2016 NFL season preview

2016 NFL season preview

 

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The 2016 NFL campaign kicks off in the early hours of Friday as American Football fans gear up for another bone-crunching season.

All 32 teams will be aiming to make it to Superbowl LI in Houston on February 7th, with Denver Broncos looking to retain their crown.

Popularity of the sport has grown massively in the UK and British fans have been rewarded with three international series matches to be held in London – two at Wembley and one at Twickenham.

The NFL will also break new ground by holding the first-ever Monday Night Football (MNF) game outside of the US when Houston Texans take on Oakland Raiders in Mexico City during Week 11.

So, whether you’ve been following NFL for years, are a rookie or only just realising what a great sport American Football is, let’s run through the basics.

How the game works

Each team has an offensive and defensive unit. The defence will aim to sack, or tackle, the quarterback of the opposition or intercept his pass.

Teams in offensive plays are given a 10-yard target and must cross that 10-yard line in four plays or less, eventually working their way down to the end zone where they can score a touchdown, earning six points.

Kickers can then add an extra point to the score with a conversion, or instead may opt for a two-point conversion where they must run the ball over the line in the same manner as a touchdown.

The two-point tactic is often used if the scores are tied or to put the defending team eight points behind with little time remaining.

Field goals, worth three points, are often used at the fourth play, or fourth down, when scoring a touchdown is deemed unlikely.

NFL matches are split into 15-minute quarters and if there is a tie at the end of an hour’s play the match goes into overtime.

Overtime can be ended immediately if a touchdown is scored in the first possession, but if not it can only be ended by an unanswered score.

How the conferences work

The 32 franchises are split evenly into two conferences – the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC).

Each team plays 16 games over the 17-week regular season, which includes a bye weekend for each franchise.

At the end of the regular season, the top teams in each of the eight divisions – North, South, East and West in the AFC and NFC, qualify for the play-offs alongside the two next best in each conference.

In a knockout format the teams contest each round until they reach the conference final. The winners of the AFC and NFC conference finals go through to the Superbowl.

Off-season player moves and contracts

Superbowl 50 Most Valuable Player (MVP) Von Miller was rewarded for his display against the Carolina Panthers with a six-year $114.5m contract, remaining at the Denver Broncos.

The money for his deal was freed up by the retirement of legendary quarterback Peyton Manning, who was earning $21.5m per year.

Denver also lost another high-profile quarterback as Brock Osweiler rejected a $64m contract in favour of joining Houston Texans on a four-year $72m contract, with a guaranteed $37m in the first two years.

Those figures are eclipsed by the renewal of quarterback Andrew Luck’s contract at Indianapolis Colts, where he will earn a record $140m over six seasons.

Luck enjoyed a stellar 2014 season with 40 touchdown passes but his 2015 form, where he threw 12 interceptions against just 15 touchdowns, was not enough to deter Colts owner John Irsay from offering the deal.

Who are the favourites?

It’s nearly impossible to predict the winner of the Superbowl in five months’ time and the bookermakers are finding it equally hard to do so.

There is little to choose between the Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers with the majority of bookies offering 8/1 for each franchise.

Fan favourites the Pittsburgh Steelers are placed at 11/1 while Kansas City Chiefs have assembled their most talented roster in recent years and are rated at 22/1 as dark horses.

Reigning NFL champions Denver Broncos cannot be written off either and are also placed at a tantalising 22/1 to retain their crown.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 or WordPress: neilwalton089
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2016 Vuelta a Espana preview

The 2016 Vuelta a Espana rolls off on Saturday with three giants of cycling waiting to battle it out for the final Grand Tour of the year.

Tour de France winner Chris Froome, fresh from competing at the 2016 Olympics, will contend with Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana for the Vuelta, both of whom missed Rio to concentrate on the red jersey.

On paper, Contador and Quintana look like the favourites, but who else can challenge this illustrious trio?

The contenders

Froome may be the 2016 Tour champion but his exploits in Rio will have taken plenty from his tank. Finishing 12th in the road race, he then won bronze in the time trial when admitting he had nothing left in his legs.

His powers of recovery will be severely tested on another brutal Vuelta parcours that includes ten new summit finishes.

