A Look at Group E at Euro 2016
For Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the European Championship is probably the last chance to do something big on the international stage.
File image of members of the Belgium football team training. (Getty Images)
A look at the teams and their key players and coach in Group E at the European Championship:
Brimming with attacking flair, Belgium is a who's who of Premier League talent and one of the teams to avoid. Not since the 1980s has Belgium had such a promising side, with the skill of Chelsea star Eden Hazard and Manchester City's wing-sensation Kevin De Bruyne giving defenders nightmares. There is confidence running through a balanced side, although the defense may be a concern with captain Vincent Kompany out injured. Belgium finished runner-up at the European Championship in 1980 and reached the World Cup semfinals in 1986, only to stumble across Diego Maradona's Argentina. This is Belgium's best chance to win a major honor.
THIBAUT COURTOIS: Courtois has so much potential that former Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho dropped Petr Cech and allowed him to leave. It says an awful lot about how good Courtois is, even if his form this season has been patchy. Considering his height, the 1.93-meter Courtois is incredibly agile on the line and is one of the best shot-stoppers in the world. He is also commanding on crosses.
EDEN HAZARD: Hazard was mentioned in the same breath as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo when he won the Player of the Year award in English soccer for his 2014-15 campaign at Chelsea, but had a bizarre dip in form this season and was even dropped by the London club. An impressive last few games of the season, when he rediscovered his scoring form, was timely for Belgium going into the Euros. Blessed with quick feet, a devastating change of balance and a burst of pace, Hazard has all it takes to become one of the stars of the tournament.
COACH MARC WILMOTS: You only need to watch videos of Wilmots playing for his country to see how much the national jersey means to him. A rampaging attacking midfielder with an eye for goal, Wilmots often carried Belgium single-handedly, scoring an impressive 28 international goals in 70 appearances. Fearless as a player, fearless as a coach, Wilmots usually gets what he wants from his players.
The mood in Italy was despondent after the Azzurri went out of the 2014 World Cup at the group stage, leading to the resignation of coach Cesare Prandelli and the president of the Italian football federation. Antonio Conte took over and steered Italy to top spot in its qualifying group for the 2016 European Championship, booking a spot in the tournament with a game to spare. Conte is looking for a perfect send-off at the Euros — he is taking over at Premier League side Chelsea after the tournament.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON: Buffon has won almost every prize there is in football, both with club and country. He has been a rock between the posts for Italy since becoming the first-choice goalkeeper during qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, going on to play in three straight European Championships (helping Italy reach the final in 2012) and four consecutive World Cups. The Juventus and Italy captain turned 38 in January.
GRAZIANO PELLE: In the space of a year, Southampton striker Graziano Pelle has gone from an afterthought in Italy to the Azzurri's starting center forward. At 1.94 meters, he's the perfect complement to his strike partner, the more diminutive Eder. Pelle made his first appearance for Italy at the age of 29. It's been a long road to recognition in his native country, with Pelle having established himself with Dutch sides AZ Alkmaar and Feyenoord before landing at English Premier club Southampton last year. It wasn't until Pelle proved that he could score in England, too, that he caught the eye of the Azzurri.
COACH ANTONIO CONTE: Conte took charge of the national team shortly after his shock resignation from Juventus, where he won the Serie A title in each of his three seasons in charge. As a player, Conte showed steely determination and always gave his utmost for the shirt he wore — Lecce, Juventus and Italy — and he demands that from his players.
After scraping into next year's European Championship through the playoffs, Ireland's mission is to avoid another embarrassing appearance at the finals. Giovanni Trapattoni's team failed to get a single point from its three group games in Poland and Ukraine in 2012. Ireland also failed to advance from the group stage at its other appearance in 1988. For a group of stalwart players, including goalkeeper Shay Given (39), defender John O'Shea (34) and Robbie Keane (35), this could be their last chance to make an impression on a tournament.
ROBBIE KEANE: The captain was Ireland's top scorer in qualifying, although five goals came against minnow Gibraltar. And when it came to the playoff against Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Los Angeles Galaxy forward had to settle for a place on the bench. It's a status the former Tottenham player might have to get used to in France.
SEAMUS COLEMAN: Signed by Everton from Irish club Sligo Rovers for just 60,000 pounds (now $90,000) in 2009, Coleman may go down as one of the top bargains in Premier League history. The right back is a strong defender but even better going forward — he has scored 12 goals for Everton over the last two seasons — making him the ideal modern-day full back.
COACH MARTIN O'NEILL: A trophy winner as a coach with English and Scottish clubs, the astute coach is preparing for his first taste of life in the dugout at a tournament. Rather than being a hindrance, Roy Keane has proved to be a key ingredient to Ireland's qualifying success as an assistant.
For Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the European Championship is probably the last chance to do something big on the international stage. For that to happen, though, he'll need to get a bit more help from the rest of a Sweden squad that is often overly reliant on the towering striker. Sweden enters the Euros looking more than ever like a one-man team, as Ibrahimovic scored 11 of the team's last 15 goals in qualifying — including a double in the second leg of its playoff against Denmark to secure a spot in France. Sweden does have a promising new generation coming through as its under-21 team won the European Championship last year. But those players are relatively untested at the senior international level.
ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVIC: The striker is Sweden's undisputed leader and the country's all-time leading scorer. Ibrahimovic will be playing in his sixth major tournament but Sweden has not reached a quarterfinal since Euro 2004 and missed the last two World Cups. At 34, the striker has acknowledged that this is "probably" his last international tournament, marking the end of an era in Swedish football.
ANDREAS ISAKSSON: Isaksson has been Sweden's clear No. 1 goalkeeper for more than a decade, having earned 127 caps since making his debut in 2002. The former Manchester City and PSV Eindhoven 'keeper now plays for Turkish club Kasimpasa, and at age 34 could also be nearing the end of his international career. A solid shot stopper, Isaksson has improved his ability to handle the ball with his feet, which used to be a weakness.
COACH ERIK HAMREN: Hamren made a clear decision when taking over the team in 2009 to make Ibrahimovic the focal point of the team at the expense of a more collective approach under his predecessor, Lars Lagerback. Ibrahimovic has flourished as a result, but it has also made the team more one-dimensional. "My whole attitude when I became national team coach was to do everything I could to utilize the type of world-class player he is," Hamren said about Ibrahimovic. He is stepping down after the Euros.
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