For weeks BBC and ITV pundits have been trying to predict who the stand-out players will be over the next month. Check out their Euro XI right here.
Kevin Keegan on England’s Dele Alli
Kevin Keegan has known all the greats of English football in nearly half a century in the game. He played against Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst, Glenn Hoddle and Gary Lineker. Paul Gascoigne cleaned his boots and Alan Shearer was his star signing when he played for and managed Newcastle. As England manager, he gave debuts to Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard.
In all those years, and among all those names, he has never seen anyone make such a sensational start to his England career as Dele Alli.
Alli was man of the match in two of the games he has started for England, friendly wins against France at Wembley and, famously, from 2-0 down away to Germany. Now England expects more of the same at the Euros.
“It may have happened, but I can’t think of any other player who has made that sort of impact so quickly for England,” Keegan tells RT. “I’ve never seen anyone look so comfy straight away. If you’d have said he’s already played 40 games [for England] you’d say yes, it looks like it.” Attacking midfielder Alli, 20, has not even played 40 games in the Premier League. He was still playing for Milton Keynes Dons in the third tier of English football little more than a year ago.
In a stellar first season at Spurs, Alli helped them into the Champions League, won the young player of the year award from the Professional Footballers’ Association, and scored Match of the Day’s goal of the season, a volley on the turn against Crystal Palace.
Roy Hodgson, the England manager, said Alli was “amazing” after his first full match, against France, in which he scored. Karl Robinson, his manager at Milton Keynes, has long been saying the same thing.
“He tries things that fear would stop you trying,” said Robinson. “He would do things in training that you just had to stand and applaud. His energy is ridiculous.”
Alli had been a star in local football since playing in the under-tens league. He survived a potentially difficult childhood and thrived on the football pitch. His Nigerian father Kenny, to whom he is still close, moved to the States soon after his birth. His mother, Denise, struggled with an alcohol problem, and Alli was brought up from the age of 13 by the parents of his best friend.
Alli was suspended for the last three games of Spurs’ season for hitting out at a West Bromwich player but has said top players “need an aggressive streak to survive” and, “I don’t mind when players try to kick me.” Neither does Keegan: “People say Alli has a bit of an issue with his temperament, but a little bit of attitude like that is not a bad thing. It shows you care.”
When he was 18 Alli was first hailed in the national media as “the next Steven Gerrard” — a comparison Keegan agrees with, although he thinks Alli could be better. “Steven was still growing into himself at Alli’s age; Alli is much more the finished article,” says Keegan. “He’s stepped up into the Premier League as if he’s always been there.”
2. Rio Ferdinand on England’s John Stones
“I would start John Stones. When you’ve got someone who has the personality who wants to bring the ball out and play football, you have to embrace that.
He has to do it at the right time though. Up until now it doesn’t seem like Stones has been told that; he’s still trying the intricate passes through the lines. They’re risky balls and you need your confidence to do that.
“Yes, Stones needs to work on when to play and when not to play. But I see traits in his game where he can defend. If he was in a strong unit, he would look a million dollars.”
3. Robbie Savage on Wales’s Gareth Bale
“Wales are like Leicester. If half the squad walked down the street you wouldn’t know who they were. But if Jamie Vardy walks down the street… Wow! It’s the same for Gareth Bale.
“However, they have a togetherness, a desire to achieve great things. If Bale is fit, this is a great opportunity for Wales to get to the quarter-finals. They’re not a one-man team, but if you stop Gareth Bale, you stop Wales.
“England will be favourites when the two sides play each other, because they have the better individuals overall. But Wales have already faced that [in the qualifiers against Belgium] and came away with two clean sheets.
“Bale is the best player in the group. Harry Kane has been great for Spurs, but Bale is the guy who can win a game on his own. Who else in England and Wales’s group can say that?”
4. Norman Whiteside on Northern Ireland’s Kyle Lafferty
“Kyle Lafferty scored seven goals in qualifying, he’s second on the all-time top scorer list for Northern Ireland and leads the line well. Certainly the way Northern Ireland play, they need a big strong man up front, and he was that in qualifying.
“It depends how manager Michael O’Neill wants to play, however. He’ll want a point from the first game [against Poland] and that’s going to be the priority. We’re not kidding ourselves. Against the big boys, it’s a different ball game. Anything we pick up is an added bonus.”
5. Kevin Kilbane on the Republic of Ireland’s Shane Long
“We’ve not got any players from the top six Premier League clubs so now we’re resting our hopes on Shane Long. He’ll relish that and has had a great season for Southampton.
“Martin O’Neill is a great man manager and has a knack of getting that little bit extra out of individuals. There’ll be more attention on Martin and assistant Roy Keane than there will be on the players and in some ways that’s a good thing. It takes all the pressure and focus off players like Long.”
6. Eniola Aluko on Spain’s Cesc Fabregas
“As a Chelsea player,” says Eniola Aluko, “I’ll obviously be watching the guys closely to see how they get on, Cesc Fabregas for Spain in particular. By his standards he didn’t have a great year, so it will be interesting to see how he does. Spain have made a statement by not picking Diego Costa and Juan Mata. They’re not carrying any players who aren’t performing.”
7. Gary Lineker on Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo
“He’s just helped take Real Madrid to another Champions League final. Now, Ronaldo is getting ready to be the main man for Portugal.”
8. Emmanuel Petit on France’s Antoine Griezmann
“For me the first name in France’s team sheet is Antoine Griezmann from Atletico Madrid. He has improved so much in the past three years; technically he is very strong, and he is going to be our main target this year. We’ve got a lot of talented players in the team, but this guy can do anything he wants. He can play on the left, right or centre, it doesn’t matter. He lives football.”
9. Chris Waddle on Germany’s Toni Kroos
“Kroos is a fantastic player, I love watching him. He is one of the best passers in Europe, and if he can get it to striker Thomas Muller, you know what you’re in for.”
10 & 11. Danny Murphy on Belgium’s Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen
“It’s time for Belgium to stand up,” says Danny Murphy. “The injury to Vincent Kompany means that Jan Vertonghen will now partner Spurs team-mate Toby Alderweireld at centreback – the best partnership in the Premier League. Plus they have Dembele, Lukaku, Hazard… They have enough to win.”