On past precedents, riders such as Froome with a busy schedule in the lead-up to La Vuelta often do not fare well, and this plays into the hands of three-time winner Contador and Quintana who are both fresh.

Contador’s crash and illness at the Tour forced an early abandonment and he has since had the time to rest and prepare himself for a tilt at a fourth Vuelta title.

Quintana, meanwhile, suffered with a mystery virus during the Tour but recovered to finish on the podium in third.

The Colombian has been unlucky in this race before, having crashed in a time trial when well-placed to win in 2014, and crashing again in the next stage.

Movistar have named Alejandro Valverde as their leader but it is unlikely he will be able to challenge Contador and Quintana is waiting in the wings should he falter early on.

Esteban Chaves is another Colombian looking for Vuelta glory and, after a second-place finish to Vincenzo Nibali in the 2016 Giro, he has geared his season around a Giro/Vuelta run.

Chaves claimed fifth in the 2015 Vuelta in his breakthrough season and it is clearly a race that suits the smiling Orica BikeExhange rider.

Outside challengers include Steven Kruijswijk, who crashed late in the Giro when in the maglia rosa, and Andrew Talansky, who has solely focused on the Vuelta this year.

The other jerseys

The green points jersey is likely to be taken by a pure climber, such is way the Vuelta weights the points on each stage.

This structure has been labelled unfair by several of the world’s top sprinters in recent seasons and consequently there are no notable fast men other than Movistar rider Jose Joaquin Rojas at the Vuelta this season.

Instead, with the mountainous terrain on offer the Vuelta has attracted several of the world’s top puncheurs who may fight it out for the white combined jersey and the blue polka dot king of the mountains jersey in addition to the green.

Puncheurs, or one-day classic specialists, favour short sharp bursts up hills and with the likes of Philippe Gilbert, Niki Terpstra, Simon Gerrans and Zdenek Stybar on show, cycling fans will have plenty to enjoy over the three weeks.

The stages

La Vuelta organisers Unipublic have been sensible this year, with the race mainly based in the mountains of northern Spain and few lengthy transfers between stages.

There are some stonking summit finishes on show, including stage three’s arrival at the Mirador de Izaro, which features an incline of a whopping 29%, a gradient which saw riders climb off and walk in the 2013 Vuelta.

Stage eight sees the riders take on La Camponera, which elevates to 24% in places, while the run in to the stage 17 summit finish takes place on the Mas de la Costa, which averages 15% for 4km and tops out at 22%.

The toughest stage looks set to be the fourteenth, with three category one climbs and the summit finish atop the ‘especial’ category Col d’Aubisque.

There are five official flat stages, while the race kicks off with a team time trial and features a pivotal individual time trial on stage 19.

The Brits

There are a good selection of Brits in the 2016 Vuelta. Chris Froome is the headline act and he is joined on the Team Sky roster by Peter Kennaugh, who surrendered his Rio road race spot to the in-form Steve Cummings.

Simon Yates also enters his first Grand Tour since a ban for a failed drug test – something his team take responsibility for regarding their failure to notify the UCI of his asthma medication.

Yates will have his work cut out to emulate brother Adam, who finished an astonishing fourth in the Tour de France in July.

Young Brits Hugh Carthy (Caja Rural) and Scott Thwaites (Bora Argon-18) both make their Grand Tour debuts to bring the total number of British riders present at the Vuelta to five.

So, that leaves nothing else to do other than kick back with a large glass of Rioja and watch the riders slog it out in 40C heat, go head-to-head in the high mountains and fight for the final Grand Tour of the season.

There is also the chance for an unheralded sprinter to make a name for themselves and watch out for those pesky Brits – Froome, Carthy and Yates could all feature in the top ten on the General Classification if it goes to plan.

But, with Contador, Quintana and Froome all lighting up the front of the race it’s going to be a treat, and my money is on Quintana to emerge victorious.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089

2016/17 Premier League Preview

The 2016/17 Premier League season has quietly crept up on us just 88 days after Leicester City shocked the world with their astounding title win.

Leicester were priced at 5000/1 at the beginning of last season, but there is no repeat this time around as bookmakers are offering 33/1 to defend their title at the time of writing.

Despite losing N’Golo Kante to Chelsea, The Foxes have kept the core of their league-winning squad together, with top scorer Jamie Vardy signing a new contract.

