Euro2016

Seemingly disappointing Euro 2016 draw holds hidden gems with expanded field

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Much of the top talent across Europe was spread thin in the Euro 2016 qualifying draw, leaving fans with few matchups of any excitement early on.

While the draw’s result means the seeding worked and that the finals will most likely be all the top teams, it leaves many of the groups all but predetermined.

However, with the Euro 2016 finals expanded from 16 to 24 teams, the straightforward draw does leave a bit of room for countries previously unable to make noise on the European stage to have a chance to surprise some.

With the expanded finals, it means the top three – not the top two – teams in each group have the opportunity to move on.  With nearly every group holding clear top-2 favorites, the third-place position in many groups will be a bitter battle to the finish.Just two groups – Group A and H – have three clear teams that could vie for the top two spots.

Group A has the Netherlands, Turkey, and Czech Republic, and Group H sports four decent teams in Italy, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Norway.The rest of the groups are left incredibly top-heavy.  Group B has Belgium and Bosnia-Herzegovna, Group C has Spain and Ukraine, Group D holds Germany and Poland, Group E with England and Switzerland, Group F is likely to be topped by Greece and Hungary, Group G has Russia and Sweden, and Group I holds Portugal and Denmark (who draw each other again after a fierce battle in the Euro 2012 qualifying groups).

While this seems initially to leave fans with little to look forward to, it also means a lot of the third-place spots will be up for grabs, and could give teams not formerly thought to challenge for the later rounds a chance to make a move.

Consider a country like Romania.  A country that has hardly made noise in the Euros in the past could now have a chance to make a playoff, where anything could happen.

In Euro 2012 qualifying, Romania finished a distant third to powerhouses France and Bosnia, now they draw Hungary and Greece with the opportunity to make noise even if they fail to eclipse either. Finland, in that same group, falls in the same boat.

So with the expanded field, much of the focus will shift from the top of the groups to the middle, where we could see action never before brought to the European championships.

VIDEO: “The Beast” leads Wimbledon to promotion; leaves club with epic interview

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Adebayo Akinfenwa’s time at AFC Wimbledon may be over, but he will never be forgotten.

The striker scored a penalty kick at Wembley on Monday deep into stoppage time to seal Wimbledon’s promotion to League One after a 2-0 win over Plymouth Argyle.

Headed to League One for the first time in club history, the win caps off a remarkable rise for Wimbledon that started in the ninth-tier of English football back in 2002.

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Akinfenwa, a journeyman striker in England’s lower leagues, has gained cult-hero status due to his large frame, listed at 5-foot-11-inches and weighing in at over 220 pounds, earning him the nickname “The Beast.”

Speaking to Sky Sports amid the promotion celebrations, Akinfenwa asked for other managers to shoot him a text as his contract expires with Wimbledon this summer.

It’s what dreams are made of. I’m more tired now running around [celebrating] than I was the whole game, but it’s a beautiful feeling.

Sidebar, I think I’m technically unemployed. So any managers, hit me up on the WhatsApp and get me a job.

There ain’t no better way to leave this club than to leave them promoted, it’s beautiful. For all them who said I was too big to play football, come on now.

Akinfenwa also joked about his late-match penalty, in which he was seen wrestling the ball away from teammate Callum Kennedy. When asked about the situation, Akinfenwa responded “It was just set up too beautifully, and I’m bigger than Cal, so Cal was unlucky. I’m sorry Cal K, I love you though.”

Saints to offer Shane Long new deal as Liverpool, Spurs show interest

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 08:  Shane Long of Southampton is chased down by Kyle Walker of Tottenham Hotspur during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton at White Hart Lane on May 8, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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After scoring ten Premier League goals this season, Shane Long looks set to be rewarded with a new contract at Southampton.

Despite having two years remaining on his current contract, multiple reports state he will get a new deal to fend off interest from Liverpool and Tottenham.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s EURO 2016 coverage ]

Spurs’ boss Mauricio Pochettino was in Dublin this past weekend to watch Long play for Ireland, where he was pictured sitting with the player’s agent Pat Dolan. The Saints’ striker scored Ireland’s only goal in a 1-1 draw against the Netherlands.

