This Irish team got steadily better as the qualifying campaign progressed, resulting in the historic win against World Cup holders Germany that cemented their place in the play-offs and led to the two-legged victory over Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Martin O’Neill has brought back the famous Irish team spirit that helped the country over-achieve in several major tournaments, and the manager has also put together a very strong starting XI that will be hard to beat if he can name his best side.

The defence is very strong in the middle of the park with four decent centre-halves vying for the two available spots, while both full-backs enjoy pace and skill and add an attacking dimension down the flanks.

Shane Long and Jonathan Walters will strike fear into the best defenders in Europe and will help take pressure off the team when up against more technical sides like Belgium and Italy.

But Ireland’s real area of strength is their ability to create opportunities from set-pieces. Robbie Brady’s left foot is capable of delivering pin-point crosses anywhere in the danger zone, which will be attacked with added enthusiasm at Euro 2016.

Manager: Martin O’Neill

Key player: Shane Long

The Southampton striker has enjoyed a terrific second half of the Premier League season, which the Ireland manager said was probably inspired by the goal he scored at the Aviva Stadium to beat the Germans.

Ireland are a completely different side when Long is up top as his pace puts huge pressure on opposition defences and prevents them from playing a high line.

Long’s quickness also causes defenders to give away free-kicks in dangerous areas, which will be key to Ireland’s set-piece game-plan.

13 June Ireland v Sweden, Stade de France, 5pm
18 June Belgium v Ireland, Stade de Bordeaux, 2pm
22 June Italy v Ireland, Stade Pierre Mauroy, 8pm


The golden generation of Belgium are fancied to go all the way at this tournament and when you look at the quality at their disposal, it is hard to argue against their their odds of being involved at the business end of Euro 2016.

Marc Wilmots' side are set to be one of the most entertaining in France with an array of attacking options in the squad.

Star players like Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne have had a mixed year at their respective clubs but both appeared to be hitting top form at the season’s close.

Belgium will play with real attacking intent, which starts from the back, with defenders who are quick to join in with the attack, while their goal threat is likely to come from all angles with Romelu Lukaku and Divock Origi competing to lead the attack.

Yannick Carrasco showed his quality in the Champions League final as his second-half strike for Atletico Madrid forced the game into extra time, and he will certainly be one to watch at the tournament.

Belgium’s hopes were dealt a severe blow with the onset of several big name injuries, none more so than leader Vincent Kompany who has been ruled out.

The Belgians will be content with nothing less than a semi-final appearance but will need to hit the ground running in this tough group as they open against Italy, before meeting Ireland in Bordeaux on 18 June.

Manager: Marc Wilmots

Key player: Kevin De Bruyne

The Manchester City midfielder missed a large chunk of the season through injury but the 24-year-old came back fitter and stronger, putting in some world class performances in the Premier League as well as helping his club to the Champions League semi-finals.

De Bruyne drives the team forward from midfield and has an eye for goal, which really enhances this already attack-minded side.

13 June Belgium v Italy, Stade de Lyon, 8pm
18 June Belgium v Ireland, Stade de Bordeaux, 2pm
22 June Sweden v Belgium, Stade de Nice, 8pm.


The Azzurri have been hit hard as some key players were ruled out through injury with both Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio missing from Antonio Conte’s squad.

That double blow has ripped the heart out of this Italian side as both would have started in the midfield and now the manager is relying on togetherness in a squad that is certainly lacking the superstars normally associated with Italian sides.

And Conte has built the team around the rock-solid defensive foundation from Italian champions Juventus as Gianluigi Buffon’s goal will be protected by a trio of clubmates: Andrea Berzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini.

Italy’s main concern will be where the goals are going to come from, with a lot being asked of Southampton centre forward Graziano Pellè, while Lorenzo Insigne, Eder, Stephan El Shaarawy and Antonio Candreva will all need to contribute.

Things could all go wrong for Italy early in the tournament as they open against the much-fancied Belgians, while the manager is under pressure to perform after announcing his departure to Chelsea.

Notorious slow starters – remember Giants Stadium in 1994 – the Italians will be happy to take a point against Belgium before playing Sweden and Ireland, who they will fancy to beat, and should that happen, like the 1994 World Cup, they are the type of team who could muscle their way all the way to the final.

Manager: Antonio Conte

Key player: Giorgio Chiellini

All successful Italian sides are built from the back and there is no outfield player more important than the Juve stalwart.

The battle-hardened defender has played over 80 times for his country and has the scars to prove it, along with the teethmarks of a certain Luis Suarez. Chiellini will command the back three in Conte’s 3-5-2 formation and that club camaraderie will make Italy a very tough side to score against.

13 June Belgium v Italy, Stade de Lyon, 8pm
17 June Italy v Sweden, Stadium de Toulouse, 2pm
22 June Italy v Ireland, Stade Pierre Mauroy, 8pm.


One-man teams do not qualify for major tournaments, so while all the spotlight rightly shines on Sweden’s true world class player, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, this is a hard-working unit that allows the striker to excel.

Sweden will come into the tournament with the exact same aspirations and expectations as Martin O’Neill’s Ireland as they will target their opening game as a winnable match to set them up to get out of the group.

The Scandinavians are very adept at qualifying for major tournaments, with Euro 2016 their fifth European Championships in a row. They always have the pedigree to beat the teams that are considered at their level, which was proved in the play-offs as they easily dispatched neighbours Denmark.

Erik Hamren’s squad has being strengthened by a contingent from their 2015 Under-21 European championship winning side making the step up to senior level, and with experienced players of the calibre of Kim Kallstorm and Albin Ekdal in midfield, Sweden should have a well-balanced starting XI.

But there is no denying that Sweden will rely on Ibrahimovic to prove the difference in France if they are to have a chance of getting out of their group. The Manchester United target will be keen to impress, and he generally keeps his best performances for the big stage.

Manager: Erik Hamren

Key player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Euro 2016 Profile: Sweden

Even his team-mates are under no illusions about who is the key to this Sweden side and, despite the fact that the striker is now 34 years old, Ibrahimovic can still conjure up something out of nothing and score the most outrageous goals in that final third of the pitch.

The manager makes no excuses about the way he sets his team out, which is geared to make Ibrahimovic as effective as possible.

13 June
 Ireland v Sweden, Stade de France, 5pm
17 June Italy v Sweden, Stadium de Toulouse, 2pm
22 June Sweden v Belgium, Stade de Nice, 8pm.