Euro 2016 prospects you have to know: Groups C and D

(This is the second of three parts. You can read the introduction and profiles from Group A and B here)

Group C

Germany: Jonas Hector (FC Cologne)

The appeal of Germany’s newcomers (Leroy Sané, Julian Weigl) was particularly hard to resist, but Joachim Löw’s conservative nature (Bastian Schweinsteiger????) leads me to believe they’ll be stapled to the bench unless significant injuries hit. Therefore, I’ll go with another novelty from the group assembled by the current World Cup holders, the likely left-back, Jonas Hector.

In July 2014, as his country was achieving world domination, Hector had yet to make his Bundesliga debut, having joined Cologne from the regional leagues as a 19-year-old and mustered his way to the first-team, which had just secure promotion from the second-tier. The Saarbrucken-native, though, was swift getting adapted to the big league, playing every minute of all but one match in 2014-15, and by November 2014 Hector had already became a German international, filling the lack of a reliable (and injury free) full-back Löw has had to cope with. Measuring a robust 1.85m, durable and methodical on his play, the 25-year-old ticks all the boxes of the modern full-back: sound defensively, whether duelling the attacking winger, winning aerial battles or managing interceptions, and versatile offensively due to being able to break away with or without the ball, support the possession game or work one-two’s in order to deliver crosses.

The 25-year-old Jonas Hector, here in action against England, is one of the newbies on the World Champions’ roster

For Cologne, Hector is sometimes deployed on the midfield, which speaks of his polished, well-rounded game, and also regularly takes corners and free-kicks, all characteristics of a mature, intelligent element that is starting to gather pretenders around Europe. And he won’t be unfazed by Germany’s impending tactical change, being equally capable as part of a four-man backline or as the man responsible for the entire flank on a 3-5-2/3-4-3.

Ukraine: Viktor Kovalenko (Shakhtar Donetsk)

Ukraine’s dreams at the Euro 2016 will be carried on the boots of the irrepressible duo of Andriy Yarmolenko (Dynamo Kyiv) and Yevhen Konoplyanka (Seville), yet the man with the mouth-watering potential to become one of Europe’s greats is another. After all, when someone of Mircea Lucescu’s stature utters the prediction that we’ll be describing him as “Ukraine’s best player ever”, something special is on the way.

Viktor Kovalenko spurned Dynamo Kyiv to join Shakhtar as an 11-year-old, and the club has certainly come to acknowledge that commitment while his development accelerates, for example when he shone by becoming the joint-top scorer of the 2015 U-20 World Cup, or leading Shakhtar to the UEFA Youth League final in 2014-15. The attacking midfielder proved to be ready for first-team duty, and a few months as a regular bench option were enough to inherit the number 10 spot after Alex Teixeira left for China, stepping up on the campaign to the semi-finals of the Europa League. His rapid decision-making alongside tremendous vision and distribution skills added pace to Shakhtar’s game, and the 20-year-old became a key performer, collecting over 2600 minutes of playing time on his debut season.

Viktor Kovalenko is already viewed as Ukraine’s brightest young star since Andrei Shevchenko

Gifted with the ball on his feet and aggressive looking for it, intelligent finding spaces to manoeuvre, and deadly with the goal in sight, Kovalenko and his two international caps probably won’t make it into the starting lineup for now. Coach Mykhaylo Fomenko should opt for the safety provided by Denys Garmash or Sergiy Sydorchuk to complete the midfield trio, but look for him to be called regularly when the game needs to be stirred.

Poland: Piotr Zielinski (Empoli, Italy)

Adam Nawalka has alternated the setup of his team between a 4x2x3x1 and a 4x4x2, where Ajax’s Arkadiusz Milik joins forces with Robert Lewandowski up front. The man that bagged 21 goals during the last Eredivisie season is someone to keep an eye on, but if he ultimately gets benched, the chances of Zielinski being a starter soar, since he holds the pole-position to be slotted in support of Bayern Munich’s star striker.

Empoli’s midfielder Piotr Zielinski has a good chance of featuring on Poland’s starting lineup at the Euro 2016

The Empoli midfielder joined Zaglebie Lubin as a 14 year-old, despite invitations by renowned foreign emblems, but never debuted on Poland’s main league, leaving the country to sign for Udinese in 2012. Over the next couple of seasons, the majority of his minutes were collected for the reserve team, and consequently Zielinski was on the move again in 2014, with Empoli guaranteeing his services on a 2-year-loan deal. On the club based on the Province of Florence, he was finally able to thrive, with his stock rocketing in the last year after five goals, six assists and a flurry of impressive showings on 35 Serie A appearances. Deployed as the right central midfielder on Empoli’s 4-3-1-2, or in direct support of the forwards, the Pole was asked to press the opponents’ outlet, cover ground on the midfield and link up with the forwards. He eventually also excelled on dangerous drives to the box, where he could flaunt his dribbling ability, or slicing the defence with his slick passing.

