto to bring down the curtain on a 25-year association with the Spanish giants. Despite inconsistent displays in Portugal and the superb form of heir apparent David de Gea, Spain coach Vicente del Bosque has stayed fiercely loyal to his captain. Casillas, who could bow out after Euro 2016, set a new European record with his 167th international cap in Wednesday’s 6-1 mauling of South Korea.