Breaking down the Euro 2016 draw

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It might only be December, but it’s never too early to start looking forward to Euro 2016 this June in France. On Saturday, the tournament’s 24 teams found out what their group stage journeys will look like, and there were certainly some interesting matches drawn.

The hosts were handed a relatively easy draw, slotted with Romania, Albania and Switzerland in Group A. France beat Switzerland 5-2 in Brazil during the 2014 World Cup, and although in their two friendlies during qualifying Albania beat and drew with France, the hosts won’t feel too troubled by their lot.

Due to Switzerland’s many players of Albanian/Kosovan descent, this Swiss’ tie with Albania could prove an interesting one. Romania brings defensive steel and make the opening match of the tournament difficult for France.

Group B was made all the more interesting when Wales was drawn into England’s group. What better way to mark your first major tournament in 58 years than by playing your next door neighbors. Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey against a young and improving England side should offer a tasty tie in Lens on June 16.

The last four matches between these two countries took place in Euro and World Cup qualifying, with England winning all four. The last time Wales beat England was in May of 1984 in the British Championships in Wrexham, when current Stoke manager Mark Hughes scored the only goal.

Slovakia and Russia should add some tricky fixtures for both home nations, but each will like feel that they could reach the knockout round.

Group C offers a taste of past and future fixtures. Germany and Poland play each other again after doing so in qualifying, and the Germans will get a taste of the Northern Ireland squad they’ll be playing in upcoming World Cup qualifiers.

Germany are the favorites here, but don’t count out Ukraine. The defending world champions don’t have the most difficult road out, but they’ll certainly have tests they’ll need to pass.

After their stunning early exit in Brazil, Spain won’t have an easy road out of Group D. Their opening match is against the Czech Republic, who are Euro tournament constants and have made two of the last three knockout stages. Turkey who were semifinalists eight years ago, and a Croatia team that struggled to overcome until a late Jesus Navas goal four years ago round out the group.

The race for second and third should be tight, with all teams figuring they’ll have a good chance of advancing. The battle of midfields should be the most fascinating aspect of this group, with each team boasting a high quality center midfielder (in Croatia’s case multiple midfielders). Victory in the middle could determine who advances.

Group E may be the tournament’s most mouth-watering group. Ireland, Belgium, Sweden and Italy all not only add color in the stands but on the pitch as well. Belgium’s golden generation have large expectations to bring home glory, and they will be tested early and often.

It feels almost certain that three teams will advance from this group, and in what likely could be the major tournament swansong for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he’ll certainly put on a show against some of the best teams in Europe. Italy’s form in recent years has been waning, and this group could test whether Antonio Conte’s men are transitioning into a new era.

If you like newcomers to the tournament, Group F is your pick. Iceland are debutants, Austria make their first tournament through qualification, and Hungary return for the first time in 44 years. Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal have transitioned to head coach Fernando Santos, and now that their usual qualification hiccups are past, this may be the time for Portugal to leverage a series of promising youngsters. Austria looks like a side that could challenge the best in Europe and will feel they have a chance to upset the favorites, but don’t count out Iceland, a side teeming with quality who will relish the underdog role, even in a wide open group.

The expanded Euros certainly have their faults, but with ties such as Belgium-Italy, England-Wales and Germany-Poland, June can’t come soon enough.

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