At age 22, Zielinski’s name is starting to reverberate alongside top-tier clubs, with Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool reportedly discussing his acquisition, and a good showing at the Euro 2016 can accelerate those talks. The hard-working talent, which can also play on the right flank or as a holding midfielder, is seemingly ready for a new adventure.

Northern Ireland: Paddy McNair (Manchester United, England)

Really, a Manchester United player?  Just take a look at this list and count how many names can you recognize? If you’re not from the British Islands, I doubt that number is above 5.

Anyway, this young man from Ballyclare will hope his performances in France can clear his path onto José Mourinho’s squad next season, after he seemed to fall out of favour with Louis Van Gaal. The Dutch manager sponsored his first team debut in September 2014, like happened with so many academy graduates, and McNair appeared 26 more times for United since then, yet the biggest development in his career to date came on the national team. A center back by trade – and seldom used on the right side – the 21-year-old was tested as a holding midfielder on a pair of friendly matches last March and looked the part. Michael O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s coach, praised his capacity to read the game, clear the area in front of the box, and make plays under duress, and the papers quickly jumped into comparisons with Tottenham’s Eric Dier, another powerful defender that seamlessly moved a few steps forward.

Manchester United’s Paddy McNair has turned into an imposing presence on Northern Ireland’s midfield

For a man that arrived at United’s youth system as an attacking-minded midfielder before being implanted deeper due to a substantial growth spurt, this shouldn’t come as a surprise though. After all, being athletic, able to tackle judiciously and comfortable on the ball are characteristics that can make an impactful pivot, and Man United may have stumbled into a starlet by chance. Ultimately, it all started due to the serious knee injury suffered by Chris Brunt, one of Northern Ireland’s few standouts on the intermediate sector and a critical blow on their hopes at the Euro 2016…

Group D

Spain: Nolito (Celta de Vigo)

Spain’s extremely disappointing campaign at the 2014 World Cup signalled the need for a silent facelift at “La Roja” after 6 years of unimaginable success, and the outcome is expressed on the group that will compete in France. The major alterations occurred on the offensive unit’s makeup, with Diego Costa, Juan Mata, Paco Alcácer or Santi Cazorla missing out, and only David Silva and Pedro Rodriguez keeping the faith of Vicente Del Bosque. Both wingers should earn a starting spot for the opening game but they’ll better watch their back, since the irreverent Manuel Agudo Durán, “Nolito”, promises to fight relentlessly for a chance.

Nolito’s long road to Spain’s national team should pay off in France

The 29-year-old forward born in the Andalucia is the definition of a late bloomer. Discovered by Barcelona at minnows Écija Balompié in 2008, Nolito affirmed his worth for the Catalan’s B team over three seasons, but understood, at age 24, that his chances of a promotion were dwindling. He opted to leave and signed for Benfica in 2011-12, breaking one of Eusébio’s club records due to a barging start of the season, which he rode to a 15-goal debut campaign. However, the left winger mind-bogglingly fell out of favour on his second year and was loaned mid-season to Granada, returning to Spain in entirely different terms than the way he left.

Already a proven La Liga-ready entity, Celta de Vigo swooped in to arrange his acquisition six months later and they hit the jackpot since Nolito responded with 39 League goals over the last three seasons, displaying great finishing skills and a singular knack to find balls laying in the box. An average athlete, his unconventional, yet highly effective style of play, isn’t based on a distinctive skill-set but on superb vision and decision making, with his right foot always executing the correct option, be it to shoot, play penetrating through balls or engage in effective one-two’s.

With a game refined at Barcelona’s La Masia, Nolito debuted for Spain at age 28 as Del Bosque realized his smarts and pass-first mentality fit perfectly with the squad.  At the Euro 2016, he could prove crucial on the role of an agitator coming off the bench.