They have also been boosted by the signings of pacy striker Ahmed Musa and Nampalys Mendy, who is seen as a direct replacement for Kante in midfield.

Whether Leicester can retain their crown remains to be seen, especially with Champions League commitments providing a distraction from their domestic exploits.

If there is one lesson we can learn from last season it’s not to write Claudio Ranieri’s side off.

Elsewhere, the two Manchester clubs look set to slug it out for the spoils with Arsenal and Chelsea.

New Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has signed an impressive array of young talent including £47.5m John Stones, and City will start the campaign as favourites.

Guardiola, the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss, has left a glittering trail of trophies behind wherever he has worked and will be aiming to crown his first year in charge at the Etihad with the league title.

Arch rival Jose Mourinho has also made some big signings at Manchester United, breaking the world record transfer fee for Paul Pogba (£89m), while Zlatan Ibrahimovic (free), Henrikh Mkhitaryan (£26.3m) and Eric Bailly (£30m) are the other notable acquisitions.

Arsenal have been much quieter, signing only defenders Rob Holding and striker Takuma Asano. With manager Arsene Wenger again reluctant to strengthen his squad, it falls upon his talented team to take a step up in form – however previous seasons suggest it may be too great an ask.

Tottenham have again been quiet in the transfer market after their young side fell at the final hurdle last term.

Mauricio Pochettino has signed midfielder Victor Wanyama (£11m) from former club Southampton and Ajax striker Vincent Janssen (£17m) to give Harry Kane some competition up front.

Chelsea will be aiming for a much better season under new boss Antonio Conte, and the wily Italian will only have the domestic campaign to concentrate on after the London club failed to qualify for European competition.

Michy Batshuayi (£33m) and Kante (£30m) are the club’s big signings and, with Eden Hazard looking best to his best at the Euros, Conte will have plenty to work with as The Blues target a top four place.

Liverpool are outside bets, with boss Jurgen Klopp signing unheralded goalkeeper Loris Karius and centre-back Ragnar Klavan from the German Bundesliga, along with highly-rated defender Joel Matip.

Forwards Sadio Mane (£30m) and Georginio Wijnaldum (£23m) are the biggest deals for the Anfield club so far.

Relegation-wise, the likes of Burnley and Hull appear to be struggling.

Hull have yet to appoint a permanent manager after Steve Bruce’s departure and have made very few signings of note, bringing in only Jonathan Edwards (free) from Peterborough United.

Hull’s squad is dominated by Premier League has-beens such as Jake Livermore, Tom Huddlestone, Michael Dawson and Shaun Maloney.

Burnley will be motivated by the positivity of manager Sean Dyche, but their squad also looks bare and consists of the majority of players relegated from the Premier League

The Clarets will be heavily reliant on the goals of Andre Gray and Sam Vokes, but their defence might not be up to the task – which should prove to be their downfall.

Other than that duo, West Brom have had a tough summer and although they will enjoy a fresh injection of cash from new owner Guochuan Lai their aging squad looks vulnerable this season.

If striker Saido Berahino ends up leaving The Hawthorns this summer The Baggies will seriously struggle for goals.

Boss Tony Pulis loves a challenge and it may be one of the greatest achievements of his managerial career if he keeps Albion up.

Here are my predictions for the 2016/17 season:

  1. Manchester City
  2. Chelsea
  3. Manchester United
  4. Arsenal
  5. Tottenham
  6. Liverpool
  7. West Ham
  8. Leicester City
  9. Southampton
  10. Everton
  11. Stoke
  12. Crystal Palace
  13. Swansea
  14. Middlesbrough
  15. Watford
  16. Sunderland
  17. Bournemouth
  18. West Brom
  19. Burnley
  20. Hull

 

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 or WordPress: neilwalton089

2016 Tour de France preview – Third time lucky for Quintana?

The 2016 Tour de France rolls off today as the 198 riders begin their 3,535km dash around France with a poignant first stage that finishes in Utah Beach to commemorate the D-Day landings of World War Two.

The battle for the first yellow jersey is likely to be between Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel and Mark Cavendish, but it is the fight to wear the maillot jaune in Paris on July 24 that is the most appealing.

This Tour looks set to be a tense shake-up between reigning Tour champion Chris Froome and in-form Colombian climber Nairo Quintana.

