Spain begins quest for 3rd Euro title against Czechs
PARIS (AP) — Defending champion Spain begins its quest for a third straight European Championship title against the Czech Republic, while host France also escaped with a relatively unthreatening group in Saturday’s draw and opens Euro 2016 against Romania on June 10.
World Cup winner Germany will also be content with the draw, although Italy wasn’t so lucky and neither was England.
Spain’s other opponents in Group D are Turkey and Croatia, while coach Didier Deschamps’ France also takes on newcomer Albania and Switzerland in Group A.
Although Spain is the only team to have won the competition consecutively, and won nine out of 10 games in qualifying, coach Vicente del Bosque remains cautious.
“It’s going to be very difficult for us,” he said.
Germany faces Robert Lewandowski’s Poland, Ukraine and Northern Ireland in Group C, while England has its work cut out against local rival Wales and Russia in Group B, which also contains Slovakia.
“We have a rather balanced group ... which we have to win,” Germany coach Joachim Loew said. “We’re favorites in the group and we want to win it.”
Loew’s confidence was echoed by former midfielder Lothar Matthaeus, who captained West Germany to the World Cup title in 1990.
“There are trickier groups,” he said. “German football fans can look forward to the second round.”
But Germany’s defense will need to be wary of Lewandowski, the top scorer in qualifying with 13 goals, who has been in rampant form for Bayern Munich.
Italy will not be relishing Group E much, which contains a top-ranked Belgian side — featuring Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany — Sweden, led by Paris Saint-Germain star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and a rejuvenated Ireland.
“Belgium are a great team with outstanding players,” Italy coach Antonio Conte said, while Belgium coach Marc Wilmots was equally wary, saying “it’s the most difficult opponents we could have.”
Sweden vs. Belgium looks like a mouth-watering final match in that group.
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo will be confident of adding to his record 26 goals in Euros, including qualifiers, in a Group F featuring Iceland and Hungary, but Austria was unbeaten in qualifying and poses a strong threat.
In September, with Bayern Munich’s David Alaba playing in a more attacking midfield role, Austria won 4-1 away to Sweden in a performance full of speed and menace.
″(Austria) qualified directly from their group, eliminating the Netherlands in the process, which says a lot about their potential,” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said. “Austria is also a team that has been improving lately and has great players, like David Alaba, Christian Fuchs and Marko Arnautovic. They finished their group on a high and we will have to be careful with them.”
England will first play Russia in Marseille on June 11 and there is likely to be a heavy security presence after serious outbreaks of fan violence there when England played Tunisia during the 1998 World Cup.
“Russia and Slovakia will be interesting. I have not come across either of those two teams in my international management before,” England coach Roy Hodgson said. “There will be plenty of research between now and June and we can find out as much as we can before the campaign. Wales are very well organised, have a team spirit and very strong spine.”
Wales’ hopes of progressing rest largely with Real Madrid winger Gareth Bale, who scored seven goals in qualifying.
The European Championship has 24 teams for the first time, and will feature a new second round that includes the best four third-place finishers.
France will be confident of winning its group, having beating Switzerland 5-2 in the group stages at last year’s World Cup in Brazil.
Karim Benzema starred in that match, but could well miss the tournament after being indefinitely suspended from the national team. He has been charged with conspiracy to blackmail in a case involving France teammate Mathieu Valbuena — who also scored against the Swiss — and Benzema is suspended pending the outcome of his case.
Benzema and Valbuena tore the Swiss apart that day, but the case is now threatening to tear the national team apart.
“A lot of things can happen one way or another,” said Deschamps, leaving the door open for a return. “For now he’s not available for selection, (but) I don’t know what will happen in six months’ time.”
France last hosted the Euro in 1984 and won it thanks to the brilliance of Michel Platini’s nine goals from midfield.
Saturday’s draw took place at the Palais des Congres in Paris without Platini, who is the current — though suspended — president of UEFA.
Platini lost his appeal Friday at the Court of Arbitration for Sport to lift his 90-day FIFA ban. The case centers on FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s approval of $2 million of FIFA money that Platini got in 2011 as backdated payment.
Although France has high hopes of reaching the July 10 final at Stade de France, Benzema and Platini may not be there if they do.