Iceland

Unpacking the Women’s Euro 2017 (I)

Twenty-two days and thirty-one games later, Women’s football continental festivities came to its rousing end with hosts Netherlands lifting the trophy in front of 28,000 exultant fans in Enschede.

Few expected the 12th and 15th ranked teams in the World to square off in the decisive encounter, but that was only the final chapter of a tournament where not a lot went according to plan or historical trends. Truly great news for the future of the women’s game and its quest to attract even more eyeballs amongst football fans after a competition that established new records in attendance, television spectators, media interest and social media engagement.

As the cloth descended on a thrilling sporting event, it’s time to recap the action that took place in the Netherlands and we’ll do this in two instalments: an initial post focused on tournament storylines, teams, tactics and memorable moments, and a second part entirely dedicated to the individuals that shined on the pitch, as we’ll name the best player in the competition, present the tournament’s All-star roster and chose the ideal lineup.

Top three storylines:

A levelled competitive field

With five nations making their first appearance in a competition extended to accommodate 16 teams, natural concerns existed regarding the balance of forces. The fears proved disproportionate, as outside of England’s six-goal thrashing of neighbours Scotland, one-sided games were few and far between and, more impressively, we saw the traditional powerhouses struggle to get any kind of momentum and, in some cases, bow out rather meekly.

Belgium’s astonishing win over Norway is a great example of the parity between the sides at the Euro 2017

The main example is, obviously, Norway’s catastrophic showing, as the former European, World and Olympic Champions took the plane back home without a goal to show for the trip, yet their traditional rivals wouldn’t perform considerably better. Sweden, for instance, stumbled to get out of the group phase before kneeling to the hosts in the quarter-finals, while France had to cling to a life buoy incidentally thrown their way by Switzerland’s goaltender just to qualify out of what many considered the easiest grouping. Moreover, six-time defending Champions Germany failed to impress in their first three games before falling flat in the last eight.

Conversely, all debutants had the opportunity to celebrate historic victories and went on to entertain thoughts of progressing until the dying minutes of the group stage. Only Austria advanced, but Belgium, Switzerland, Portugal and Scotland left behind indelible evidence of their quality and the growth observed around the continent.

Misfiring star strikers

For all the competitive parity and intensity, the tournament held in Dutch soil wasn’t exactly fertile ground for barn burners, delivering the lowest amount of goals per game (2.19) since 1993, and no players felt it the most than the individuals tasked with swaying the nets.

Many of Europe’s renowned goal scorers were kept in check throughout the event and their teams naturally suffered the consequences. Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, the reigning European player of the year, unintentionally became the poster girl for this dry spell, but others also stood out for their absence from the scoresheet. Spain’s Jennifer Hermoso, fresh off a 35-goal League campaign with FC Barcelona, was unable to assist her country out of a startling 350-minutes scoring drought, while Germany’s usually prolific duo of Anja Mittag and Mandy Islacker wasted several chances to tally in each of their four appearances.

Germany’s striker Anja Mittag lies down dejected after her team crashed out of the Euro 2017

France’s Eugénie Le Sommer and Marie-Laure Delie, who have combined for 125 (!) international goals, couldn’t muster more than the former’s converted penalty shot versus Iceland, while Netherlands’ superstar Vivianne Miedema only got off the schneid in the quarter-finals after growing visibly frustrated by her misses.

Notably able to escape this misery were just two sides: England, whose great start helped bring to life all their forwards’ dreams during the group stage, with Jodie Taylor leading the way, and Italy, which headed home earlier than anyone else but not without distributing five goals for their three strikers (Cristiana Girelli (1), Ilaria Mauro and Daniela Sabatini (both 2)).

The bizarre sum of goalkeeping blunders

In a tournament that hit high notes for the level of play, there was one aspect that drew unnecessary attention to prod the grumbles of the detractors: many of the goaltenders present in the competition failed to uphold the levels of technical expertise displayed by their teammates and egregious mishaps abounded, an indictment that the standards of training and mental preparation for this specific position still sit a notch below other parameters of the women’s game.

More than a handful of goals, scoring chances and, even, eliminations can be chalked up to appalling errors by goalies, be it failed zone clears, botched interceptions, fumbled catches or erroneous stops, and while no good comes from nominating them, it’s still telling that they touched the entire spectrum in hand.

Italy’s Laura Giuliani reacts after letting the ball slip through her fingers against Germany

From 19-year-old Tatyana Shcherbak (Russia) to 35-year-old Gemma Fay (Scotland), and catching up to the rookies getting their feet wet at the highest level of competition, such as Portugal’s Patrícia Morais and Italy’s Laura Giuliani, or veterans with significant experience in international competitions, as are the cases of Stine Lykke Petersen (Denmark), Guðbjörg Gunnarsdóttir (Iceland), Gaëlle Thalmann (Switzerland) and Sari van Veenendaal (Netherlands). A disparate group that suggests this issue should be a priority for all stakeholders of the women’s game over the next few years.

 

Best Game: Germany 1-2 Denmark

Postponed to a Sunday morning due to the tremendous downpour that stroke Rotterdam, this historic quarter-final matchup will go down as a paradigm shifting moment, since Germany’s sovereignty over the European game ended after 8162 days (!).

A takedown that came unannounced, especially since disaster struck Denmark just three minutes in when goalie Stine Lykke Petersen, perhaps still numb from the early kickoff, failed to stop a trivial Isabel Kerschowski’s shot and the ball trudged into the net to give Germany a premature lead. The defending Champions’ tricky passing game and fluid positional exchanges then came to the fore as they threatened but rarely overwhelmed throughout the first half and, bit by bit, Denmark started to encounter the pockets of space the Germans had been guilty of exposing all tournament.

The Danish players celebrate the second goal of their stunning triumph over Germany

Nadia Nadim’s powerful equalizer in the early moments of the second half was born out of a mistake by two German players, who foolishly paused looking for a whistle, and it catapulted the Danes to a 15-min stretch where they blew several glorious chances. It appeared Denmark would rue their luck when Germany finally settled down to get back into attacking mode, but the underdogs were still looking very much alive.

Until the moment, with seven minutes to go, when time seemed to freeze as the ball crossed by substitute Frederikke Thøgersen met an unmarked Theresa Nielsen rambling through the heart of Germany’s defence. The Danish right back nodded it past goalkeeper Almuth Schult and the biggest upset in the tournament’s history was complete.

Honourable Mention: Netherlands 4 – 2 Denmark (Final)

 

Worst Game: Austria 0 -0 Spain (5-3 on penalties)

A great sample to appease the “tiki taka is boring” crowd looming out there. Spain had already passed the ball to exhaustion without much to show for it against England, and they allowed the proceedings to slow down to a halt in this encounter with Austria, a feisty, well-organized team that was more than happy to sit back, milk the clock and take their chances on set pieces.