Liverpool had also reached out to Southampton back in January about a possible move for Long, and it is believed Jurgen Klopp is quite fond of the Irish striker.

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Having already inked Virgil Van Dijk, James Ward-Prowse, and Fraser Forster to new deals, Southampton will be eager to lock up Long before EURO 2016 kicks off.

Likely to be the top striker for Ireland at the tournament, a good showing for Long on Europe’s biggest stage could lead to even more interest in the 29-year-old.

Arsenal’s Bellerin set to make Spain EURO squad after Carvajal injury

ST GALLEN, SWITZERLAND - MAY 29:  Hector Bellerin of Spain competes for the ball with Sead Kolasinac (L) and Ervin Zukanovic of Bosnia during an international friendly match between Spain and Bosnia at the AFG Arena on May 29, 2016 in St Gallen, Switzerland.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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With just one cap to his name, Hector Bellerin looks poised to make Spain’s final 23-man roster for EURO 2016.

The Arsenal right-back will take the spot of Dani Carvajal, who tore his hip flexor in Real Madrid’s win in the Champions League final.

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Bellerin, 21, made his debut for the Spanish first-team this past weekend, playing the full 90 minutes in a 3-1 win over Switzerland.

Speaking before the extent of Carvajal’s injury was revealed, Spain manager Vicente del Bosque had said “We have two days until I name my list of 23 players. While we are waiting to hear from the medics [about Carvajal], Bellerin stays with us.”

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Despite a lack of experience with the national team, Bellerin has played more than 50 Premier League games with Arsenal, named to the PFA Team of the Year this season as the league’s best right-back.

Spain’s first match of EURO 2016 is on June 13 against the Czech Republic, also paired with Turkey and Croatia in Group D.

Switzerland picks 3 teenagers in final Euro 2016 squad

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - MARCH 29: Breel Embolo of Switzerland (R) fights for the ball with goalkeeper Jasmin Buric of Bosnia-Herzegovina during the international friendly match between Switzerland and Bosnia-Herzegovina at Stadium Letzigrund on March 29, 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images)
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LUGANO, Switzerland (AP) Switzerland has three 19-year-olds in its final European Championship squad of 23 players that features new Arsenal signing Granit Xhaka.

Coach Vladimir Petkovic was expected to pick Basel forward Breel Embolo, and on Monday also selected teenagers Nico Elvedi and Denis Zakaria.

Elvedi, a defender with Borussia Moenchengladbach, and Young Boys midfielder Zakaria both made international debuts on Saturday in a 2-1 loss to Belgium in Geneva.

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Zakaria takes a holding midfielder’s place left vacant when Petkovic left out former captain Gokhan Inler over a lack of playing time at Leicester.

Petkovic also omitted defenders Philippe Senderos and Silvan Widmer, and midfielder Luca Zuffi, who had been on the provisional squad.

Switzerland’s final warmup match is against Moldova in Lugano on Friday.

Switzerland is in host France’s group at Euro 2016 along with Albania and Romania.

Squad:

Goalkeepers: Yann Sommer (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Roman Buerki (Borussia Dortmund), Marwin Hitz (Augsburg)

Defenders: Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus), Nico Elvedi (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Michael Lang (Basel), Johan Djourou (Hamburger SV), Steve von Bergen (Young Boys), Fabian Schaer (Hoffenheim), Francois Moubandje (Toulouse), Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg)

Midfielders: Valon Behrami (Watford), Blerim Dzemaili (Genoa), Gelson Fernandes (Rennes), Fabian Frei (Mainz), Granit Xhaka (Arsenal), Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke), Denis Zakaria (Young Boys)

Forwards: Breel Embolo (Basel), Haris Seferovic (Eintracht Frankfurt), Admir Mehmedi (Bayer Leverkusen), Eren Derdiyok (Kasimpasa), Shani Tarashaj (Everton).