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Euro 2016 Dark Horses: What teams, players will surprise?

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We all know about France, Germany, Spain, and the other heavyweights at the Euros this season. But what about those less talked about?

Here are some teams and players you may want to know about when the time comes for them to shine:

TEAMS

Just off the top: Poland

Any team with Robert Lewandowski is dangerous, but Poland is so much more than that. A hair off the elite group of teams in Europe, this team is as top to bottom as it comes. For starters, the goalkeeping talent on the Polish squad might be the deepest in Europe alongside Germany. Wojciech Szczesny was the third-best goalkeeper in Serie A last season, just a tick behind superstars Gianluigi Buffon and Samir Handanovic according to Squawka. He might not even start, with Swansea’s Lukasz Fabianski and Bournemouth’s Artur Boruc nipping at his toes. Grzegorz Krychowiak’s growth at the holding midfield position has changed the team’s tactical philosophy entirely. Lukasz Piszczek is in top form, voted to the Bundesliga team of the season this campaign. This squad has it all, and should give Germany and others all kinds of trouble.

Christian Fuchs has 75 caps for Austria (Photo: Getty Images)
Christian Fuchs has 75 caps for Austria (Photo: Getty Images)
[ MORE: PST writers predict Euro 2016 ]

Under the radar: Austria

Portugal may seem like the Group F favorites, but that group is probably more up for grabs than most, and Austria has a serious chance to top it. Austria bombarded through European qualification, with just one draw on an otherwise unblemished record. Unfortunately, three losses in five friendlies since have dampened the mood, but don’t ever count Austria out. This team can defend with the best in Europe, with Leicester City rock Christian Fuchs on the left and Aleksandar Dragovic – already with 47 caps at age 25 – in the middle, plus the do-it-all David Alaba likely in front of the back four. Stoke City workhorse Marko Arnautovic is the creative force on the wing, while Zlatko Junuzovic does the dirty work in the middle, and Mark Janko finishes them off. Austria could do some serious damage if the squad plays to its potential.

[ EURO PREVIEWS: Group A | B | C | D | E | F ]

Out of nowhere: Albania

There’s nobody the casual fan has ever heard of on this squad, and with Albania in its first-ever major tournament, they’re largely being counted out of a Group A bunch with France, Switzerland, and Romania. If you think those three have an easy one on the cards, think again. A high-pressing bunch that relies on a host of top-flight experience at the back, Gianni De Biasi could surprise a few. Captain Lorik Cana – with 90 caps to his name – saw significant time at center-back for FC Nantes this season and has played for Marseille, Lazio, and PSG in the past. Alongside him will likely be Cologne defender Mergim Mavraj, and Ansi Agolli on the left, who will become the first Azerbaijani Premier League player to feature in the Euros. Albania’s high press, led by striker Sokol Çikalleshi, could put a few big names out of their element.

PLAYERS

The young gun: Renato Sanches

The 18-year-old has already beaten Cristiano Ronaldo at one thing, becoming the youngest Portuguese player to travel to a major tournament, and there’s surely more to come. A Marcus Rashford-esque type rise, Sanches just made his Benfica debut in November. Since then, he’s made a $40 million move to Bayern Munich and now he could see significant time in a European Championship. He’s so good, some officials have apparently questioned if he’s really only 18. With five caps to his name, all off the bench, the central midfielder could soon overtake Danilo or Joao Moutinho in the middle of the field for years to come.

[ MORE: Which PL stars are at EURO 2016?]

The midfield engine: Vladimír Darida

At 25 years old, the Czech midfielder runs and runs and runs, and then runs some more. Unfortunately, he plays alongside national legend Tomas Rosicky in the midfield, who seems to get all the credit. Darida is a workhorse, and at just 5′ 6″, he can often get lost in the shuffle. Nothing stands off Darida’s stat sheet, with an 82% pass completion rate and a poor tackling record at Hertha this season, but he created 35 chances and scored five goals in league play this season, and that was enough to generate rumors of a move to Real Madrid, which he brushed aside. The Czech Republic is in a very difficult group, and if Pavel Vrba’s squad is to advance past Croatia and Turkey, they will need Darida to play a starring role.

The experienced vet: Mehmet Topal

With 59 caps, it’s hard to buy into a “dark horse” label for the 30-year-old central defender. Yet, with Turkey another one in the Group D mix, they will need Topal and another grizzled vet in Hakan Kadir Balta to be playing their best at the back. Obviously Spain is the favorite of the bunch, but with an attacking-minded Turkish squad grouped with defensively sound

Kingsley Coman has just five caps for France, but was a key player for Bayern Munich this year (Photo by Daniel Kopatsch/Getty Images)
Kingsley Coman was a key player for Bayern Munich this year (Photo: Getty Images)
Czech and Croatian sides, Topal will need to win the war of attrition that will be a staple of Group D. This is a contract year for Topal as well, with his Fenerbahce deal coming to an end this summer. There have been rumors of a move to Tottenham, but he’ll need to earn a dotted line to sign in France.