The contenders

The past few editions of ‘le Tour’ have been ideal for Froome. His Tour victories of 2013 and 2015 combined just the right amount of time-trialling and high mountain passes, although Quintana very nearly snatched victory last season with an astounding attack on the famous Alpe d’Huez.

This year, Quintana will be licking his lips with a more mountainous route and two climber-centric time trials providing plenty of opportunity to put time into his rivals.

Quintana has finished second to Froome in each of the British rider’s wins but this year he looks the stronger of the two.

The Movistar rider has won three stage races this season already, triumphing in the Route du Sud, Tour de Romandie and the Volta a Catalunya.

Meanwhile, Froome is peaking at just the right time as he looks to win a third Tour and maintain his form for a tilt at the gold medal in the Olympic road race at Rio 2016.

The Kenya-born Brit took victory in the most prestigious warm-up for the Tour de France, the Criterium du Dauphine.

While the clash between Froome and Quintana will dominate the headlines, those writing off two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador do so at their peril.

The Spaniard has quietly gone about his business this season with the goal of timing his form for the Tour, and with his explosive climbing style and unparalleled ability in uphill time-trials he will undoubtedly be on Froome and Quintana’s watchlist.

There is also an intriguing dynamic at Astana where 2016 Giro d’Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali will be riding in support of 2015 Vuelta a Espana victor Fabio Aru.

The Italians are known to dislike one another but they will be forced to help each other as Astana look to pull a tactical blindfold over their rivals.

Nibali will be gunning for a fast start and if he gets an early lead it will afford Astana the luxury of masking which rider is their preferred leader – giving their rivals two riders to mark instead of one.

Best of the rest

There is no doubting Richie Porte’s quality, but he has a worrying tendency to blow up in the latter stages of a Grand Tour.

He has consistently underperformed on the biggest stage and his exit from Team Sky was an understandable decision given he had been Froome’s wingman and deputy and simply failed to deliver.

The situation at his new team, BMC, is similar to that of Astana’s, as American rider Tejay van Garderen is also in contention for the yellow jersey.

The lanky time-trial specialist comes to the 2016 Tour with unfinished business as illness in last season’s edition cruelly robbed him of a podium spot as he was forced to abandon the race from third place on stage 17.

BMC can afford to place Porte as their leader and, if he’s strong enough, he will most likely keep that status to the end of the race. If he does run out of legs in the third week, van Garderen will naturally be high in the General Classification and the team can then support him instead.

There is also a strong feeling in France that Thibault Pinot or Romain Bardet could have a Tour to remember. Bardet in particular has been in excellent form this season and his demon descending abilities could be a factor on some hairy descents lined up for this Tour.

Pinot has long struggled with time-trialling and descending but the uphill stages against the clock will be more to his liking and he will always be a threat on the major mountain stages.

The other jerseys

Sadly, if Peter Sagan doesn’t win the green jersey it will only be through an accident. The world champion is supreme at picking up intermediate sprint points on hilly stages and he has won the last four green jerseys.

The sprinters will take the majority of the flat stage wins, with Sagan usually in the top five, but the Slovakian’s ability to survive in breakaways and win uphill sprints makes him the overwhelming favourite to take five in a row.

Marcel Kittel is tipped to win the most stages this year, but he will be challenged by fellow German Andre Greipel and British rider Mark Cavendish.

Kittel has been in scintillating form during 2016, often winning stages by several bike lengths and, if his Etixx Quick-Step team can provide a good lead-out train, he will again be untouchable.

The King of the Mountains classification is likely to be won by a GC contender, just as Froome did last year.

Failing that, a rider who is consistently in the breakaways can mop up points for being the first man over the summit. However, with the majority of points weighted for summit finishes, a pure climber is more likely to win the polka dot jersey.

The white jersey, given to the highest-placed rider under 25, is the most open for years after Quintana recently turned 26, but expect the winner to come from this trio of Warren Barguil, British rider Adam Yates or Louis Meintjes.

The stages

The 2016 Tour is full of mountains and consequently the warm-up races have been too, most noticeably with a focus on uphill time-trials.

Stage 12 stands out as the best stage in the race as the riders ascend the legendary Mont Ventoux on Bastille Day.

