Footy fans rejoice.
The start of Euro 2016 is almost upon us, and this time around it’s going to be bigger, which we can all assume to mean it’s also going to be better. With eight additional teams in the tournament this time around and four more advancing into the knockout round, the group stage will be more intriguing than ever before.
That being said, a handful of games stand out among the rest. From a 137-old rivalry to a battle of dynamic offence versus sweltering defence, the first round features some true gems.
Here are five group stage games you can’t afford to miss:
BELGIUM VS. ITALY
When: Monday, June 13, 3:00 PM ET
Where: Stade de Lyon, Lyon
The first match of the tournament for these high-profile squads could very well determine the winner of a stacked Group E.
No. 2 in the FIFA world rankings, Belgium is high-powered and star-studded. Led by Manchester City standout Kevin de Bruyne, who despite missing a couple of months with a knee injury finished the Premier League campaign in top form, the Red Devils enter the tournament with sky-high expectations. De Bruyne will likely team up with Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard in Belgium’s vaunted attack, while Axel Witsel and Radja Nainggolen control an impressive midfield. If the Belgians have one weakness, it’s in defence as long-time captain Vincent Kompany will miss the tournament due to injury.
On the other side of the pitch, Italy is dealing with major injuries in the midfield to Marco Veratti and Claudio Marchisio, and their attack lacks depth and experience. But what the Azzurri miss up front, they make up with a team that is guaranteed to be solid defensively and in goal, which makes the matchup against the Belgians all the more intriguing.
Italy holds a 13-4-4 all-time advantage over the Belgians, but lost 3-1 to the Red Devils in their most recent clash, a friendly last November.
ENGLAND VS. WALES
When: Thursday, June 16, 9:00 AM ET
Where: Stade Bollaert-Delelis, Lens
Another match that will likely decide the group winner, two British rivals square off for the first time in a major tournament in what is shaping up to be a rowdy occasion.
With one of its younger squads in recent memory, England won every game in Euro qualifying, scoring 31 goals in the process (second-most in qualifying). While there are questions at the back, the Three Lions’ dynamic duo up front is almost sure to cause problems, as Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy combined for 59 goals in all competitions this past season.
Wales, taking part in a major tournament for the first time since 1958, are an intriguing case. Captain Ashley Williams and the Dragons’ defence surrendered just four goals in qualifying (third-best). But the offence scored just 11 goals in booking its ticket to France, one of the lowest totals of the teams that qualified. Manager Chris Coleman’s side relied heavily on the talents of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey on offence, as the pair combined for nine of their side’s 11 qualifying goals.
Despite not playing each other in a major tournament, England and Wales have squared off a whopping 101 times since 1879, with the former holding a 61-21-14 advantage.
MORE ON EURO 2016: Sportsnet has you covered with in-depth coverage of Euro 2016 in France, which runs from June 10 to July 10.
• Match schedule || Group standings || Live scoreboard || Latest news
• Profiles: All 24 teams || History of Euro || Top 10 moments in Euro history
• Sportsnet’s predictions || 10 players to watch || 5 key group stage games
GERMANY VS. POLAND
When: Thursday, June 16, 3:00 PM ET
Where: Stade de France, Saint-Denis
Matchday 7 ends with a bang, as Germany and Poland face off in a high-powered affair.
Germany have lost just once to Poland in 20 meetings, but that loss came in convincing fashion in a 2-0 defeat in October 2014. That being said, the World Cup champions have brought a dangerous team to France, are still among the Euro favourites and will most definitely be looking to prove themselves against their neighbours.
Poland has a solid squad from top to bottom and have the chance to make a run, but Robert Lewandowski is the key to his side’s success in this tournament. The Bayern Munich striker led qualifying with a record-tying 13 goals and, when in-form, has the ability to take over a game. Teamed up with 22-year-old Arkadiusz Milik (the pair combined for 61 goals this past season), the duo could go a long way in taking Poland out of the Euro group stage for the first time ever and, just maybe, deep into the tournament.
This matchup has the potential to be explosive.
FRANCE VS. SWITZERLAND
When: Sunday, June 19, 3:00 PM ET
Where: Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Lille
One of the deepest teams in the tournament, the hosts are a clear favourite to hoist the Henri Delaunay Trophy on July 10. France’s stiffest test in Group A comes in the form of Switzerland, a team Les Bleus dismantled in the group stage of the 2014 World Cup, 5-2.
This France squad has depth, but is fairly inexperienced on the international stage. Antoine Griezmann is red-hot coming off a spectacular campaign for Atletico Madrid in which he scored clutch goal after clutch goal on the way to a berth in the Champions League final, while Paul Pogba has quickly emerged as one of the premier midfielders on the planet. But without Karim Benzema in attack, France’s biggest question mark surrounds Olivier Giroud and his ability to pick up the slack after a quiet second half with Arsenal in the Premier League.
Switzerland has a great shot to prove they’re the real deal against the hosts and, with the new format, has a genuine chance of advancing as far as the quarterfinals. Sure, the Swiss don’t have near the depth of their Group A opponent, but they shouldn’t be overlooked in this match.
Switzerland scored 24 goals in qualifying, and with the likes of new Arsenal man Granit Xhaka, Stoke City midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri, defenders Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus) and Fabian Schar (Hoffenheim), and young Basel striker Breel Embolo, they will be looking to advance out of the Euro group stage for the first time ever, and for a bit of revenge for that World Cup drubbing.
SPAIN VS. CROATIA
When: Tuesday, June 21, 3:00 PM ET
Where: Stade Bollaert-Delelis, Lens
The most intriguing matchup for the defending Euro champions in a jam-packed Group D comes against a team whose biggest strength mirrors that of La Roja.
Looking to capture their third straight Euro title, Spain will field one of the deepest midfields in the tournament. With the likes of seasoned vets Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas and David Silva, along with up-and-comers Thiago and Koke, the Spaniards should be able to continue their domination on this stage and make a deep run.
Led by Luka Modric, Croatia’s strength may be a midfield equally as talented as their Spanish opponents, boasting at least a handful of top-notch players, including Mateo Kovacic, Ivan Rakitic, Marcelo Brozovic, Ivan Perisic, Milan Badelj and Alen Halilovic, along with the aforementioned Modric. And with the experienced Mario Mandzukic up front, Croatia has the ability to put the ball in the back of the net as well as completely shut down their opponents.
This clash of two of the best midfield corps on the continent — the first meeting since Euro 2012’s group stage — is sure to produce a tactically riveting matchup in a game that could transform the outcome of Group D.