Czech Republic: Ladislav Krejcí (Sparta Prague)

Twenty years after the Czech Republic reached the final of the European Championships, the first major result as an independent nation, the roster selected to compete in a tournament still comprises a fair share of players plucked on the national league. And if back then the likes of Karel Poborský, Pavel Nedvěd and Vladimír Šmicer used the event to make a name for themselves and jump to clubs outside of the usual sphere of influence (Bundesliga outfits usually dominate the Czech market), the same can ring true for a couple of emerging talents in 2016.

Ladislav Krejcí promises to be one of Czech Republic’s main offensive weapons at the Euro 2016

One of those is Ladislav Krejcí, a left winger from Sparta Prague. Born and bred on the Czech capital and a product of Sparta’s youth factory, the 23-year-old is the type of wingman Central Europe produces frequently: practical and direct on his approach, smart and tactically savvy. However, Krejcí’s unassuming disposition doesn’t mean that he’s incapable of driving play in the right direction and cause havoc, as his agility, tremendous pace and dribbling induce headaches on opposing full backs.

With 168 games (35 goals) under his belt for Sparta since 2010, the industrious wide man has nothing else to prove stateside and the performances on this season’s Europa League already showed his determination to impress onlookers.  Krejcí’s superior crossing technique, explosion with the ball, and astute movement off it are definitely an important component of Czech Republic’s strategy to once again get out of the group stage.

Turkey: Oğuzhan Özyakup (Beşiktaş JK)

Amongst Europe’s peripheral leagues, the Turkish Süper Lig is where you’ll find the biggest financial muscle, with the trio of Istambul’s giants, in particular, being able to use their wealth to pry international stars at the edge of their physical prime (Robin Van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Lukas Podolski and Mario Gomez come to mind). However, the money is also applied towards keeping the nation’s top talents within borders or to rescue the ones misplaced due to the diaspora, which leads to the fact that only 6 of the 23 names invited to the Euro 2016 come from abroad.

One of the best examples of the dynamic described above is Beşiktaş playmaker Oğuzhan Özyakup. Born in Zaandam, Netherlands, Özyakup represented the youth Dutch squads and his play soon caught the eye of Arsenal’s scouts, moving to England from AZ Alkmaar in 2008, at age 16. In four seasons, he only got called up by Arsène Wenger twice and the club later accepted a €500k bid from Beşiktaş, a bargain for the Turkish emblem. On a country he had already decided to represent, Ozzy’s technical skills blossomed and he never stopped improving, eventually powering Besiktas’ title-winning team in 2015-16 by contributing with 9 goals and 7 assists.

The 23-year-old displays elite vision and passing range, qualities he uses to dictate the pace of the game at both the club and national team level, but he’s also adept at slaloming with the ball at his feet, brushing past defenders with an array of dribbles that includes the roulette popularized by Zinedine Zidane. Progressively assimilating Turkey’s dogged attitude during off-the-ball moments, Özyakup should be his nation’s maestro in France, being flanked by Barcelona’s Arda Turan and Bayer Leverkusen’s Hakan Calhanoglu, a trio capable of causing problems to any opponent with intricate play in tight spaces, long-range shooting and creative decision-making.

Croatia: Marko Pjaca (Dinamo Zagreb)

Despite the allegations that hang over Croatia’s National team and the disputed merit of some of the players that were included on the 23-man roster, the Balkan ensemble is indisputably one of the most talented in the tournament, especially from the midfield out. Every hint points to Ante Cacic’s decision that a 4-2-3-1 is the best way to maximize the potential of the squad, and among the likes of Modric, Rakitic, Perisic or Kovacic sticks out a promising winger already considered the Croatian League’s best player.

Marko Pjaca’s unpredictable football should flourish inside Croatia’s technically-sublime midfield

Despite being another example of Dinamo Zagreb’s churning academy, Marko Pjaca’s professional career started at Lokomotiva Zagreb, with Dinamo being compelled to reacquire him for €1M in July 2014. Two years and 26 goals in 89 appearances later, the youngster is one of most sought-after wingers in Europe and the perennial Croatian Champions are on the verge of multiplying that sum at least fifteen fold, as the versatile forward delights due to physical and technical attributes of excellence.

The 21-year-old that should occupy the left flank at the Euro 2016 is a nomad on the field, a robust physical specimen that boasts impressive acceleration, the capacity to run, shoot, pass and dribble at top-speed, and the will to force his way onto the area to finish or assist teammates. A keen improvisator that evades defenders easily, the flashy Pjaca should lit up the competition when cutting inside, with opponents aware that his right foot can be impossible to stop.

Groups A and B / Groups E and F

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