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Low's new Germany comes at a price

 By Ian Darke

Euro 2016 preview: Germany tipped but doubts among all contenders

You can make a case for several potential winners of the expanded European Championships, which now features 24 teams instead of 16. But there are question marks about all the leading contenders.

Remember, too, that in fairly recent history, this tournament has produced huge upset winners in Denmark (1992) and Greece (2004).

For that reason, impressive qualifiers Austria might be dangerous outsiders, inspired by Bayern Munich's David Alaba and Leicester's title-winning left-back Christian Fuchs.

Belgium are interesting. A golden generation look to have the talent to triumph, but that was true in Brazil two years ago and they never really convinced despite reaching the quarterfinals. The loss of captain Vincent Kompany to a thigh injury is a major blow.

Portugal, awful at the World Cup in Brazil, have a more gifted young supporting cast for Cristiano Ronaldo and might be tough to beat.

Italy do not have a vintage team, but they do have that rugged Juventus defence, and with the intense Antonio Conte driving them, they might cause a surprise as they did four years ago when beating Germany to reach the final.

England's electric attacking display to win in Germany in March shocked even their own supporters. Harry Kane and newlywed Jamie Vardy look a potent strike force, and manager Roy Hodgson has so many attacking options that everyone is wondering how he will fit in his captain Wayne Rooney. But England's real problems are at the other end. The defence is shaky and could be ripped apart by someone in the knockout stages.

Even Russia, England 's first opponents, might be lively, despite an ageing defence and a history of flattering to deceive. Four years ago they won their first game 4-1 and still contrived not to get past the group stage. Alan Dzagoev's absence is a major blow.

The Republic of Ireland were outclassed at Euro 2012. Martin O'Neill will have them very well organised despite being drawn into a daunting Group E with Belgium, Italy and Sweden.

France won as hosts of the 1984 Euros when Michel Platini scored nine goals, a record for a single competition in this event. Likewise, Zinedine Zidane inspired France to win the 1998 World Cup on home soil. But that team had Marcel Desailly and Lilian Thuram as rocks in a great defence. The current side does not look nearly so commanding in that department. That's why France, even with Paul Pogba and the predatory Antoine Griezmann, might be vulnerable.

Germany, winners of the 2014 World Cup, look more solid to me and their rather laboured qualification campaign might have been down to a post-Brazil hangover. However, the Germans do miss captain Philipp Lahm, who retired from international duty along with record goal scorer Miroslav Klose and centre-half Per Mertesacker, while Bastian Schweinsteiger surely can't be the force of old after so many injuries. But anyone who beats Germany might win the whole thing.

Defending Euro champions Spain still have a mighty impressive list of stars, but it's just a hunch that this team's golden era might be over. Opponents sussed out their passing style in Brazil, and attempts to tweak it by Vicente del Bosque have been met with only partial success. Expect another bold show as Spain go for a hat-trick of titles, but this time perhaps not another victory.

Many will criticise the expanded 24-team format (up from 16) for diluting the tournament, with an entire group stage eliminating just eight teams. Against that, it's a wonderful chance for newcomers Wales, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Albania to illuminate the stage. Try telling their supporters, who will flock to France in the thousands, that the expanded tournament is a bad idea.

Few games will be a formality even for the big nations. Teams like the Czech Republic, Sweden (with Zlatan Ibrahimovic), Turkey and especially Croatia can be very dangerous on their day.

Who will win? Germany are my desperately unoriginal pick, despite losing 3-1 to Slovakia with a depleted team in a friendly prep game.

Perhaps more important than who wins is how the game of football presents itself. Players crowding round referees showing imaginary cards or writhing around on the grass play acting like Real Madrid's Pepe in the Champions League Final are scars on the face of the game. As the sadly departed Johann Cruyff once remarked: "Football is a game best played with a smile on the face of those who play and watch."

It would be a fitting tribute to that wonderful player if Euro 2016 could be played in the spirit which he so brilliantly embodied. 

Ian Darke, who called games for the network during the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, is ESPN's lead soccer voice in the U.S. Reach him on Twitter @IanDarke.


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