The end of a tournament always marks the start of a new cycle in international football, but one still conditioned by old issues. So, ahead of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, which figures and teams have the most to prove after Euro 2016?
The big problem for France is that so much was building up to an anticipated success at the European Championship they hosted, that it’s now going to be a very difficult job to build up again for a new competition. There could be a hangover, and one that’s all the worse considering it’s from an anti-climax rather than a massive celebration.
It could be argued that the disappointment of Euro 2016 will serve as the perfect way to motivate this team, and prove the tough experience that completes them mentally as a group, but that’s what the flat 2014 World Cup appearance was supposed to be.
It doesn’t help that Deschamps got so much wrong throughout the Euros, and made so many decisions that hampered his team rather than enhanced them. That is why he is here rather than some players like Paul Pogba. Their under-performance seems more down to his tactical decisions rather than their own level of application. This is the challenge for Deschamps. He is in danger of wasting a golden generation, having been given a golden chance. He must rectify it, starting with a trip to Belarus.
The entire path of Euro 2016 could well have been conditioned by the 72nd-minute of Spain’s final group game against Croatia. Up until then, Spain had been absolutely purring and looking like champions again as they prepared for the more forgiving path to the final — until Ramos told the on-fire Andres Iniesta that he wanted to take a debatable penalty at 1-1. The Real Madrid defender saw his kick saved, Spain lost their nerve, and then lost the game to finish second.
Croatia’s late winner didn’t just deny the Spanish a much easier route, but also seemed to sap their confidence. That was never clearer than with Ramos himself, who looked so suspect in a 2-0 battering by Italy in the round of 16.
The elimination did see Spain make a managerial change arguably required since 2012, as Vicente Del Bosque was replaced by Julen Lopetegui, who must now oversee the transition to a new generation. Ramos will still be one of the senior players in that new generation, and will have to lead by example in a much better way than he did during Euro 2016. He will have even greater responsibility.
The Manchester United captain was far from the only England player to badly under-perform at Euro 2016, but the difference is that he has such a central role, and has again been so talked up as a leader by new manager Sam Allardyce. The recently appointed boss had no time for the ongoing recent debate about Rooney’s form and whether he should even be in the team.
“Wayne has been an excellent captain for England and the manner in which he has fulfilled the role made it an easy decision for me to ask him to continue,” Allardyce said. “Wayne’s record speaks for itself, he is the most senior member of the squad and he is hugely respected by his peers.”
That will involve making the right passes, something that didn’t always happen from a key playmaker role at Euro 2016. After the embarrassment of their last-16 elimination to Iceland, England need to start this series strongly, and so need their captain on form. So much revolves around him, almost literally given he is the playmaker. Rooney must eliminate all debate, and prove his manager right.
Belgium and Martinez must hope that his appointment isn’t merely a marriage of convenience; a decision both were forced into by recent failure. Belgium’s gifted group of players still haven’t fulfilled so much talent, while the Spanish coach has seen any sense of progress in his managerial career badly chequered by the disappointing last two years at Everton. Both found themselves looking for something different, and will now hope to produce different results.
There is a feeling that they could actually greatly suit each other. Martinez has always been good at integrating attacks, especially when his forwards tend to be so talented but has struggled to form strong defences. It was telling that his best season at Everton came when he had David Moyes’ ready-made backline, but that is also what Belgium can provide.
Martinez will actually inherit one of the best central defensive partnerships in the Premier League, in Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. What Belgium have really lacked, though, is a manager who can properly maximise their attack. That is what Martinez has promised. It is essential to both he fulfils that promise, so Belgium can fulfil their potential.
They’ve recently found it so difficult, but that makes it quite simple. The Dutch can’t afford any more slip-ups. A country and football culture like theirs can’t let it go to a second successive tournament without qualifying. They can’t allow any more errors, but it’s all the more difficult because their group is quite unforgiving, given that it features France.
Danny Blind’s team, however, doesn’t feature much experience. After goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg and Wesley Sneijder, the most caps anyone has in the latest squad is Daley Blind on 36. They need to get some winning experience, and quick.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.