One of the great joys of international football tournaments is trying to pick a dark horse to win it. Unlike club tournaments - with the notable exception of the English Premier League this year - international tournaments quite often throw up surprise winners.
Whereas most pundits like to pick a marginal outsider when asked to name a dark horse (under no circumstances should anyone be allowed to name Belgium as a ‘dark horse’ to win the Euros), here are three genuine outsiders aiming to be the next Greece or Denmark.
Austria have a truly abysmal record when it comes to the European Championships. In the 14 tournaments that have taken place prior to this one, they have qualified only once, in 2008. On that occasion, they left the tournament after the group stages, having managed a solitary point for their efforts.
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This time, however, Austria come into the tournament on the back of an outstanding qualifying campaign. The inspirational David Alaba was a key performer as nine wins and a draw ensured that they topped their group, ahead of Russia and Sweden.
Their performances in the friendlies since qualification could be a cause for some concern, though. Three defeats and just two victories show that they are far from the finished article.
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If they can rediscover the form that saw them win 4-1 away to Sweden in the qualifiers, then they might just surprise a few people. A generous draw that has pitted them in a group with Iceland, Hungary and Portugal, may just give them the opportunity to build that confidence and gain some momentum before the crucial knockout stages. After that, anything is possible.
The only team to have beaten Ukraine in their last 18 matches has been Spain. The fact they have done it twice does raise questions about Ukraine’s ability to lift their game against true top level opponents, as does their third place finish behind Spain and Slovakia in the qualifiers. However, the real damage was done early on in that campaign.
Over the past year, Ukraine have looked a lot more impressive. Their current squad lacks global superstars like their previous great teams. There is no Andriy Shevchenko or Serhiy Rebrov in this squad. At least, not on the pitch.
Shevchenko will take a place on the bench as the assistant coach, but he will be managing a group of players with a much lower profile than he had at his peak.
Instead, there is a core of domestic-based players, many of whom have extensive European experience with Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev. Players such as Andriy Yarmolenko are world-class talents, while captain Anatoliy Tymoshchuk will be looking to end a fantastic career on a high.
One interesting sideshow in the Ukrainian squad is the fact that Yarmolenko was involved in a brawl with fellow squad member Taras Stepanenko following the Shakhtar-Dynamo derby match in April this year. The two have been involved in a simmering feud involving potential leg-breaking tackles, public acts of disrespect, and mass brawls between their teams.
There won’t be too many with high hopes for Ukraine, but if they can maintain squad harmony then they could surprise a few people.
It feels silly just writing it down. But Wales have all the ingredients to shock a few people. Particularly over a short format tournament like the Euros. They have a solid defence, some real quality in midfield, and one of the best players in the world in Gareth Bale.
They only finished two points behind Belgium in their qualifying group and managed a win and a draw in their two matches against the highly rated Belgians. Their results in recent friendlies have been extremely poor, but once the real stuff starts, they could ruffle a few feathers.
If Ashley Williams and co can keep it tight at the back, then the likes of Joe Ledley and Aaron Ramsey will be confident of feeding the ball to the talismanic Bale. If the Real Madrid star is on form, then he is more than capable of producing goals from nothing, even against the best defences in the tournament.
A lot will depend on the form of Bale. He has shown signs of producing his best form for Real Madrid this season and knows that appearances at international tournaments are far from guaranteed.
If they can make it through the group stage, there won’t be many teams who will relish the prospect of a knockout game against the Welsh side.
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