Spanish coach Jorge Vilda would introduce all the offensive weapons at his disposal, move pieces around and tweak the approach, but his side wouldn’t break down the wall or generate enough to justify victory following a tedious 120 minutes. The decision came to a penalty shootout where Silvia Meseguer’s shot was the only one stopped by the goaltenders. Therefore, it sent Spain packing and Austria’s fairy-tale journey into the next stop.

 

Best goal: Daniela Sabatino (Italy – Sweden)

Italy and Sweden were levelled at one when full-back Linda Tucceri Cimini’s dipping delivery met the onrushing Daniela Sabatino inside the box. The veteran forward twisted her body to one-time the ball with her right foot, and the gorgeous chip sailed over goaltender Hedvig Lindahl to find the top corner on the opposite side. Lovely finish.

Honourable Mentions: Jordan Nobbs (England – Scotland), Pernille Harder (Denmark – Netherlands, Part II)

 

Best save: Almuth Schult (Germany – Italy)

An outrageous, right hand stop by the outstretched German goaltender to deflect Barbara Bonansea’s scorching free kick in a fantastic showcase of Schult’s athleticism.

Honourable Mentions: Manuela Zinsberger (Austria – France), Stine Lykke Petersen (Denmark – Netherlands, Part II)

 

Best fans: Iceland

The Icelanders have learned how much fun attending these tournaments can be, and now they make the trip south in droves whenever possible to provide a special atmosphere to their matches. The blue legion congregated in the stadiums of the Netherlands proved as lively as in France last year, and there were copious amounts of their “thunderclap” to boot. Before, during and after the games even if their women’s team seldom afforded opportunities to cheer.

Honourable Mention: Belgium

Clad in Red, the Belgium fans trekked north by the thousands to fill the goal-line stands in each of their three matches, and it was pretty obvious how their girls feed on their energy and steered forward with renewed enthusiasm every time they stepped up the vocal support. It was almost enough to pry away a point from Denmark, and vital to secure a brilliant 2-0 triumph over Norway.

 

Best coach: Dominik Thalhammer (Austria)

With major props dispensed to Sarina Wiegman (Netherlands), who oversaw the most exciting team in the tournament, and Nils Nielsen, manager of a runner up that thrived, in spite of several injuries, due to their tactical malleability, the leader of the competition’s surprise package gets the award.

Short in talent, flash and experience compared with most opponents, the Austrian’s relied on versatile tactical principles, impressive physical condition and guile to masquerade their limitations in a way that made their campaign less surprising by each game. Seamlessly able to switch systems during the match, shifting between a defensive unit of three, four or five, a central midfield structured in 2+1 or 1+2, and an attack that could easily tolerate Nicole Billa alongside charismatic striker Nina Burger, Thalhammer expertly balanced defensive compactness, when necessary ordering two banks of players stationed in front of goal, and offensive depth, advancing the block in hopes of forcing dangerous turnovers (see their game-winning-goal versus Switzerland) before retreating to their shell as soon as the front line was surpassed.

Austria reached the semi-finals on the strength of their coach’s tactical sagacity.

Austria’s strong core of Bundesliga-based players possessed the tactical maturity to implement its coach’s vision, and the results were remarkable, with teams such as Spain, France and Denmark left without answers to forcefully pin them back, penetrate their block and coerce the novices out of their comfort zone.

Worst Coach: Olivier Echouafni (France)

We’ll absolve Martin Sjögren for now, as Norway’s problems run much deeper than management, and focus on yet another frustrating tournament for France.

Olivier Echouafni’s job was not an easy one, as he had to deal with the legacy of an international heavyweight that ultimately falters in key moments, but that can’t excuse a series of puzzling personal and tactical decisions which concurred to end their campaign at the hands of England.

For instance, debuting against an Icelandic team that would populate their own half and try to retain the 0-0, did he really need to introduce a third central midfielder (Élise Bussaglia) into the lineup and break in a late call-up (Clarisse Le Bihan, who substituted injured Amel Majri in the final roster)? The French struggled to establish possession in dangerous areas, and the duo was unsurprisingly replaced as France furiously chased a winning goal, which would fall from the sky by way of an unnecessary penalty.

Eugénie Le Sommer’s late penalty saved France against Iceland but Olivier Echouafni’s options would still get in the way of a successful campaign

They weren’t as fortunate against Austria four days later, when Echouafni took 70 minutes to correct his hand after once again getting creative with his starting eleven. He sat playmaker Camille Ability for youngster Onema Geyoro, and fielded an head-scratching front three with Le Sommer on the left (ok), Gaëtane Thiney as a center forward (meh) and towering striker Marie-Laure Delie deployed along the right side (what?).

The 44-year-old manager seemed to finally crack the code against Switzerland, with the irreverent Claire Lavogez and Kadidiatou Diani flanking Le Sommer, but Eve Perisset’s red card and ensuing Swiss tally meant they would have to fight back, undermanned, for 75 minutes. With the clock running out, Abily’s free kick miraculously slipped past the Swiss goalie to send them through undeservedly, but any hopes of avoiding a precocious clash with England went up in smoke, and they fell despite playing their best game of the tournament.

Now, imagine if they hadn’t skidded early due to their manager’s strange options, avoided England and reached the knockout rounds buoyed by the confidence of three good showings. Just another “if” to add to France’s growing collection of disappointing exits.

Underachieving team(s): France and Spain

We’ve covered France extensively in the previous section, so let’s jump right into Spain, a team that crashed headfirst into their (high) expectations and understated concerns.

After waltzing past Portugal in a first match where their sweet looking, possession-based game seemed to be on point, the Spaniards’ problems started when England, up 1-0 from the get-go, deliberately conceded control the ball and watched as the Iberians struggled to disentangle a team that wouldn’t run around and chase, but rather keep the positions and pack the centre lanes. Missing an element that could break lines in possession, combine in the half spaces and still attack the box (have you seen Vero?), Spain’s game was quickly exposed for his lack of incisiveness and reduced to an unending succession of crisp, lateral passes that could be harnessed by any structured defensive unit.

Vicky Losada’s Spain was dumped out of the Euro 2017 by Austria

Picking up on England’s example, Scotland similarly found a way to neutralize Spain and take full advantage of a defensive error to secure a 1-0 victory, and therefore the ambitious title challengers only avoided a precocious elimination because the tiebreaker favoured them over two debutants.

A third newcomer stood on their way at the quarter-finals, and simply based on tactical fit, Austria was far from an ideal pairing for the bewildered Spaniards. Another frustrating 120 minutes without finding the back of the net – to stretch their streak of futility to more than 5.5 hours – were followed by a shootout loss, and they were issued a ticket home with a   recommendation to get back into the drawing board.

Overachieving Team: Austria

A pretty straightforward pick when a debutant reaches the last four, heads home undefeated (3 wins, 2 draws) and boasts the stingiest record in the competition, having allowed just one goal (from a corner kick) in five matches.

We warned in our preview that Austria would have a word to say in the outcome of Group C, and they made us look smart by outmanoeuvring their talented neighbours in the opener, courageously challenging France’s superiority before receding to secure the point, and thoroughly dominating (16-0 in shots on target) Iceland to finish top of the table.