Froome has also earmarked this as the most attractive stage and given he beat Quintana convincingly on Ventoux in 2013 he will fancy his chances once more.

The back end of the Tour is usually slanted upwards and this edition is no different. Stages 17, 18, 19 and 20 are Alpine monsters, traversing Switzerland and then back into France.

With 54km of time-trialling to be done, including one uphill and the other with two tricky climbs, time gaps will quickly appear in the GC race.

The Brits

There is a ‘magnificent seven’ of British riders in this year’s Tour. Team Sky boast four of those with Froome, Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe.

Team Dimension Data have two in the shape of Mark Cavendish and Steven Cummings, while the relatively unknown sprinter Daniel McLay makes his Tour debut for the Fortuneo-Vital Concept squad.

Denouement

As always there is plenty to look out for in the Tour this year. There are races within the race, races within each classification and there will be plenty of cat and mouse too.

It will be hard to take your eyes off the GC battle though. Froome, Quintana and Contador will be cutting shapes on some brutal mountain passes and it could come down to who handles the time-trials better than the others.

But there is a lingering feeling when looking over the parcours that this could well be Nairo Quintana’s year. On the Alpe d’Huez last season he will have sensed a weakness in Froome and the Colombian’s sparkling form this season gives him his best shot yet at climbing into yellow.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089

Euro 2016 blog 3 – Miserable England dumped out of Euro 2016

It was one of those nights that had an air of inevitability about it.

England, faced with a 1-0 goal lead against supposedly inferior Icelandic opposition, conceded two quick goals, each as woeful as the other, and then proceeded to lumber to defeat.

This was Hollywood lumbering. The supposed megastars of the English game. Players currently commanding multi-million pound wages were lumbering around the field like brain-dead zombies in pursuit of an impossible equaliser.

For the magnificent Iceland, it was their easiest game of the tournament so far. Having taken the lead they could afford to play to their strengths – defend in numbers and then break on the counter-attack.

The tactics worked perfectly because England failed to prepare for them.

Iceland had utilised the booming long throws of Cardiff City midfielder Aron Gunnarsson throughout the whole tournament, but England were hopelessly inept in conceding the equaliser.

It was no surprise to see Kari Arnason’s flicked header from the edge of the area land in Ragnar Sigurdsson’s path. The Iceland centre-back, who had a towering game, lashed home the volley in a sea of space to cancel out Wayne Rooney’s fourth-minute penalty.

What followed was equally predictable.

Putting together one of the moves of the match, Iceland swept upfield with ease, shifting the ball to target man Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, whose shot squirmed underneath Joe Hart’s pitiful dive.

Hart’s second grave error of the tournament – and second when diving low to his left – cast England into the land of the living dead.

Suddenly, players who had had magnificent seasons in the Premier League caved under the pressure.

The tension was palpable even before the match began. Joe Hart in particularly was too tense – nervous, even – shaking his head as if to rid himself of the strain.

As Ian Wright remarked after the match, England “were petrified.”

Wayne Rooney was dreadful. Gary Cahill was worse. Harry Kane was shocking. Manager Roy Hodgson resigned after the match.

Kane’s presence over free-kicks and corners was torturous. It was as if he tried to copy Gareth Bale, scored a worldy in training and was suddenly England’s best free-kick taker. He failed horribly.

His demise to the land of the dead, where his touch against Iceland was heavier than that of a zombie, was the scariest to watch.

Free-kick after free-kick. Shot after shot. Each clubbed wildly shy of the target with increasing desperation.

It was a disease that spread through the England side as the game wore on. To a man, their first touch was awful, with players letting the ball roll under their foot and technique malfunctioning.

There was no pressing of the opposition, no desire and no quality.

Too many times England were hesitant going forward. There was a suffocating tendency to pass the ball sideways. There was barely any creativity and only lethargic movement off the ball.

Substitute Marcus Rashford was the brightest spark, at least showing a willingness and ability to beat defenders and inject some life into a motionless attack.

Take nothing away from Iceland though. It is insignificant that they have a population of just over 300,000. What mattered was their commitment to the cause, their execution of a gameplan and tactics, plus their desire to put their bodies on the line.

Their fans were astounding. The cavernous ‘Viking chant’ even intimidated those watching on television. They supported their team in unison with passion, deafening noise and zero violence. They were a lesson to the footballing world.

