Germany – Poland – Ukraine – Northern Ireland
It’s hard not to look at Germany’s team as the strongest in the tournament. While we’ve avoided them for our outright selection due to their tough draw a squad boasting this much talent should be too strong for their opposition at this stage.
However, they’ve been beaten five times since their triumph in Brazil two years ago and made hard work of qualifying. The retirements of Philipp Lahm and Miroslav Klose, plus the decline of Bastian Schweinsteiger, have had an impact but a dip between major tournaments is not necessarily a major concern.
Spain lost four times between winning the World Cup in 2010 and retaining their European title in 2012 and Germany can point to several excellent players breaking into their squad. Marco Reus was injured two years ago while Julian Draxler is a potential match-winner and Emre Can has started to look like a capable replacement for Lahm at right-back since Jurgen Klopp took over at Liverpool.
The gap in our gradings between Germany and the second best team in Group C, Ukraine, is a massive 36.7 points which is virtually the same as the difference between the best and worst teams in Group A, France and Albania. So Ukraine, Poland and Northern Ireland should be playing for second place here.
We rate Northern Ireland as the second worst side at the Finals, ahead of Albania, and despite their success in qualifying they look out of their depth. Since the start of 2011 they’ve played 17 matches against teams in the top 40 in our rankings and have won only twice while losing 12 times and scoring just seven times.
Poland, meanwhile, are a team on the up. After a poor 2012 competition as co-hosts and then a disappointing World Cup qualifying campaign they were impressive in finishing just one point behind rivals Germany in qualifying for these Finals. That included scoring more than any other nation in getting here and also a win over the World Champions.
Robert Lewandowski scored 13 of their goals in qualifying and he is ably backed up by Arkadiusz Milik in attack after a good season with Ajax, while Grzegorz Krychowiak is one of the best holding midfielders in Europe and Kamil Glik and Lukasz Piszczek bring quality and experience to the back-four.
Their recent record against Germany, of one defeat in four meetings since 2011, is excellent but repeating that in a major tournament will undoubtedly be far harder and their form against their other neighbours is less impressive.
Ukraine have not lost to Poland since 2000 and won both meetings when they met in qualifying for the last World Cup. While the Poles have developed an attack-orientated approach we can expect Ukraine to adopt more cautious tactics, and in their four qualifiers against Spain and Slovakia they failed to score as each game finished with no more than a single strike.
A lack of goals has been a long-standing problem for this squad, which comes with lots of experience, but they are notoriously tough to break down and have conceded more than once in just one of their last 38 games heading into the Finals (ahead of their pre-tournament friendlies).