What are the best and worst Euro 2016 group scenarios for Ireland?

Of course, things look better (or worse) on paper

Zinedine Zidane, Ireland

Former French player Zinedine Zidane holds the lot of Ireland during the Final Draw for the Euro 2012 soccer tournament in Kiev, Ukraine, Friday, Dec. 2, 2011. Ireland is in Group C their matches in Gdansk and Poznan, Poland. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Before Euro 2012, there was perhaps a sense that just being there in Poland & Ukraine was the most important thing after a decade away from a major tournament.

But after getting pushed around by Spain, Italy and Croatia three and a half years ago, we'll hope for a much more favourable draw and staying power when the group lottery is decided in Paris this Saturday evening.

As we know, Ireland are in the last pot of 4 alongside Turkey, Iceland, Wales, Albania and Northern Ireland, which means we won't be facing any of those sides in the first stage of the competition.

 

 

Ultimately, that pits us from one team each from Pots 1, 2 and 3 which provides some best and worst case scenarios for Martin O'Neill's men.

In a perfect world...

As the old saying goes, football is funny old game which sees reputations eaten up and giant killers emerging on a semi-regular basis.

So claiming that there is a best case scenario on paper for Ireland is fraught with the risk of egg on your face. However, I'm willing to fry one on my visage. 

Looking at Pot 1, we will want to avoid world champions Germany who are unlikely to be shocked by us twice in a row (not even counting the Gelsenkirchen draw) and are nearly always at their best at major tournaments.

Spain would also pose a risk, even if they have slipped from their pedestal to a degree. But they still have players of world class ability - and with a point to prove after the humiliation at the 2014 World Cup.

That leaves hosts France, as well as Portugal, England and a Belgium side ranked the best in the world according to FIFA's less than accurate FIFA standings.

France are the lowest ranked of the Pot 1 sides, although home advantage makes them a dangerous opponent, without counting their stars like Paul Pogba, Raphael Varane, Antoine Griezmann and Karim Benzema - only if the latter's sex tape scandal becomes a thing of the past.  

Ireland's Daryl Murphy with Jack Wilshere of England in June 2015 ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Their form has also picked up since the summer with five wins in a row, until their only defeat against England last month in circumstances that were unique as it was only days after the shock of the Paris terror attacks which directly affected two squad players in particular.

Belgium's golden generation are possibly a step too far in the group stage especially with Romelu Lukaku in a rich vein of form and particularly if Eden Hazard recaptures the potency he displayed for Chelsea last season.

England are an interesting case as we played them in the summer at the Aviva Stadium and drew 0-0 in a match only notable for the fact that Liverpool fans in the stands took to booing Raheem Sterling because of the speculation which ultimately saw him make the move to Manchester City.

While Roy Hodgson's men have talented young players, we should not fear them. But as John Giles told Off The Ball, he would prefer to face the Three Lions later in the tournament, reasoning: "I think we'd be capable of getting a good result against England but I'd rather go for somebody on paper, you'd say that's a lesser team. I'm not that bothered about playing England."

Which leaves Portugal, who may have some footballer called Cristiano Ronaldo but are otherwise a relatively ordinary side on paper, even if they have a potential new golden generation as Portugoal's Tom Kundert told us on this week's Team 33.

The Iberians did reach the Euro semi-finals four years, although they did fall at the first hurdle at last year's World Cup. And as Kundert told us, Portugal's psyche often sees them defy expectations when they are being overlooked in comparison to failing when they are heavily fancied. They are not heavily fancied next summer, although they would be in a direct confrontation with us!

But even with Ronaldo in their ranks, they do not score a huge deal of goals with 11 goals in eight games in a Euro 2016 qualifying group including Denmark, Armenia, Albania and Serbia.

So, they may well be our best bet from Pot 1, which leads us to Pot 2.

Italy and Croatia helped make Ireland's time in Poland a misery in 2012 and although neither team is invincible, there are easier teams in the second tier of nations in France next summer.

Switzerland are experienced at this level, regularly qualifying for tournaments in recent years and they do have talent like Xherdan Shaqiri and Borussia Monchengladbach's Granit Xhaka to call upon.

Russia will be intent on putting on a good showing with the 2018 World Cup on home soil just two years which could make them a dangerous proposition, while their qualifying group rivals Austria appear to be a growing force in central Europe with talents like Stoke's Marko Arnautovic and Bayern Munich's David Alaba to call upon. Not to mention, they beat us in Vienna during the 2014 World Cup qualifiers and Alaba broke our hearts in the 2-2 draw at a freezing Aviva Stadium during that campaign.

Austria's Christian Fuchs, right, reacts after winning against Russia during of the Euro 2016 soccer qualifying group G match between Austria and Russia in Vienna, Austria, Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014. Russia's Roman Shirokov is on left. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

Ukraine were the only side in Pot 2 that had to go through the playoffs, finishing behind Spain and Slovakia. They are the lowest ranked side by UEFA in that pot, although they do not lack talent with the midfielders Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka especially heralded. Yarmolenko scored twice in the 3-1 aggregate win over Slovenia in the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Pot 3 appears very evenly balanced with Czech Republic, Sweden, our qualifying rivals Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary the options.

But overall, Hungary are the side I would fancy us to beat as the lowest ranked side in the pot and also one with the least experience at this level, with their last major tournament appearance being back in 1986. 

They also have no major star that would keep O'Neill up at night in the opposite way to Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Sweden or Robert Lewandowski's Poland for example.

Thus ...

Best case scenario (alongside a fried egg to go on my face in case) 

Portugal 

Ukraine

Hungary 

 

And now for the potential nightmare draw

As mentioned earlier, Germany will want revenge for the 1-0 defeat in Dublin and the 1-1 draw in Gelsenkirchen, are still world champions and tend to shine when it matters most at major tournaments; Italy are Italy and will be trying to make up for a first round exit at the most recent World Cup and Poland know how to beat us - even if our encounters with them show that they are no great shakes themselves. 

But in truth getting Croatia instead of Italy and most other Pot 3 sides in place of Poland would also prove a tough challenge.

Worst case (with leeway in a balanced Pot 3) 

Germany

Italy

Poland