Austrian players celebrate the second goal of their 3-0 victory over Iceland

Way more industrious and pragmatic than brilliant in the knockout rounds, they still engendered their own opportunities to avoid penalties against Spain and Denmark. Perfect (5 of 5) on their first attempt and abysmal (0 of 3) later, they left the Netherlands after an historic campaign that improved the stock of many of their players.

Worst Team: Norway

Three defeats in three games, 0 goals for, 4 goals against, 0 points and a record unworthy of one of the most decorated nations in women’s football. How to make sense of such paltry performance from a team that can field the likes of Ada Hegerberg and Caroline Graham Hansen?

With a clear understanding that football is a team game where the best can only play…at their best when put in positions to succeed and surrounded by teammates that can help them flourish. That means a dazzling offensive dynamo like Hansen has to receive the ball as soon as possible when it gets to the final third, looking to accelerate and spread the panic, but without a host of opponents harassing her and several banks of defenders to beat. That also means Ada Hegerberg, who is not a striker capable of creating her own chances, needs to be served with deadly through balls or swinging crosses she can reach without having to muscle out the three defenders strapped to her back.

Norway’s Caroline Graham Hanse evades three Danish players on the last matchday of Group A

Norway failed spectacularly and systematically at these missions, and while much of it rests on coach Martin Sjögren – on paper, freeing the stars of defensive responsibilities in a  4x2x3x1/4x4x2 made sense, but the dynamics didn’t match – , there’s a lot to be said about the lack of creativity, technical quality, poise in possession and passing acumen of the full backs and roulette of midfielders and forwards tasked with supplementing the difference-makers.

Lastly, it was telling that in Norway’s final match, with the captain Maren Mjelde helping the build up a few meters ahead, and the talented, 23-year-old offensive midfielder Guro Reiten hovering close to Hegerberg and Hansen, their football’s fluidity and offensive punch shot up enough to substantiate multiple tallies (Hansen missed a penalty and they hit three posts against Denmark). Too late to salvage face, but a glimpse of what they need to do to stem the decay of a women’s football powerhouse.

Best Team: Netherlands

In the end, for the first time in 22 years, the Germans didn’t win but the best team clearly /did. Something these short summer tournaments don’t spit out as regularly as you’re led to believe.

Under the pulsating sea of orange shirts, the Netherlands women’s national team might not have been the embodiment of “Totaalvoetbal” or mechanical, clockwork efficiency, yet few didn’t relish their exquisite, effervescent expression of modern football: fluid and imaginative with the ball, responsible in transition and aggressive looking to regain possession.

A submission levitated by two flying Dutchwomen of contrasting attributes, the powerful, dizzyingly fast Shanice Van de Sanden and the silky electric Lieke Martens, that nonetheless couldn’t have gone into overdrive without its elegant spear (Vivianne Miedema), or reach the plenitude if two tireless, understated artists (Daniëlle Van de Donk and Jackie Groenen) had ever stopped loading the front lines.

Netherlands’ Daniëlle van de Donk is tracked down by her teammates after scoring against England in the semi-finals

Built on this splendid quintet of individuals whose complementary skills fit to perfection, and a defensive unit that responded affirmatively under the spotlight, the Netherlands surfed a mounting wave of confidence to the final triumph, dispatching two former winners (Norway and Sweden), belying a regional rival (Belgium), routing the mighty English in the semi-finals and twice overcoming a Danish squad that more than any other seemed to trouble them. In the group stage, when the Dutch were fortunate to secure the 1-0 win, and in the Grand finale, as the hosts chased the score for the first time and rose admirably to the challenge.

A necessary final ordeal to attest this young, highly-talented Dutch squad had been elected to succeed those all-conquering German teams, and was destined to double the number of countries that have won the men’s and women’s UEFA European Championship.

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group C

Headlined by one of the main candidates to the title, Group C is the most interesting of the preliminary stage because every team can realistically entertain the idea of advancing.

If everything goes according to plan, France should casually stroll to the next round and leave Switzerland, Iceland and Austria to discuss the other ticket, with the Swiss edging their rivals in individual talent, Iceland counting on being the only side to have participated in the competition previously, and Austria believing their core group of Germany-based players can carry the mail and overachieve.

France

Will Les Bleues finally get over the hump?  On paper, France is blessed with the strongest squad in the competition – next to Germany – but over the last international competitions they’ve repeatedly been stopped in the knockout rounds (QFs at the 2013 Euro, 2015 WC and 2016 Olympics) and underperformed significantly to the dismay of their fans.

Populated by Olympique Lyon and Paris St. Germain players’, the Finalists of this years’ Champions League, it’s more than time the French put it all together and topple Germany and the rest of the field to win a maiden international trophy. If they miss the mark again, tensions will escalate to unbearable highs ahead of the 2019 World Cup, which France will host.

Qualification: Group 3 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Sixth

Best Performance: Quarter-Finals (2009, 2013)

Head Coach: Olivier Echouafni

Star Player: Amandine Henry (Portland Thorns, USA)

The 27-year-old Henry is probably the finest defensive midfielder in women’s football these days due to her blend of controlled aggression, vision, passing range and poise in possession.

Amandine Henry, the outstanding “milieu du terrain” for France

Initiating the transition from the space usually destined to the defensive anchor, the French midfielder is able to impact the game in several areas, breaking lines with her elegant strides, picking up both long and short passes, initiating the press high up the pitch or tackling with aplomb. Moreover, her all-around brilliance shines even more when she can seamlessly swap roles with long time midfield partner Camille Abily, with whom she played for 9 seasons at Lyon to incredible success.

Awarded the Silver Ball for the second best player of the 2015 World Cup, Henry embraced a new challenge last year, traveling overseas to represent the NWSL’s Portland Thorns, but she’s still well versed on the style and tendencies of most of her French teammates, who surely breathe better knowing the midfielder is shielding their back.

Player to watch: Sakina Karchaoui (Montpellier HSC)

A surprise late call up for the French team that played at the 2016 Olympic Games, Sakina Karchaoui is rapidly becoming an important member of Les Bleues as a result of a series of solid defensive performances in high-stake matches.

The 21-year-old ascended the youth ranks as an offensive midfielder, but transformed into a left back at the end of her academy days in Montpellier and the decision is paying off big time. Speedy, athletic and aggressive, Karchaoui displays good defensive instincts, but what sets her apart is the effusive disposition and the energetic runs up and down the flank which usually end up with venomous crosses towards the box. Those are qualities that don’t proliferate in women’s football, much less in quality full backs, and therefore the Franco-Moroccan will be one of the hot properties to monitor over the next few seasons.

Twenty-one-year-old Sakina Karchaoui is one of the new faces of Team France

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): S. Bouhaddi; J. Houara – G. Mbock Bathy – W. Renard (C) – S. Karchaoui; A. Henry – C. Abily; E. Thomis – G. Thiney – C. Lavogez ; E. Le Sommer

The 4x2x3x1 has been France’s staple for many years and in Dutch soil that’s bound to continue, yet Olivier Echouafni isn’t short in personnel to change the mix if things get stale. Particularly the midfield’s offensive trio, which has been under the spotlight following Louisa Necib’s retirement after Rio and Amel Majri’s ankle injury.