On the pitch, the players followed suit.

Ragnar Sigurdsson delivered a man-of-the-match display in defence. Birkir Bjarnason menaced England on the counter and Ari Skulason completely shut down the pace of Kyle Walker.

Their display fully merited the win and a quarter-final match against hosts France, and who would bet against them defeating another under-fire team?

But for England this was a truly horrific match.

They haven’t learned from previous mistakes and have a nightmare record in knockout football.

They are paralysed by fear when the going gets tough, crippled by pressure and expectation.

Their gruesome fate was inevitable as soon as the 18th minute. They were dead and buried. The referee should have blown for full-time there and then – a kind of footballing euthanasia.

But unusually for these zombies they will get another chance in the land of the living. They will be praised again and all will be well…until the next major tournament comes along.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089

Euro 2016: Can France win at home again?

 

It’s been 18 years since France last hosted a major tournament and expectation levels will be just as high this time round.

In 1998, France stuffed a dismal Brazil 3-0 in the World Cup final and they enter Euro 2016 not only as hosts but as favourites too.

Most bookmakers have them priced at 3/1 about the win, with Germany (9/2), Spain (5/1) and England (9/1) as alternatives.

The French certainly have a heap of pressure on them – not least because they lack a star striker after Karim Benzema’s suspension from the national team.

Olivier Giroud is the obvious candidate to fill the void left by Benzema, with the Arsenal striker’s goalscoring record of 17 in 49 games bettering Benzema’s 27 in 81 in percentage terms.

Giroud still has his critics and although he lacks star quality he is often underestimated in terms of pure goalscoring ability and will certainly score his fair share this summer.

Antoine Griezmann has also emerged as a world-class forward option for France and is capable of playing on either wing or in behind the striker where he has been so effective for Atletico Madrid.

But Les Bleus’ midfield really catches the eye.

Premier League duo N’Golo Kante and Dimitri Payet have each staked a claim for a starting place in the tournament opener against Romania on June 10, but France boss Didier Deschamps will most likely call upon stars Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi to dominate the midfield battle.

However, the French defence looks a little suspect with five of the selected eight defenders over the age of 30 and with no stand-out leader amongst them.

The back-line also lacks pace with only Lucas Digne and Bacary Sagna quick enough to resist Europe’s slickest wingers.

Les Bleus will therefore count on captain Hugo Lloris to be in top form during the tournament after his excellent season with Premier League side Spurs.

Lloris has established himself as one of the most coveted goalkeepers in Europe and will be a formidable presence between the sticks as France look to emulate their success of 1984 in winning their home European Championships.

Standing in their way will be Germany, who look a good price to secure their second successive major tournament win off the back of their World Cup triumph in Brazil two years ago.

Given their wealth of creative options in midfield and up front, the Germans seem to have been underestimated and will feel aggrieved not to be seen as the favourites heading into the tournament.

Like the French, their main weakness lies in defence after a raft of retirements following the World Cup.

Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng will form a strong central defensive partnership but there is little to shout about in the full-back positions and it is in those areas where their opponents will hope to make inroads.

Spain have undoubtedly the strongest defence in the championship with a back line of Jordi Alba, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Juanfran.

If coach Vicente del Bosque can withdraw his blind preference for goalkeeper Iker Casillas and choose David de Gea instead, Spain will have a monstrous back five.

The main problem for Spain is their lack of strikers.

Chelsea hitman Diego Costa has been unconvincing at international level and does not travel to France, leaving Spain’s main striking options as Alvaro Morata, Aritz Aduriz and Pedro.

Much will hinge on the power of their midfield in the defence of their title, with Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and David Silva all likely to start and the industry of Koke a helpful balance to an attack-minded engine room.

Then there is England, a definite outside shot but a team unlikely to make it past the semi-finals.

They have one of the youngest squads on show in France but their defence, like so many others, is a telling flaw and one which is likely to be exploited in ruthless fashion.

The promise of attacking trio Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Dele Alli is something to savour for England boss Roy Hodgson but his main dilemma is accommodating captain Wayne Rooney in the same team.

The most sensible option is to play him in deep midfield and give him a controlling influence on the game, but Hodgson is still keen to play him in a number ten role which harms the effectiveness of Alli.

