World champions Germany launch their Euro 2016 campaign on Sunday against Ukraine with Joachim Loew’s side out to prove their status as a favourite for the European title.
Northern Ireland will make their debut at a European championships finals with Michael O’Neill’s minnows looking to shock Robert Lewandowski-led Poland in Nice.
Croatia and Turkey kick-off Sunday’s matches in Paris by resuming their rivalry, eight years after the Turks won their Euro 2008 quarter-final meeting on penalties.
Germany start in Lille at 1900 GMT (Monday 00.30am IST) with a point to prove having suffered upset defeats away to Ireland and Poland in their qualifying campaign.
Loew’s side has failed to sparkle since winning the World Cup title two years ago.
To compound their problems, captain Bastian Schweinsteiger and key defender Mats Hummels have only just returned from injury.
Germany’s coach will celebrate a decade in charge after the Euro 2016 final on July 10.
But his side must prove their doubters wrong in order to lift a fourth European title, which would be their first for 30 years since current team manager Oliver Bierhoff scored the winner in the Euro ‘96 final at Wembley.
With Hummels recovering from a calf strain, Loew will cobble together a defence, which was blighted when Antonio Rudiger, another centre-back, was ruled out of the finals last Tuesday.
“We will have a good and functioning defence for our first game, I’m not worried about that,” insisted Loew.
Schweinsteiger has played just 23 minutes of football since tearing a knee ligament in March, so Loew must choose whether Manuel Neuer or Sami Khedira will captain Germany.
Northern Ireland will make history when they play their first match at a European championships finals in what defender Gareth McAuley describes as “the biggest match of all our careers”. The game starts at 1600 GMT (9.30pm IST).
The Irish had a scare in training on Tuesday when top-scorer Kyle Lafferty, who scored seven of their goals in qualifying, went down with a groin strain.
The hashtag ‘#PrayforKyle’ did the rounds on social media site Twitter and Irish fans’ prayers were answered when the Norwich City striker returned to training on Thursday.
Thousands of Northern Irish fans have poured into Nice to see their team play their first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup.
But O’Neill’s side will need to contain Poland’s potent attack led by Lewandowski, who netted 42 goals for Bayern Munich last season and hit 13 in qualifiers for his country.
Lewandowski is supported by Ajax striker Arkadiusz Milik and Rennes midfielder Kamil Grosicki, who between them bagged 10 goals to help Poland reach Euro 2016.
Smooth Croatia, battling Turkey
Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic has told his side to forget their Euro 2008 quarter-final heartbreak when they face Turkey at Paris Parc des Princes at 1300 GMT (6.30pm IST).
“We should not think about what happened at Euro 2008 in Austria. This is a new match, everything is different,” said the Juventus striker.
Ante Cacic’s Croatia is blessed with exceptional quality in the middle of the pitch, where Real Madrid maestro Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic boss a Spanish-accented midfield.
Turkey enjoyed a rollercoaster qualifying campaign as opening defeats against Iceland and the Netherlands left them with a mountain to climb.
But they booked their berth by beating the Dutch 3-2, winning 2-0 away to the Czech Republic, then edging Iceland courtesy of an 89th-minute Selcuk Inan free-kick to qualify as the best third-place team.