To wit, speedster Elodie Thomis will have to watch her shadow in youngster Kadidiatou Diani, and expected left winger Claire Lavogez is far from untouchable, while Gaëtane Thiney could be squeezed out by the reallocation of forward Eugénie Le Sommer to the creation zone.

Moreover, striker Marie-Laure Delie is also bound to receive an opportunity to get going, with a slight tweak to the system possibly in the cards, leading to the implementation of the 4x3x3 and the introduction of a third central midfielder in veteran Élise Boussaglia or 20-year-old portent Onema Geyoro.

Switzerland

Two years after hurdling past the group stage at the 2015 World Cup, the Swiss make their first appearance at the European Championships to provide a stark contrast with the other debutants, who will be more than satisfied with an honourable exit from the tournament.

A level of ambition justified by a perfect qualifying campaign, where they won all eight matches, and the presence of a handful of world-class performers in their ranks. While far from title contenders, Switzerland has the goods to upset any team in the tournament on a good day, and therefore the quarter-finals are the minimal requirement.

Qualification: Group 6 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Martina Voss-Tecklenburg (GER)

Star Player: Ramona Bachmann (Chelsea FC, ENG)

Standing at a stocky 162cm, Ramona Bachmann doesn’t immediately radiate the aura of terrific football player, but you just need to wait until she gets going to realize the dynamic skill set and ability to pick defences apart. The 26-year-old Swiss zips around the pitch with and without the ball, making good use of her low center of gravity, and backs down defences with her dribbling ability, which opens up terrain in the final third for teammates to operate.

Ramona Bachmann scored an hat-trick against Equador at the 2015 World Cup, and will be looking for more during her Euro debut

With the characteristics of a winger, she’s primarily used as a nomadic forward or a false striker with Switzerland, exploring spaces between defenders with diagonal runs and overloading half spaces, but the 42 goals in 80 international caps certify the ability to finish is also there. After all, there has to be a reason Bachmann turned professional at age 16 and over the last ten years has represented top clubs in four different countries (Sweden, USA, Germany and England).

Player to watch: Lia Wälti (1. FFC Turbine Potsdam, GER)

A diminutive midfielder that coordinates Switzerland’s play at the center of the park, Lia Wälti’s game is one that relies on intelligence and flawless, yet understated, technique.

Acting as the outlet at the start of the Swiss buildup, she distributes the ball with both feet and tremendous poise and accuracy, playing at one or two touches to accelerate but also controlling the pace when necessary. In addition, defensively Wälti is able to overcome the lack of size and strength with non-stop activity and positioning.

You can make a case that the 24-year-old is the silent mechanism that makes Switzerland’s machine run swiftly and on time, and that’s worth appreciating even if all the sparkle is provided by others.

Lia Wälti performs the unsavory tasks necessary to carry Switzerland to new heights

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): G. Thalmann; A. Crnogorčević – C. Abbé (C ) – R. Kiwic – N. Maritz; E. Aigbogun – L. Wälti – M. Moser – L. Dickenmann; F. Humm – R. Bachmann

Martina Voss -Tecklenburg’s team plays a direct, fast and attacking style of play that appeases onlookers but concurrently contributes to some tactical anarchy, with the four attacking players regularly exchanging positions and getting caught in transition. The role of veteran Lara Dickenmann is thus essential, since she’s the one responsible for curbing the offensive impetus and organizing support to the two central midfielders. In alternative, the introduction of Vanessa Bernauer in substitution of Fabienne Humm or Eseosa Aigbogun could similarly help tone down some riskier tendencies.

Conversely, if Switzerland is chasing the score, loosening the grip on Ana-Maria Crnogorčevic is the solution to adopt as she’s clamouring for a more prominent role in offense since being incomprehensively adapted to a full back position, hence quashing an element that scored seven times during the qualifying phase.

Iceland

On their third consecutive appearance at the European Championships, Iceland will try to mirror the result of 2013, when they advanced past the group stage before succumbing to hosts Sweden.

Similarly to the men’s team that captivated the continent last summer, the Icelanders have been growing their profile in the women’s game over the last few seasons, and much is owed to their all-time top scorer, Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir, who unfortunately won’t play in the competition after rupturing the cruciate ligament on her knee a few weeks ago. A massive blow that can make all the difference between progressing or heading home early.

Qualification: Group 1 winners (7W, 1L)

Finals Appearances: Third

Best Performance: Quarter-Finals (2013)

Head coach: Freyr Alexandersson

Star Player: Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir is a workhorse in Iceland’s midfield

By assuming the team captaincy in 2014 on the heels of Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir’s pregnancy, Sara Björk further increased her influence inside an Icelandic group that paces at the rhythm of its midfield heartbeat.

Armband draped on her arm, the 26-year-old does a bit of everything for her national team, directing traffic and her teammates, covering for positional mishaps, claiming the ball from defenders to start the transition and setting the example with her enduring predisposition to run.

Astute decision making, many rungs above her teammates, completes the description and clearly demarks why Gunnarsdóttir is the rare player on the roster to feature regularly for a top-level European club.

In her case, German double winners Wolfsburg, the team she chose to represent in 2016 after five seasons and four national titles amassed with Sweden’s FC Rosengård.

Player to watch: Elín Jensen (Valur)

Elín Metta Jensen can be considered a special case in Iceland’s squad, and not just because her name is much easier to scribble than the vast majority of her teammates’.

For instance, despite her youth, the 22-year-old has already participated in the tournament before, called up in 2013 after notching 18 goals in 18 games to pace the 2012 Icelandic League as a teenager. Moreover, her propensity for taking defenders off the dribble and individualize actions shocks with Iceland’s “Team first” battle cry, and that may be the chief reason behind her struggles to consistently break into the starting lineup over the years.

Maybe it will finally happen in Dutch soil, probably not in a center forward role but on the wing, where Elín Jensen can offer a jolt of offensive talent to turn around matches going the wrong way.

Probable Lineup (3x4x3): G. Gunnarsdóttir; G. Viggósdóttir – S. Atladóttir – A. Kristjánsdóttir; R. Hönnudóttir – D. Brynjarsdóttir – S. Gunnarsdóttir (C) – H. Gísladóttir; F. Friðriksdóttir – K. Ásbjörnsdóttir – H. Magnúsdóttir

After surging through qualifying on a 4x2x3x1 formation that sometimes versed a 4x3x3, the loss of Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir instigated a drastic change of tactical structure, with Freyr Alexandersson expected to take his chances in matchday one against France with a 3x4x3 that defensively will very much resemble a 5x3x2/5x2x3.