Still, this is England’s most exciting team for some time and they will be aiming to right the wrongs of the World Cup.

But, for the overall win it is hard to pick France in favour of Germany. The German midfield has an embarrassment of riches and despite their defensive frailties they will be devastating going forward – just too good for the competition.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089

Euro debate: Rooney in, or Rooney out?

Aside from the EU referendum, the next biggest debate about Europe surrounds the final 23-man England squad for the upcoming European Championship in France.

England boss Roy Hodgson has a tough job on his hands, with much discussion circling around players such as Wayne Rooney, Marcus Rashford and Andros Townsend.

On Rooney, the Vote Leave campaign will argue that he has been nowhere near his best this season.

His tally of eight goals and seven assists in the Premier League last season is mediocre by his standards.

But the Remain campaign would retort that he has had a couple of injuries and has been involved in a goal once every two games.

There is also the fact that Rooney is coming into form at the end of the season after a man-of-the-match performance in Manchester United’s FA Cup final win over Crystal Palace and a superb 20-yard strike against Australia in England’s penultimate Euro warm-up match.

Rooney himself has admitted he sees his future in a deeper position for club and country and there is definitely room to accommodate him at the base of Hodgson’s preferred midfield diamond in France.

Hodgson is keen to use Jack Wilshere in that position but he is desperately short of game time and looked off-form in England’s two warm-up games to date.

Using Rooney in that position would allow him to fulfil a role similar to that of Toni Kroos, who uses his fine array of passes to dictate play deep in the German midfield.

Rooney’s skill set is comparable to Kroos’ and his ability to spray long, diagonal balls in the mould of Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes and Kroos certainly adds weight to his midfield argument.

Of course, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy deserve to start up front against Russia in the first match of the Euros.

The strike pair notched 49 league goals between them last season and it is Kane’s relationship with Dele Alli, who is expected to start just behind them in the number ten position, that Hodgson is eager to preserve.

Therefore, deciding to play Rooney in midfield allows Hodgson to keep England’s captain and record goalscorer in the team, while conserving the exciting forward trio that England have developed since the 2014 World Cup.

So which three players should Hodgson drop from the squad?

Unfortunately for Hodgson some hypocrisy is creeping into his squad selection.

He has always indicated he would pick players on form – his inclusion of Marcus Rashford at least demonstrates his loyalty to form players.

However, there is a glaring exception to his rule in the form of Adam Lallana.

Liverpool’s creative midfielder has been anything but this season, scoring just four goals and assisting six more in 30 league games – even James Milner has more this term.

Lallana has endured an inconsistent season in Jürgen Klopp’s team and his England record is dreadful for a player of his technical ability.

In 22 games for the national side he has scored none and assisted just twice.

Hodgson may be persisting with Lallana because of his ability to play in a number of positions but the statistics don’t lie and they show Lallana to be ineffective at the top level, meaning he should not travel to France this summer.

Despite having a breakthrough season for champions Leicester City, Danny Drinkwater should also miss the Euros.

Hodgson is blessed with several options in midfield and has Jordan Henderson fit again, Eric Dier capable of playing in front of the back four, Jack Wilshere his number one choice, James Milner as a utility player and Wayne Rooney also as a classy alternative.

Drinkwater has quietly gone about his business in the warm-up games but has not done enough to suggest he is worthy of a place over the established midfielders in the squad.

The final player to miss out looks set to be Andros Townsend.

Hodgson is faced with a tough call between Townsend, Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling, but it is the out-and-out winger who is struggling when pitted against the others.

Barkley has always been a regular in Hodgson’s plans, while Sterling’s versatility up front leaves Townsend looking vulnerable to the chop from England’s final squad.

Townsend has had a great finish to the season with relegated Newcastle, but it is too little too late and he will be left to rue a difficult time at Spurs where chances for him were limited.

However, the likes of Barkley and Sterling have flattered to deceive at international level and the pair will undoubtedly be looking over their shoulders until the announcement is made.

It would be hard to see Hodgson dropping Daniel Sturridge if he is fit, while Rashford deserves the opportunity to travel on form and given he is at times used as a makeshift winger.

As a result, Townsend can count himself unlucky to miss out should he be omitted from the final 23.

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