Football: Euro 2016 contenders all contending with problems

From left: When it rains, it pours for Germany coach Joachim Low. He lost key midfielders Ilkay Gundogan and Marco Reus to injury. Spain coach Vincente del Bosque is blessed with options in the centre of the park, but is light up front. France coach
When it rains, it pours for Germany coach Joachim Low. He lost key midfielders Ilkay Gundogan and Marco Reus to injury. PHOTOS: REUTERS, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
From left: When it rains, it pours for Germany coach Joachim Low. He lost key midfielders Ilkay Gundogan and Marco Reus to injury. Spain coach Vincente del Bosque is blessed with options in the centre of the park, but is light up front. France coach
Spain coach Vincente del Bosque is blessed with options in the centre of the park, but is light up front. PHOTOS: REUTERS, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
From left: When it rains, it pours for Germany coach Joachim Low. He lost key midfielders Ilkay Gundogan and Marco Reus to injury. Spain coach Vincente del Bosque is blessed with options in the centre of the park, but is light up front. France coach
France coach Didier Deschamps has to deal with a defensive injury crisis.PHOTOS: REUTERS, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

They are widely regarded as the three favourites to win Euro 2016: Germany, the World Cup winners; Spain, the two-time defending champions; and France, the hosts who always play well at home.

Yet, problems plague all three teams. Nevertheless, that has not stopped fans from believing that their considerable strengths in other departments will drive them to the title.


Germany hit by injuries, retirements

Two years ago, Germany were basking in the glory of being the world champions after a brilliant run in Brazil. The team were widely praised for being strong in all areas, combining the usual German dynamism with touches of flair and creativity.

While that combination can still be found in the current squad - who still boast a strong spine in the likes of Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller - the Germans are strangely floundering in poor form ever since the start of qualification for Euro 2016.

Many have blamed coach Joachim Low's continued backing of veterans who are seen to be past their prime. His insistence on including the oft-injured Bastian Schweinsteiger and the ineffective Lukas Podolski has confounded fans and critics alike.

Low is not helped by injuries to key midfielders Ilkay Gundogan and Marco Reus. The international retirements after the World Cup triumph of key players Philipp Lahm, Per Mertesacker and Miroslav Klose also present the coach with replacement conundrums which he has not fully solved.

Yet, Germany will hope to bank on memories of their World Cup triumph to inspire them to the European Championship trophy.

Said Low: "We needed time after the World Cup, two to three months, until everybody got a sense of where we are. Setting a goal straight away isn't so easy.

"Now we've focused on proving ourselves in this competition. At Euro 2012, we were knocked out in the semi-finals. At Euro 2008, we lost the final. A win would be nice for everybody."


Spain short of firepower

Spain, on the other hand, would like to banish thoughts of their disastrous Brazilian outing two years ago, when they crashed out of the World Cup in the group stages as defending champions.

Yet, the problems that have beset them in the World Cup campaign still remain: They do not have an exceptional striker to finish off the pretty tiki-taka moves by their top-class midfielders.

Right now, their only in-form striker is 35-year-old Aritz Aduriz of Athletic Bilbao, who is enjoying an Indian summer after a long, unlikely career in which he dabbled in cross-country skiing and beach football.

Still, he has only four caps so far, and is thus unproven on the international stage - along with Spain's other strikers Nolito, 29, and Alvaro Morata, 23.

Yet coach Vicente del Bosque has omitted experienced forwards like Fernando Torres and Diego Costa. And Spain's striker problem could be magnified as they are in a tough Group D with Croatia, the Czech Republic and Turkey - all of whom have well-drilled defences that are not easy to break down.

"We cannot take three players for one position," reasoned del Bosque. "We feel we have covered all bases with a very balanced squad."

Already the only country to have retained the European Championship, Spain will be hoping their armada of wondrous midfield maestros can produce enough wizardry to carry them towards a third straight Euro title.


France suspect in defence

As for France, they will be hoping to revive memories of their 1998 World Cup triumph on home soil. Indeed, they have tended to set aside their incessant internal bickering and play exceptional football at home.

They boast an excellent midfield with Juventus' Paul Pogba, Paris Saint-Germain's Blaise Matuidi, Leicester's N'Golo Kante and West Ham's Dimitri Payet offering both dynamism and creativity in abundance.

Up front, they also boast prolific strikers Antoine Griezmann, Anthony Martial and Olivier Giroud.

It is the defence, however, that poses the big headache for coach Didier Deschamps.

While centre-back Raphael Varane's injury can be covered with the likes of Laurent Koscielny, Eliaquim Mangala and Adil Rami, the two full-back positions are still occupied by ageing veterans Patrice Evra, 35, and Bacary Sagna, 33, with unproven cover.

The duo could be exposed by speedy forwards and wingers. But Deschamps, who is also without Mamadou Sakho and Jeremy Mathieu, has played down his side's defensive frailties.

"To win a competition, your defence is very important but the main thing is to score one more goal than your opponents," he said. "I don't want to stop the team from pushing up the pitch, even if that exposes the defence from time to time."

So all three favourites are still sanguine that their teams can find the spark in time for the tournament.

Yet, other sides may draw encouragement that there are chinks in the armour, waiting to be exploited. These favourites are hardly to be feared.

THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 04, 2016, with the headline 'Contenders all contending with problems'. Print Edition | Subscribe