The loss of influentional forward Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir (#9) changes everything for Iceland

Due to the new-fangled nature of this system, it’s still not clear where everyone will slot, especially up front, but in this projection I elected experience: from Dagný Brynjarsdóttir being hailed as the partner to Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir in the middle, to 32-year-old Hólmfríður Magnúsdóttir as the final piece of the forward trio alongside Fanndís Friðriksdóttir and the mobile Katrín Asbjornsdottir, who is expected to unseat qualifying joint-top scorer Harpa Thorsteinsdóttir.

Meanwhile, on defence, Sif Atladóttir is the main beneficiary of the extra center back position, and as a reward she brings with her a singular weapon Iceland will rely heavily on: the ability to propel the ball into the goal area from free throws, generating cheap opportunities to incite mayhem in front of the net.

Austria

Until a recent 4-2 home triumph over Denmark, It had been more than 3 years since Austria last defeated one of the other 15 participants at the Euro 2017, and that speaks volumes to the task ahead of Dominik Thalhammer’s women in this tournament.

On the contrary, in qualification the Austrians lost narrowly at home to Norway only to snatch a 2-2 tie away, while a look at their roster reveals six players that pontificate in top-four Frauen-Bundesliga outfits. It’s fair to say Switzerland and Iceland should underestimate the Austrians at their own peril.

Austria’s qualification for the Euro 2017 is the first in their women’s football history

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 8 (5W, 2D, 1 L), five points behind Norway

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Dominik Thalhammer

Star Player: Nina Burger (SC Sand, GER)

Top scorer of the Austrian League in six consecutive seasons from 2006 to 2012, Nina Burger was forced to take her talents abroad when things got too easy at home. She first landed in the USA before eventually returning to Europe to represent SC Sand, where she tallied 15 goals over two seasons.

That’s an unimpressive total that we can probably chalk up to her unusual style of play. Far from a complete striker, Burger is, instead, more of an old-school poacher, someone that sticks to her high position, lays claim to lose balls in the area and aims for the net at every opportunity.

A limited skill set that is still incredibly valuable for the Austrian national team, since the five goals she notched in qualifying helped secure the ticket to the Netherlands and cemented her status as the country’s top scorer of all-time. Now, time to beef up those numbers at the biggest stage she’s ever been.

Player to watch: Sarah Zadrazil (1. FFC Turbine Potsdam, GER)

Despite wearing the No. 9 shirt for Austria, Sarah Zadrazil is far from a major scoring threat in the pitch. In fact, the 24-year-old would match up far better with the No.8, the numerical digit usually associated with the box-to-box midfielder, the function she carries out to great lengths alongside Freiburg’s Sarah Puntingan.

Austria’s Sarah Zadrazil tries to break an English attack during an international friendly match

Industrious, unrelenting and highly reactive to lose balls, Zadrazil keeps Austria permanently prepared for the defensive transition, and any team could use a responsible player like that, which is why Turbine Potsdam coveted her services after a three-year spell playing college soccer at the United States.

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): M. Zinsberger; K. Schiechtl– C. Wenninger –  V. Schnaderbeck (C ) – S. Maierhofer; S. Puntingam – S. Zadrazil; L. Feiersinger – N. Billa – V. Aschauer; N. Burger

The positioning of Nicole Billa is the key element of Austria’s set up, as the Hoffenheim player can drop back to form a trio in midfield with Zadrazil and Puntingan (4x3x3), execute between the lines (the 4x2x3x1), or take a few steps forward to supplement Burger inside the goal area.

Either way, much is asked of wingers Laura Feiersinger and Verena Aschauer (both SC Sand players), who regularly rush up and down the corridor to assist the defence and necessarily tire out by the middle of the second half. The 26-year-old Nadine Prohaska is then called to action to replace one, while the other toughs it out, since depth is an issue for Austria at this level.

Euro 2016 Surprises: Meet the newcomers

The UEFA European Championship started as a four team’s tournament in 1960 but the evolution of the game has seen its format expanded roughly every two decades. Thus, 1980 was the first edition with eight teams, 1996 saw sixteen countries fight for glory in England and, next year, France will welcome 24 of the 54 nations that comprise the governing association of European football.

Naturally, this enlargement figured to decrease the competitive strength of the final tournament, which over the last decades has been considered even harder to win than the World Cup, but also drown out the interest over the 14 month-long qualifying campaign.
Yet, if the first proposition will have to wait until next summer to be evaluated, the second may have already been refuted due to a simple tweak instituted by UEFA. The new scheduling, which essentially enabled games continuously from Thursday to Tuesday, managed to establish a stretch where international football is, rightfully, at the forefront, enhanced the exposure on smaller nations and amplified the interest over the battles for qualifying spots, contributing to the most followed and stirring race in a long time.

Even with an easier path to book a place, some of Europe’s finest had to exert more to get in than they expected, including Russia, Belgium or World Champions Germany, and France’s tournament won’t be more than a mirage for two of the top seeds entering the group phase, Greece and the Netherlands. However, this article isn’t about the struggles of the heavyweights but about the exploits of the underdogs, those nations that hoped to rewrite their history and ended up thrilling their people.

I’ll tackle three countries that had been away from the spotlight for decades and that promise to colour next year’s tournament with the passion of their supporters, the strength of their play, and the shine of talented footballers that deserved the chance to set foot on a big international stage wearing their nation’s colours. They probably won’t lift the Henry Delaunay Cup after the 10th of July final on the Stade de France at Saint-Denis, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get to know them better.

Iceland

Less than two years after missing the chance to become the smallest country to qualify for a World Cup, falling short on the playoffs against Croatia, the nation with the Northernmost capital in Europe reached the finals of a major tournament for the first time.

10% of Iceland’s population, or 30 000 fans, may travel to France to support their team

Iceland could hardly have been more brilliant on their march to France, taking the victory from six of the first seven matches on qualification, including two famed triumphs over World Cup semi-finalists Netherlands, which capped an amazing improvement for a national team that was placed outside the top 100 on the FIFA rankings just five years ago. Since then, they appointed former Sweden’s coach Lars Lagerbäck, who is poised to retire in style next year and cede the position to current joint-manager Heimir Hallgrímsson, and became a tough side to overcome, incisive and daring on Reykjavík’s Laugardalsvöllur, solid and surgical away from home.

Although Iceland’s rise was helped by the presence of the first foreign national team manager in two decades, it is mainly about the important investments on infrastructures and training made on the country since the turn of the century. On an island faced with severe winter-related constraints, the escalation in full-sized halls and weather-resistant outdoor pitches has been remarkable, with newer artificial and natural grass fields allowing players and youngsters to train and improve their skills year-round, instead of toiling on gravel and indoor wooden floors. Similarly, the Icelandic Football Association (KSÍ) overhauled the entire coaching system, revolutionizing the education of the men responsible for teaching the new generations, with the number of UEFA Pro Licences increasing to levels that make their Scandinavian neighbours blush.