Getting over the hump: Kingsley Coman

France is all about the next generation now. Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial have taken all the headlines, yet all 20-year-old Kingsley Coman has done is win. Still somewhat of a raw talent, Coman went on loan from Juventus to Bayern Munich (beat that loan move) and played a crucial role in their Champions League run, bagging two goals and six assists across eight Champions League games. Coman is an electric talent down the flanks and the perfect heir to Franck Ribery’s throne, but surrounded by flashier players at both club and country, he still hasn’t become a household name. Yet superstardom could be in his future if he feeds enough goal-starved mouths (see: Giroud, Olivier) during a European championship run in his home country.

Bayern: Flick to stay manager “at least until Christmas”

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Bayern Munich is leaving the door open for Hansi Flick to snare its manager chair full-time.

Flick is 2-0 since taking over for Niko Kovac, including a 4-0 defeat of Borussia Dortmund in Der Klassiker.

[ WATCH: G. Jesus’ comical penalty miss ]

Bayern announced last weekend that Flick would manage the club for an indefinite period of time, and has the support of players like Robert Lewandowski as a possible season-long boss.

Chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has clearly tired of answering questions about what ‘indefinite’ means.

From Sky Sports:

“Last Saturday, Uli Hoeness, Hasan Salihamidzic and I publicly announced that Hansi Flick is our head coach ‘until further notice.’ And since we don’t want to be asked every Saturday whether Hansi will be our head coach for the next match, I’ll tell you, dear members: ‘until further notice’ means Hansi Flick will bear responsibility in terms of sport at least until Christmas, and potentially beyond,” he said.

Flick, 54, managed Hoffenheim from 2000-05 before spending eight years as an assist on the Germany staff. He was hired July 1 to assist Kovac.

He played for Bayern over 100 times between 1985-90.

LIVE — USMNT seeks ‘payback’ v. Canada in CONCACAF Nations League

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The USMNT’s CONCACAF Nations League hopes are on the line when it meets Canada in Orlando at 7 p.m. ET on Friday.

[ FOLLOW: USMNT on Twitter ]

The Yanks seek to avenge a 2-0 loss to the Canucks in Toronto last month, one that heaped pressure on coach Gregg Berhalter.

If the USMNT fails to win on Friday, a match Canada also needs for its World Cup qualifying hopes, it will bow out of the tournament before the semifinal round.

There’s no place for DeAndre Yedlin in the back line, as Tim Ream‘s been chosen to play right back with a center back pairing of John Brooks and Aaron Long. Sergino Dest starts on the right.

The midfield will have Jackson Yueill lying deep, with Weston McKennie and Sebastian Lletget also getting the call.

Gyasi Zardes starts at center forward with Jordan Morris and Paul Arriola on the wings.

EURO qualifying wrap: Sweden joins Finland in qualifying

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Finland and Sweden have qualified for EURO 2020 after posting big wins on Friday, the former doing it at home to relative minnows Liechtenstein while the latter scored an impressive win away to Romania.

[ WATCH: G. Jesus’ comical penalty miss ]


Romania 0-2 Sweden

Marcus Berg and Robin Quaison scored first half goals as Sweden qualified for its sixth-straight EURO. Both are having decent starts to the club season. The veteran Berg has scored five times for Krasnodar, while the 26-year-old Quaison has scored four times for Mainz this season.

Spain 7-0 Malta

The Spanish had seven different goal scorers beginning with Alvaro Morata and Santi Cazorla providing a 2-0 halftime lead. Spain out shot Malta 25-1, with Pau Torres, Pablo Sarabia, Dani Olmo, and Gerard Moreno also scoring for an experimental squad.

And what if we told you Jesus Navas scored? Cause he did.

Denmark 6-0 Gibraltar

Christian Eriksen scored twice in the final five minutes after Robert Skov’s brace came sandwiched around Christian Gytkjaer and Martin Braithwaite goals. The Danes climbed to the top of Group D, one point better than the Swiss and three better than Republic of Ireland (who it meets on the last match day).

Switzerland 1-0 Georgia

Granit Xhaka went 90 minutes and Cedric Itten scored the game’s lone goal as the Swiss joined the Danes in climbing above Republic of Ireland.

Bosnia and Herzegovina 0-3 Italy

The Azzurri were clinical on Friday, with Francesco Acerbi, Lorenzo Insigne, and Andrea Belotti bagging

Elsewhere
Norway 4-0 Faroe Islands
Finland 3-0 Liechtenstein — RECAP
Armenia 0-1 Greece

WATCH: Gabriel Jesus comically misses penalty; Messi pots winner on Argentina return

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As long as Lionel Messi is on the field, Argentina and Brazil is going to be must-watch no matter the location.

Messi converted a rebound of his own won and saved penalty to score his 69th international goal in Argentina’s 1-0 win in a Saudi Arabia-hosted friendly on Friday.

[ MORE: Finland makes history ]

It was Messi’s first match with Argentina since the summer, when he was banned three months for claiming the 2019 Copa America tournament was fixed for hosts Brazil.

Let’s be real, though: You should be here for this terrible penalty miss from Gabriel Jesus.

The Brazilian also won his penalty, but his miss was a dreadful dribble wide of the frame. It clicked three boxes of terrible: no direction, no conviction, no technique.