EURO 2016 preview, Group E: Belgium’s favored, but anything is possible

Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images
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Belgium

Game schedule

Star player: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) — A wizard in playmaking, “KDB” has all the tools to be the star of the tournament.

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Belgium finally meets its potential in cruising through Group E and deep into the tournament for its first big final since 1980’s loss to West Germany in Italy.

Or the Red Devils become known as the big engine that couldn’t, failing to live up to expectations again despite a massive array of weapons.


Italy

Champions in 1968, runners-up in 2000 & 2012. Unbeaten in two-straight qualifying cycles.

Game schedule

FLORENCE, ITALY - JUNE 01: Daniele De Rossi (L) and Gianluigi Buffon chat during the Italy training session at the club's training ground at Coverciano on June 01, 2016 in Florence, Italy. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Daniele De Rossi (L) and Gianluigi Buffon (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)

Star player: Gianluigi “Gigi” Buffon (Juventus) — He’s one a thing or two in his lifetime, and is a steady presence in the back for Gli Azzurri. 

Antonio Conte’s teams are hard to break down, and Simone Zaza and Lorenzo Insigne break out as stars of the tournament in a deep Italy run.

Yet perhaps the 4-1 and 3-1 losses to Germany and Belgium are harbingers of what’s to come, and Italy allows Ireland or Sweden past it and into the knockout rounds.


Republic of Ireland

Second-straight Euro, third overall. Haven’t escaped the group stage.

Game schedule

DUBLIN, IRELAND - OCTOBER 11: Robbie Keane of Republic of Ireland applauds the fans during the EURO 2016 Qualifier match between Republic of Ireland and Gibraltar at Aviva Stadium on October 11, 2014 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Star player: Robbie Keane (L.A. Galaxy)– The side’s all-time caps winner (143) and goal scorer (67).

Rebounding from a brutal three-and-out Euro 2012, Ireland follows the lead of Keane in busting through Italy and Sweden to finish runners-up in the group.

A suspect defense, slow in the middle, and with players out of position, concedes far too often again as Ireland bows out quickly. Keane has not scored against a side not called Gibraltar since 2013, and that streak continues in another bad tournament for Ireland.


Sweden

Sixth Euro, have failed to get out of the group stage in three of last four.

Game schedule

SOLNA, SWEDEN - NOVEMBER 14: Sweden 10 Zlatan Ibrahimovic durring a European Qualifier Play-Off between Sweden and Denmark on November 14, 2015 in Solna, Sweden. (Photo by Michael Campanella/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Campanella/Getty Images)

Star player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (unattached). Perhaps you’ve heard of him?

Buoyed by its in-form superstar and the ability to perform in relative anonymity because of him, Sweden sneaks out of the group and knows that, in a one-off, it has Zlatan.

Too many questions, on defense and in supplementary attack hamper Sweden’s ability do much and the group stage is all it gets.


Who’s going through, who’s going home: Italy and Belgium get into the knockout rounds, but not without hiccups.

Marquee match: Belgium and Italy set the tone for the group, and perhaps the expectations for all four teams, when they meet in Lyon on June 12.

Top players to watch:

  1. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden
  2. Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium
  3. Gianluigi Buffon, Italy
  4. Mousa Dembele, Belgium
  5. Romelu Lukaku, Belgium