Lars Lagerbäck, alongside Heimir Hallgrímsson, led Iceland to the first international tournament

The outcome is a small country that is starting to export coaches, which follows the path set by much of the players that currently constitute the backbone of the national team, born between 1988 and 1992 and, thus, the first beneficiaries of the improvements on Iceland’s football structure. They comprise a true golden generation that first made waves by conquering a spot on the 2011 U-21 European Championship, with the likes of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Aron Gunnarsson and Kolbeinn Sigthórsson shining in Denmark.

Those names are now plying their trade on Europe’s best Leagues as they reach their peak years, and the senior squad benefits from their maturity and the experience of some older players, a mix that flourished to make proud their 300,000 compatriots.
The Icelandic squad that surprised during this qualifying campaign is essentially an efficient side assembled on a straightforward formation, a 4-4-2 that Lagerbäck and Hallgrímsson rarely change and that has produced well on both areas. Until they secured the qualification, only the Czech Republic could break Iceland’s stout defence, for three times during the pair’s encounters, and the Czech were also the only team in the group that topped Iceland’s 17 goals scored.

Qualifying Campaign:

An impressive 3-0 win against Turkey at Reikjavik started Iceland’s journey to France but it wasn’t until the historic home triumph over the Netherlands, afforded by a Gylfi Sigurdsson’s brace, that the Nordic islanders showed the strength to severely importune the favourites for the qualifying spots.

To a loss in Plzen against the Czech, Iceland responded with three consecutive wins, including an encore on Dutch soil, to stand on the edge of advancing. A rainy, nervy 0-0 tie with last place Kazakhstan did the job and Iceland could finally relax, finishing the campaign by conceding a home draw with Latvia and a last-minute defeat, at Konya, with Turkey, the best third place team of all groups.

Formation and squad

See Iceland’s formation here

Iceland’s stingy defensive performance begins on goalkeeper Hannes Þór Halldórsson (NEC Nijmegen, 31 years old), who arrived this season to the Dutch League after three years in Norway. Actually, it was only in 2011, shortly after assuming the reigns of Iceland’s goal, that Halldórsson became a professional footballer, leaving behind several years representing Icelandic clubs and working as a film director. Ögmundur Kristinsson (Hammarby IF, 26) replaced Halldórsson for the last qualifying match.

The team’s two centre-backs, not surprisingly, are both tall and vigorous, with former defensive midfielder Kári Árnason’s (Malmö FF, 32) career including stops in Sweden, Denmark, Scotland and England, before debuting on the Champions League this season for the title holders of his birth country. His partner Rágnar Sigurdsson (Krasnodar, 29) conquered titles in Sweden (IFK Göteborg) and Denmark (FC Copenhagen) until a move to Russia in 2014.

Right-back Birkir Sævarsson (Hammarby IF, 30) spent six years on Norwegian club Brann before joining the Stockholm-based squad and is a versatile defender that can player anywhere on the back due to his height (1.87m). He usually covers for the offensive raids of left-back Ari Skúlason (Odense BK, 28), a former midfielder that retreated on the field due to Lagerbäck’s efforts, and today adds a new dimension to Iceland’s game by providing pinpoint crosses and long balls.

Gylfi Sigurdsson (10) and Aron Gunnarson (17) are Iceland’s central midfield duo

Patrolling the centre of the midfield is captain Aron Gunnarson (Cardiff City, 26), who plays in England since 2008, first for Coventry City and later for a Welsh side that spent 2013-14 in the Premier League. The holding midfielder generally has the company of Gylfi Sigurdsson (Swansea City, 26), the team’s finest player, who can be moved to support a single striker when the game calls for more defensive consistency. The former Tottenham player defines most of his team’s plays, controls the pace of the game, and takes care of every free kick and penalty, having scored six goals during the Euro 2016 campaign, including three crucial strikes against the Netherlands.

If Sigurdsson has to move forward, Johann Gudmundsson (Charlton Athletic, 24) steps in, with the talented winger having returned to England after spending part of his formative years there before signing for AZ Alkmaar in 2009.

Appropriately nicknamed “Thor” in his homeland, Birkir Bjarnason (FC Basel, 27) is usually deployed on the right side of the midfield for the national team despite having played on the centre for his different clubs, a list that includes Viking FK, Standard Liège, Pescara and Sampdoria before joining the Swiss Champions this season. If Bjarnason tends to drift to the middle in order to help close down on defence, left winger Emil Hallfredsson (Hellas Verona, 31) provides width and a wealth of experience from six seasons performing in Italy. Defensive midfielder Ólafur Skúlason (Gençlerbirliği S.K., 32) is the man in hand should a suspension stop any of the regular midfielders from competing.

Up front, Iceland’s coaches like to pair two mobile forwards, with Jón Dadi Bödvarsson (Viking FK, 23) being the youngest player on the starting eleven and a versatile element that can also play as a winger. Kolbeinn Sigthórsson (FC Nantes, 25) is the biggest threat for opposing defences, having produced 18 goals in 30 games for the national team and 46 during his 5-year stay in the Netherlands, representing AZ Alkmaar and Ajax.

Kolbeinn Sigthórsson celebrates his strike against Turkey

With only thirteen players collecting minutes in more than 5 games during the qualification campaign, it’s clear that the pool of talent available to the managing duo is limited but, nonetheless, the attack is the position with more alternatives.
Rúrik Gíslason (FC Nurnberg, 27) is usually the first man off the bench to change things offensively, but the return of veteran Eidur Gudjohnsen (Shijiazhuang Ever Bright FC, 37), last March against Kazakhstan, broadened the options. Iceland’s greatest player ever could be a key influence on the team in France, even if the former Barcelona and Chelsea man best times’ have been gone for a while.

Alfred Finnbogason (Olympiacos FC, 26) is another piece of the puzzle even though the complete affirmation of the Eredivisie’s best goal scorer in 2013-14 (SC Heerenveen, 29 goals) has taken more than expected. Finally, Vidar Orn Kjartarsson (Jiangsu Guoxin-Sainty, 25) was the runaway top goal scorer on the Norwegian league in 2014, and may soon join the battle for a starting position.

Wales

The 1958 World Cup marks the first and only time Wales had qualified for a major tournament, and if next year’s campaign delivers the same result, a quarter-final exit, the rugby-mad country will be pleased. After narrowly missing the presence at the 1994 World Cup and the 2004 European Championship, the current generation of Welsh players has already achieved almost unparalleled heights, with the national team ranked, as of the 1st of October, as the number eight team in the world. Four years ago, Wales was 117th, behind Haiti.

Iconic legends in Great Britain’s football history like Ian Rush, Mark Hughes and Ryan Giggs never had the chance to experience a big international showcase for their nation, but fortunately the same won’t (*knocks on wood*) happen to Gareth Bale, the latest world-class player born on the western part of the biggest British Island.
The Real Madrid star is absolutely essential, and the only player on the squad to tally more than ten goals on his career for the national team (his 19 goals in 54 games at age 26 are just nine off Ian Rush’s record), but there’s more talent leading the surge to prominence, including a core group between the ages of 25 and 28 that has grown together for a few years.

