- Group A
- Qualified: 2nd, 14 pts
Albania battled their way to a first ever major tournament in a fraught qualification campaign. They were awarded a 3-0 win following a heated tussle with Serbia, having appealed the original decision to award Serbia a 3-0 win (we know, right?). A drone carrying the Albanian flag sparked fury; home fans invaded the pitch, and the match was abandoned. Serbia were docked three more points for their troubles. A win over Portugal and draws with Denmark were enough to see Albania over the line.
Star man: Lorik Cana. The 32-year-old centre-back is Albania’s most experienced player, and boasts a club career featuring spells with PSG, Marseille, Sunderland, Galatasaray and Lazio. Currently at Nantes, his leadership will be vital in a group featuring hosts France.
How they’ll line up: Albania will try to make themselves tough to beat in a 4-5-1. Basel’s Taulant Xhaka, older brother of Borussia Monchengladbach’s Granit, sits deep in midfield; at right-back, 22-year-old Napoli regular Elseid Hysaj is a solid presence. They’ll likely struggle for goals, though – not one of their three strikers are proven at international level.
Manager: Gianni De Biasi will turn 60 on the day of Albania’s second group match against France. Italian fans will know him as the former manager of Brescia, Torino and Udinese, but he’s only ever gone abroad once – an ill-fated relegation season at Levante in 2007/08. This was his first international job, but he’s been in the hotseat since 2011.
- Group B
- Qualified: 2nd, 21 pts
Making Euro 2016 was a huge achievement for Chris Coleman’s side, who last went to a major tournament in 1958 when they reached the World Cup quarter-finals. They made it to France comfortably, however, finishing second in qualifying behind Belgium after managing four points against the Red Devils and losing only once elsewhere.
Star man: Gareth Bale. All hopes rest on the Real Madrid forward, who plundered seven goals in qualifying – a haul bettered by only five players. Really, he’s the one player at Coleman’s disposal who is proven at making a genuine difference against the world’s best teams.
How they’ll line up: Coleman hasn’t been afraid to tweak his style depending on the opposition. In the recent friendlies against Ukraine and Northern Ireland he played 3-5-2 and 4-5-1 formations respectively, though he probably doesn’t have the centre-backs to try the former when things get real. A flat back four that features Ben Davies, Ashley Williams, James Chester and Chris Gunter seems most likely.
Manager: Swansea native Coleman has succeeded old friend Gary Speed in the best way possible, managing what no other Wales boss has for almost half a decade. His club managerial career may not have always gone as planned, but it seems ‘Cookie’ has finally found his calling card with his home nation. With a new contract finally signed too, his country's future post-Euros is much more certain.
- Group B
- Qualified: 2nd, 22 pts
Drawn alongside England and Wales, Slovakia might be European Championship newbies but they're not devoid of major tournament experience – they qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and contributed to Italy’s group-stage exit by making it through to the last 16. They were strong in Euro 2016 qualifying, meanwhile, finishing behind Spain but beating them 2-1 in Zilina.
Star man: Marek Hamsik. The razor-haired Napoli man is still Slovakia’s driving force in midfield, their go-to player in possession and creative inspiration. He still holds the armband for his club in Serie A, even if he’s behind Martin Skrtel in his country’s pecking order, and will be expected to lead by example in France.
How they’ll line up: 4-2-3-1 is the way for Slovakia, which means an attempt to shore things up and control where possible. It hasn’t nullified their goal threat of late, mind – they’ve hit 12 in their last five internationals, with left winger Robert Mak (PAOK) and forward Michal Duris (Viktoria Plzen) catching the eye at the sharp end. Everything revolves around Hamsik, though.
Manager: Rent-a-quote former Czechoslovakia international and 1981 Czechoslovak Football of the Year Jan Kozak has manned the reins since 2013, and completed the first job he’s been tasked with by qualifying. He’s already cracked out the fighting talk, declaring his team will be “very hard to beat” and having a wee pop at final group opponents England. “There is a difference between the championship and qualifying,” Kozak mused.
- Group C
- Qualified: 1st, 21 pts
Northern Ireland continue to defy expectations under Michael O’Neill, who masterminded his nation’s qualifying group win ahead of Romania, Greece and Hungary with a frankly limited talent pool. They’ve continued their momentum leading up to Euro 2016 too, and, going into their final two pre-tournament friendlies, are a record 10 matches unbeaten. The signs look good for them to score their first major tournament goal since Colin Clarke netted against Spain at Mexico 86.
Star man: Steven Davis. The skipper has enjoyed a solid season at Southampton, and will doubtlessly be looked to as a calming influence in what is a tough-looking – if not impossible – group for Northern Ireland. Germany, Poland and Ukraine await in Group C, and the Green and Whites need their second-most capped player in the squad (behind ex-Newcastle man Aaron Hughes – yes, he's still going) to show his experience.
How they’ll line up: O’Neill rolled out a 3-5-2 in the friendlies against Wales and Slovenia, capitalising on the three Premier League-standard centre-backs at his disposal in Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart. That means emphasis on his wing-backs, however, which will sincerely test the likes of Fleetwood’s Conor McLaughlin and Leeds man Stuart Dallas. Manchester United’s Paddy McNair is used in central midfield, rather than the defensive spot he sporadically occupies at Old Trafford.
Manager: O’Neill, the former Northern Ireland international who won 31 caps during his playing days, was rewarded for his sterling work with a new four-year contract in mid-March. This is easily the pinnacle of the 46-year-old’s career to date, following low-key spells in charge of Brechin and Shamrock Rovers – and nobody is begrudging him it. “When we go out there we've got a plan, we believe in that plan and we carry it out,” said stopper McAuley. “It's working so far and long may it continue. What Michael does away from when we're with him is incredible.”
- Group F
- Qualified: 2nd, 20 pts
Everybody’s new second-favourite football nation (well, first if you’re Icelandic) were willed on to Euro 2016 – their first ever major tournament – by a neutral support that appreciate the rise of a country ranked 131 by FIFA four years ago. Iceland only just missed out on making the 2010 World Cup in a play-off, but battled through a nasty qualifying group by beating the Czech Republic and Turkey on home soil, plus the poor old Netherlands twice. Not bad with a population smaller than Leicester’s.
Star man: Gylfi Sigurdsson. Unquestionably the figurehead of this spirited side, the Swansea string-puller grabbed six goals in qualifying, including all three in the two wins over Holland. Things have been going well for him at club level too, with a first double-figure Premier League goal return in the bag.
How they’ll line up: It’s a 4-4-2 diamond for the Nordic nation, with a strong array of strikers to choose from. Take your pick from Nantes’ Kolbeinn Sigthórsson, whose international record is excellent, plus Augsburg hitman Alfred Finnbogason, Kaiserslautern’s Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Malmo’s Vidar Orn Kjartansson, and, of course, the evergreen Eidur Gudjohnsen – still going great guns at Molde aged 37.
Manager: The mercurial Lars Lagerback is a stalwart of international management, having bossed Sweden from 2000-09, Nigeria at a World Cup and Iceland since October 2011. Iceland finished second-bottom of their Euro 2012 qualifying group with only four points from eight games, but the transformation under Lagerback has been nothing short of miraculous ever since. “I wouldn’t say that I’m a hero,” he said after 2016 qualification. “Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and people like that are real heroes.” The Icelandic people will beg to differ.