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Low's new Germany comes at a price


Euro 2016, Group C: Germany vs. Poland again, plus Ukraine, N. Ireland

Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F

Predicted finish:

1. Germany 2. Poland 3. Ukraine 4. Northern Ireland

Germany (SPI odds to win group: 60.8 percent)

Winning back-to-back trophies is the measure of a great team. France followed up the World Cup in 1998 with the European Championship in the Netherlands and Belgium 2000. Can Germany now repeat the feat? Joachim Low has an abundance of talent available to him; a new generation is coming through to suggest the future is very bright for Die Mannschaft. Even so, Low's selection decisions have raised a few eyebrows, particularly the inclusion of Andre Schurrle and Lukas Podolski at the expense of Julian Brandt and Karim Bellarabi. You also feel for Dortmund winger Marco Reus who will miss consecutive major tournaments through injury. Germany topped their group in qualifying. However, they have struggled in recent friendlies. Caution is always advisable before drawing conclusions from games in which coaches experiment and when something is on the line, everybody knows Germany have the extra gears to go through that others don't.

Ukraine (15.2 percent)

If Ukraine catch a member of the elite on a bad day there is a sense that they have the ability to do damage. Few countries are able to count on the attacking width available to Mykhaylo Fomenko. Out on the left, Ukraine boast Yevhen Konoplyanka, a member of Sevilla's Europa League winning squad. Out on the right is Andriy Yarmalenko who inspired Dynamo Kyiv to the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time since 1999 and also scored in both legs in Ukraine's playoff against Slovenia. Taras Stepanenko made of habit of releasing Ukraine's flying wingers in qualifying, while the dynamism in midfield tends to come from Denys Garmash. Other than that, Ukraine are quite limited. The goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov is error prone and the defence is unremarkable. A bust up between Stepanenko and Yarmolenko during a heated clash between Shakhtar and Dynamo Kyiv has also put squad harmony in jeopardy.

Poland (12.2 percent)

Not since Zibi Boniek have Poland had a player who is the envy of all of Europe, but Robert Lewandowski is arguably the best centre-forward in the competition. Comparisons with Marco van Basten for his elegance and technique are by no means sacrilegious. Top scorer throughout all of qualifying, Lewandowski found the net 42 times for Bayern this season in all competitions, while his partner at international level, Arkadiusz Milik, hit 21 in the Eredivisie for Ajax. No attack was as lethal as theirs in qualifying and, as a whole, the team is well-balanced. Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has a mistake in him but can look unbeatable on his day; Kamil Glik is a dependable centre-back and a threat from set-pieces; Kuba Blaszczykowski is spirited and offers great endeavour; while Grzegorz Krychowiak has been the heartbeat of a Sevilla midfield that has won the Europa League three years in a row. Dark horses, Poland could be set for their best major tournament finish since the World Cup in 1982.

Northern Ireland (3.9 percent)

The lowest seeded team ever to win their group, Northern Ireland ended a 30-year wait to appear at the European Championship. Astonishingly, Michael O'Neill's side would have clinched a place in France even under the old 16-team format and have come a long way since losing to Luxembourg in September 2013. Undefeated for more than a year, spirits are high and the dream is to emulate the 1958 and 1982 World Cup sides that got through their groups. To do so would be to upset the odds all over again.

Robert Lewandowski of Poland will know the Germany team well.

Must-see game: Ukraine vs. Poland

This group probably saves the best until last. Co-hosts of the last tournament, Poland and Ukraine, with all due respect to Northern Ireland, are likely to be duking it out for the runners-up spot in this group. Marseille is a great stage for it. The Poles haven't beaten Ukraine since 2000. Back then Andriy Shevchenko managed to put one past Jerzy Dudek. Other than that, however, Dudek kept the great striker at bay, as he would in extra time of the Champions League final in Istanbul five years later. Goals from Emmanuel Olisadebe and Radoslav Kaluzny were the difference for the Poles and secured a 3-1 win.

Best individual battle: Lewandowski vs. Neuer

Friends reunited as opponents. Lewandowski knows everything about Germany and they know everything about him, particularly Neuer and the rest of his Bayern teammates. The sweeper-keeper has been spared facing him in the Bundesliga for a couple of years and perhaps one of the reasons Neuer is world-class is because he gets to practice with a striker like Lewandowski every day. Neuer celebrated as Lewandowski came off the bench and scored five goals in nine minutes against Wolfsburg this season. He will be hoping that Poland's star centre-forward will not be in the same form when they meet again in the group stages. Lewandowski put one past Neuer when Poland and Germany met in Frankfurt in September. Will there be more at the Stade de France on June 16?

Group X Factor: Will Grigg

The Wigan striker has become a cult hero this season, transcending his League One status. Latics fan Sean Kennedy adapted Gala's "Freed from Desire" in honour of the team's 28-goal striker and it has since become a phenomenon. Grigg is on fire and Belarus' defence was terrified as Northern Ireland beat them 3-0 last week. Expect to hear it over the course of the next month in Nice, Lyon and Marseille.

James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.


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