Wales team spirit was on display throughout the ten-game campaign

The entire roster is based in England (and Scotland) outside of his main star, and the coach, Chris Coleman, also made a career as a defender for several English outfits, earning 32 caps for his country. He debuted behind the bench for Fulham in 2003, one year after ending his career on the London side, and left after four seasons to assume Real Sociedad, where he stayed for just five months. He returned to guide Coventry City during a couple of years and had a short stint in Greece, for Larissa, before being appointed as Wales’s national coach in January 2012, after the death of Gary Speed, a friend and former teammate.

Coleman’s squad scored a paltry eleven goals in ten matches during the campaign, with seven of those coming off the head and feet of Bale, but that was enough to collect six victories because their generous defensive unit only allowed a single goal at home, and four in total. Two clean sheets against a Belgium team laden with offensive stars – one which scored 24 times on the other 8 games – is the definitive proof of Wales’ stoic resistance and team spirit.

The Welsh approach most games with a mixed 5-3-2/ 3-4-1-2 formation, based on a strong and populated central area, which frees the outside backs and leaves Aaron Ramsey with the responsibility to link play and support a front duo where Bale has “carte blanche” to roam and explore spaces behind the defence. When the team needs to score, Coleman shifts to a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2, with Bale on the left or behind a striker.

Qualifying Campaign:

Someone who looked at Wales’ half-time scoreline (1-1) during their first qualifying encounter, at Andorra, would be hardly pressed to believe on a successful enterprise. And although Gareth Bale completed his brace on the remaining 45 minutes to give the visitors three points, his team would still take some time to get on track.

Gareth Bale’s tally sunk Belgium in Cardiff

Nonetheless, a 0-0 against Bosnia at Cardiff, and a hard-fought victory over Cyprus, after playing almost all of the last 45 minutes with a man down, placed Wales on top.
The following three-game stretch turned the Welsh dream into a distinct possibility, with the team securing a scoreless draw in Brussels before the irrepressible Bale took over, finding the net twice and assisting on the other tally during a signature 3-0 triumph in Haifa, Israel. The winger then bagged the lone strike to defeat the Belgians in Cardiff, and secured a dramatic late win in Cyprus with a bullet header.

Wales couldn’t clinch the spot in France at home, against Israel, after being held to a frustrating 0-0 draw, but the wait of more than 50 years was finally over on the next fixture. Despite a loss at Bosnia, Cyprus handed Wales the much awaited qualification by surprising Israel.

Formation and squad

See Wales’ formation here

Goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace, 28) is the undisputable starter for Wales since his 53 caps are exactly 53 more than the total of his two backups. The former Wolverhampton Wanderers goalie also played a lot at the club level from 2007 to 2014 but, since his move to the Premier League side, he has warmed the bench more times than not.

Wales’ skipper Ashley Williams was selected by UEFA for the Euro 2016 qualifiers best 11.

Wales defence is marshalled, be it on a configuration of four or five men, by captain Ashley Williams (Swansea City, 31), who also wears the armband for the Swans, the side he represents since 2008. Born in England but of Welsh ascendency, James Chester (West Bromwich Albion, 26) has secured a place alongside Williams since his debut last year, when he was yet a member of Hull City, the club he joined from Manchester United in 2011.

Rounding out the back three, when needed, is veteran James Collins (West Ham United, 31) or one of the team’s natural left backs, either Neil Taylor (Swansea City, 26) or Ben Davies (Tottenham Hotspur, 22). The pair competed for a spot on Swansea’s defence before the latter moved to London in 2014, but don’t have the same problem on the national team, since Coleman can move either to the centre or up to the midfield. Chris Gunter (Reading FC, 26) is a right back with Premier League experience and already more than 60 caps amassed, while Ashley Williams (Fulham FC, 24) backs him up and can also play as a left back or on the midfield.

The trio at the heart of the field has Joe Ledley (Crystal Palace, 28), a player with Premier League and Champions League experience for Celtic under his belt, as the most physical weapon and defensive anchor, while Joe Allen (Liverpool, 25) is a more refined midfielder that has struggled to live up to the £15 million paid to Swansea in 2012. Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal, 24) is a box-to-box threat that pushes the ball forward, and surprises opponents with his timely appearances to set up his teammates or pounce on goal.

Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey is Wales’ key midfielder

When one of these three players is absent, Andy King (Leicester City, 26) is the next in line and Coleman can thrust an element with a knack for goal, having scored 57 times over nine years for Leicester, a record for a “Foxes” midfielder. David Edwards (Wolverhampton Wanderers, 30) and David Vaughan (Nottingham Forest, 32) are long-time members of the squad that provide depth to the sector, while youngsters Jonathan Williams (Crystal Palace, 22) and Emyr Huws (Huddersfield Town, 22) are slowly finding their space on the main team.

On the attack, the attention is all on the mesmerizing runs, shots, tricks and turns of Gareth Bale (Real Madrid, 26), but the Cardiff native can also be extremely dangerous from thunderous free-kicks or even bullying opponents on the air. Besides Bale, Hal Robson-Kanu (Reading, 26) is another arrow pointed towards the opponent’s net, as the former Arsenal schoolboy usually plays as a winger at the club-level.

Simon Church (Milton Keynes Dons, 26) and Sam Vokes (Burnley, 25) are pure strikers, but their underwhelming career goal-scoring record turns them into regular bench fixtures for the national team, since Coleman prefers the services of winger David Cotterill (Birmingham City, 26) whenever he switches to a three-man unit up front centered by Robson-Kanu. The talented George Williams (Fulham, 20) has already collected some minutes, and he figures to see his profile raised over the next few years.

Austria

It won’t be a debut, like for Iceland, and the country did not have to wait almost 60 years to taste a major international tournament, like Wales, but this doesn’t mean that Austria’s qualification for the Euro 2016 isn’t a great achievement. After all, the country had never qualified for the European Championship – played part as a co-host in 2008 – and the last time they could pop the bottles to celebrate reaching a tournament was in 1998, on France’s World Cup.

For a nation that finished fourth at the 1934 World Cup, and third in the 1954 edition, this is a long time, and the first goal in France will be securing a competition triumph that escapes since 1990. Indeed, the last time they went past the first round is an even more remote memory, dating back to the 1982 World Cup.

The Austrians and their fans will be back to a major international tournament

Some of the biggest names in Austria’s footballing history were strikers, including Toni Polster, the all-time best goal scorer for the national team with 44 goals, and former Barcelona man Hans Krankl, but the current roster is much more about a group of players that thrived on the youth Austrian rosters, and achieved recognition with the fourth place at the 2007 U-20 World Cup. Those players are now fully developed as key members of the senior squad and the national team is reaping the benefits, even though their transcendental talent is 23-year-old David Alaba, who became the youngest player ever to debut for Austria back in 2009, at the age of 17.

Alaba joined Bayern Munich as a teenager, and this is a path that many Austrians follow early on, with almost the entire roster having played in Germany at some point in their careers, but the national team has also profited from the experience on the Premier League of names like Marko Arnautovic and Christian Fuchs. Thus, most of the side can relate and implement the technical and tactical concepts that dominate contemporary football, including a suffocating pressing that made several victims during the campaign.

