Ronaldo, Bale, Pogba and Kane among 10 key players to watch at Euro 2016
International tournaments usually bring out the best from the world's true superstars. The European Championship is the stage where Zinedine Zidane, Xavi Hernandez and Andrea Pirlo proved their brilliance. Here are 10 others who could follow in their footsteps, and showcase their quality in front of the world.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
The best player at Euro 2016 is now 31, and this could be his final major international tournament at his best. Whether he'll be in peak physical condition, however, remains to be seen. Clearly below-par in the Champions League final, despite scoring the winning penalty in the shootout, Cristiano Ronaldo hasn't had much proper preparation with the rest of the Portugal side either, having spent a few days relaxing on a boat.
But then, Ronaldo essentially plays outside the rest of Portugal's system, given freedom from responsibilities without the ball, and license to move around into attacking positions as he pleases. Portugal look set to play a 4-4-2 system with Ronaldo and Nani as the front two: Both are natural wingers, so unpredictable movement is the order of the day. Ronaldo is capable of winning matches on his own, and he'll probably need to if Portugal are to reach the semifinals.
Paul Pogba, France
Having played his entire professional career away from his home country, Paul Pogba still needs to win over the French public. But this is a Parisian with the opportunity to lift the Henri Delaunay trophy in the Stade de France, and Pogba could emulate Michel Platini and Zidane by becoming France's star on home soil.
A complete midfielder capable of aggressive ball-winning, outrageous assists and powerful long-range strikes, Pogba is also physically commanding, capable of a trick to evade opposition attention, and boasts limitless energy too. Likely to play in a right-centre midfield role, storming forward to feed off Olivier Giroud's knock-downs, Pogba should seek to dominate games, and provide decisive moments too.
Andres Iniesta, Spain
Andres Iniesta is the outstanding tournament player of his generation. He was voted into the Team of the Tournament at Euro 2008, scored the World Cup-winning goal in 2010 and then was awarded Player of the Tournament at Euro 2012. The World Cup two years ago was a disappointment, but Iniesta clearly possesses a Zidane-esque ability to turn it on when it really matters.
Iniesta has played the majority of those tournaments out of position, usually fielded on the left. Sometimes he hasn't been supported enough in attack, either -- those famous photos of Iniesta taking on multiple opponents four years ago depicted a Spain side not throwing enough players into attack. But now, in his Barcelona role and surrounded by more dynamic midfielders than Spain are accustomed to, Iniesta will be the playmaker pulling the strings, executing the pass before the decisive ball, and seeking to prove there's life for Spain in the post-Xavi era.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden
Speculation surrounds the Swede ahead of his next move -- Manchester United appears the most likely destination -- but it's international football where Zlatan Ibrahimovic has unfinished business, never progressing past the quarterfinal stage at a World Cup or European Championship. In truth, it will be a huge challenge for Sweden to reach that round again here.
Ibrahimovic, of course, is capable of magical moments, perhaps more so than anyone else in the competition. But playing in a side that lacks commanding midfielders and unlikely to dominate possession or create chances, Ibrahimovic will drop into deep positions, more as a No. 10 than a No. 9, in order to dictate play. It remains to be seen whether he can combine this role with his usual brilliance in the opposition box -- but if anyone can, Ibrahimovic can.
Thomas Muller, Germany
One of the most reliable goal scorers in the competition, the fact Thomas Muller prefers playing from the right, and has generally performed best there for Germany, throws something of a spanner in the works for Joachim Low. Lacking a reliable centre-forward, it would have been useful if Muller had emerged as the obvious replacement for Miroslav Klose as Germany's No. 9.
Instead, Muller will drift into centre-forward positions from wide areas, showcasing that peculiar ability to find pockets of space, and react before anyone else when the ball spins loose in the penalty box. Intelligent in terms of movement, powerful in the air and capable of finishing with either foot, Muller will be crucial for Germany. They will unquestionably dominate matches, and Muller is the man to convert that dominance into goals.
Harry Kane, England
Some believed Harry Kane was a one-season wonder, but a second consecutive 20-goal season with Tottenham Hotspur answered those doubts emphatically. Roy Hodgson doesn't seem to know his best system, or his best starting XI, but Kane appears undroppable as England's first-choice No. 9.
A mixture of a goal-poacher and a link forward, Kane's greatest asset is that unmeasurable, intangible ability to pop up in the right place at the right time. His finishing is cool, calm and confident, and his first touch is outstanding, often giving him the opportunity to finish smartly with a second touch in a tight, congested situations. It remains to be seen precisely how England will seek to supply him with service, but with Hodgson set to deploy multiple attacking weapons, Kane might find extra space, and punish opponents.
Leonardo Bonucci, Italy
Usually Italy can depend upon a clinical striker, a creative No. 10 or a commanding central midfield passer. Not this time around. In a squad desperately short of attacking quality, Italy's best distributor will be their deepest outfield player: Centre-back Leonardo Bonucci.
In the absence of midfielder Marco Verratti, Bonucci is the closest thing Italy have to a Pirlo. He might play in a completely different position, but he's capable of playing huge, expansive diagonal passes towards the flanks, prompting quick counter-attacks and releasing the centre-forwards in the channels. Defensively he's an extremely solid performer, playing between Juventus teammates Giorgio Chiellini Andrea Barzagli in the tournament's best defensive unit. His attacking qualities, however, are what makes him Italy's key player.
Robert Lewandowski, Poland
Along with Ibrahimovic, Robert Lewandowski is one of only two genuinely top-class centre-forwards at this competition. Like the Swede, he's playing for an outsider, and therefore won't be able to spend his time waiting in the penalty box for constant service, and will be forced to drop into deep positions to link play and encourage teammates forward.
Lewandowski formed a great strike partnership with Arkadiusz Milik in qualifying, and they might prove the most effective forward duo at the tournament, with Lewandowski taking the attention and Milik running riot. This tournament should prove what an outstanding all-round Lewandowski is. Although he has the build of a traditional striker, he boasts the play-making qualities of a gifted midfielder and should be capable of providing assists, as well as goals.
Gareth Bale, Wales
Wales manager Chris Coleman has based his side entirely around the world's most expensive footballer. While we're accustomed to Gareth Bale cutting inside from the right flank for Real Madrid, for Wales he plays a central role, essentially as a second striker. He can go where he pleases and has scored a variety of goals in qualifying: Free kicks, right-footed poachers' goals, towering headers. Away from Ronaldo's shadow, he's more of a complete attacker.
Bale thrives because Wales' centre-forward, Hal Robson-Kanu, isn't a centre-forward by trade. He's naturally a mobile, energetic, elusive winger and concentrates solely upon decoy runs to take the opposition defenders out of position, opening up space for Bale. With Aaron Ramsey pushing forward from deeper to provide support, Wales have great quality from between the lines -- and in his first international tournament, Bale could be one of the stars.
Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium
Among various uncertainties in the Belgian side -- the format of the defence, the identity of the centre-forward, the overall shape of the side -- there is one certainty: Kevin De Bruyne will be hugely dangerous. After two outstanding campaigns at club level with Wolfsburg and Manchester City, De Bruyne is ready to become an international star. There were flashes of genius at the last World Cup, but now De Bruyne dominates games.
A brilliant counter-attacker who loves starting in the No. 10 position before drifting to either flank, De Bruyne is an elusive dribbler and tremendously efficient in the final third. He racks up goals and assists, forms great relationships with both wingers and centre-forwards, and seems almost impossible to stop when he's on the run. Eden Hazard is Belgium's captain, but De Bruyne might prove to be their technical leader.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.