Looking from the baseline is Coach Marcel Koller, who orchestrated an attractive style of play based on movement and pace, which extracts the best from his creative offensive midfielders. The 54-year-old Swiss represented his national team as a midfielder in 56 occasions and became a manager in 1997, leading the fortunes of Grasshoppers, Cologne and Bochum, among others, before being appointed as Austrian coach in 2011. Koller’s work wasn’t enough to earn a spot on the 2014 World Cup, trailing Germany and Sweden on the qualifying group, but the Austrian’s showed the promised that materialized in a wonderful campaign towards booking the trip to France.

Sweden was the only team that managed to stop Austria during the qualifiers

Twenty-two goals scored and only five conceded, nine wins in ten matches, and a couple of signature triumphs on the grounds of their two strongest rivals, tell the tale of 13 months to remember for a country that rediscovered the love for the game following the adventures of a revived squad.

The Austrians are a team structured on a balanced 4-2-3-1, which thrives on the unpredictability and positional swaps between their three attacking midfielders along with the relentless work of Alaba, used on the national team as a box-to-box midfielder. On the other hand, Austria’s Achilles heel is a defence that lacks speed, even if their opponents couldn’t take advantage, since the first goal suffered on open play came only on injury time eight games into the campaign.

Qualifying Campaign:

Austria only dropped two points on the road to the Euro 2016, and those were courtesy of Sweden on the inaugural match, a 1-1 draw in Vienna. The team followed that up with three consecutive one goal victories, the most important coming at home against Russia, when a late strike by Rubin Okotie acted as the decider on a game that Alaba missed with an injury. The Bayern Munich man would also fail the trip to Moscow, and his teammates managed to pull through once again, this time due to a Marc Janko’s tally.

Another narrow win, this time over Moldova in Vienna, set up a crucial encounter at Solna, Sweden, and the Austrians didn’t squander the chance to punch the ticket at the first opportunity, embarrassing their opponents with a categorical 4-1 score line after a sensational performance. To end the campaign, an injury-time winner in Montenegro gave Austria its eight consecutive triumph, a number that would rise to nine after beating Liechtenstein on the last fixture.

Formation and squad

See Austria’s formation here

Austria’s Number One is Robert Almer (Austria Wien, 31), an experienced shot stopper that spent the last four seasons in Germany playing for Fortuna Düsseldorf, Energie Cottbus and Hannover 96, even if he never turned into an unquestionable starter for any of the sides.

The defence mixes youth and experience. The full backs are Florian Klein (VFB Stuttgart, 28), who moved from Red Bull Salzburg to become the first-team right back for the German outfit, and captain Christian Fuchs (Leicester City, 29), whose move this season to the Premier League came after seven years on the Bundesliga, the last four for Schalke 04, where he created danger by flinging long free-throws. Meanwhile, on the centre, the talented Aleksandar Dragović (Dynamo Kiev, 24) is the leader of the sector, having flourished for Basel before joining the Ukrainian powerhouse, where his play is attracting several English top clubs.

Aleksandar Dragović is Austria’s better rounded defender

To play besides Dragović, Marcel Koller alternated between the lanky (1.94m) Sebastian Prödl (Watford, 28), a recent signee of the Premier League side after seven season on Werder Bremen, and the youngster Martin Hinteregger (Red Bull Salzburg, 23), a regular fixture on the perennial Austrian Champions. Kevin Wimmer (Tottenham Hotspur, 22), who joined the London outfit from Cologne this summer, is waiting on the wings, while right back György Garics (SV Darmstadt 98, 31) and left back Markus Suttner (FC Ingolstadt 04, 28) provide cover for Klein and Fuchs, respectively.

David Alaba (Bayern Munich, 23) has executed plenty of roles since Pep Guardiola took over the Bavarian Giants, and his versatility translates to the Austrian side, where he’s not viewed as a left-back, the position he prospered in. His energetic style, awareness and sublime skill bless Austria’s central midfield, and he’s the dynamo behind the team’s success after contributing with four goals in eight matches during the campaign. Alaba’s partner on the middle of the park is Julian Baumgartlinger (FSV Mainz 05, 27), a strong tackler who left home at age 13 to join TSV 1860 Munich’s youth academy.

Alternatives to the midfield duo include the physical Stefan Ilsanker (RB Leipzig, 26), the prototypical defensive midfielder, and Christoph Leitgeb (Red Bull Salzburg, 30), a product of Sturm Graz’s academy. Veli Kavlak (Beşiktaş J.K., 26), who moved to his parents’ country of origin in 2011, is also frequently called.

The chemistry between the trio that collaborates behind the lone forward is palpable, and thus coach Koller rarely dismisses the services of a group that combined to hit the net eight times during the journey to France. Martin Harnik (VFB Stuttgart, 28) brings it from the right and the Hamburg-born winger confirms for the national team the credentials of a career solidly built on the Bundesliga, which includes four dozens of goals collected for the southwest German club.

On the other flank evolves the mercurial Marko Arnautović (Stoke City, 26), the bad boy of Austria’s football, a winger as talented as inconsistent during stints for Twente, Inter Milan and Werder Bremen. Zlatko Junuzović (Werder Bremen, 28) plays as a right-winger for his club but, on the national team, is a classic Number 10 with a penchant for free-kick taking.

Marcel Sabitzer (RB Leipzig, 21) is the first man called upon when something needs to be changed on the attacking midfield, while Valentino Lazaro (Red Bull Salzburg, 19), of Angolan and Greek roots, has been viewed as the next big thing in Austrian football since debuting on the domestic league at the age of 16 years and 224 days, earlier than anyone else. Jakob Jantscher (FC Luzern, 26) fights for minutes and opportunities with the two young prospects. Andreas Weimann (Derby County, 24) signed for Aston Villa at age 16, and became one of Austria’s prominent footballers acquiring more than 100 Premier League appearances, but he’s currently removed from Koller’s regular selections.

David Alaba (R), Martin Harnik (C) and Marc Janko (L) after a goal on Austria’s smashing triumph in Sweden

On the attack, the starter is still the veteran Marc Janko (FC Basel, 32), whose seven goals in the qualification paced the team. A former record-breaking goal machine for Red Bull Salzburg that also played in the Netherlands, Portugal and Turkey, Janko seems revitalized after a stint in Australia, and is now an important member of the Swiss Champions. Rubin Okotie (TSV 1860 Munich, 28), born in Karachi, Pakistan, has been less prolific throughout his career, but his two goals on the campaign directly offered four points.

Lukas Hinterseer (FC ingolstadt 04, 22) is currently the third man on the pecking order, and his morphologic conditions (1.92m) anticipate that he can become Janko’s successor, while Marco Djuricin (Red Bull Salzburg, 22), currently on loan at Brentford searching for competitive minutes, is another piece of Austria’s future up front.

(Albania and Northern Ireland are also newcomers but didn’t make the cut this time. They’ll be featured later. Eventually.)