By Eric Wilkins, Staff Writer
Ah yes. That glorious time of year has come. Euro 2012 has finally arrived, soccer fans! But before you hit your favourite watering hole and drown your team’s sorrows/successes in endless pints, take a brief read here to familiarize yourself with the worthy opponents participating in the tournament.
Poland – Greece – Russia – Czech Republic
If you’re putting money down on Euro 2012, beware of investing too much in any of these squads. While Russia should emerge as the winner of this group, some underwhelming results in the qualification stage call their consistency into question. With Arsenal flop Andrei Arshavin declared captain, it appears Russia is placing a good deal of faith in a player who netted all of zero goals in qualifying. Possibly paired up front with him could be fellow Premier League flop Roman Pavlyuchenko. With the strikeforce in the shape it is, Russia may have to depend on their defense, led by solid goalkeeping from Igor Akinfeev.
The Czech Republic, short of Milan Baros discovering his form of a decade ago, will have to rely on much the same strategy. Though when Petr Cech is the man between the posts, is that such a bad idea? Greece, the Euro 2004 winners, is easily one of the most boring teams to take the pitch in this tournament. Their stifling style of play was enough to get them the win eight years ago, and may be just enough to get out of the group this year. Finally, Poland shouldn’t really be here. If they weren’t hosting the tournament, it’s doubtful their no-name team would have made it through qualifications. But here they are, and, as one of the co-hosts, you can’t count them out just yet. Never underestimate the power of playing at home. All the same, look for Russia and the Czech Republic to move on to the next round.
Netherlands – Denmark – Germany – Portugal
This year’s so-called “group of death” should be a fun one to watch. No shortage of stars to keep an eye on here. The Netherlands will be hungrier than ever to take the top prize since being narrowly edged out in the final of the last World Cup. Winger Arjen Robben may be the most motivated player, or at least the one with the most to prove, for the Oranje after his recent misfortune in the Champions League for Bayern Munich.
Denmark is the squad almost everyone has already dismissed, but games aren’t won on paper. With a solid squad complimented by the talented Nicklas Bendtner, the Danes could pull off an upset or two.
Germany is a serious contender every time they play on the national stage, and this tournament is no exception. Having the most entertaining name to say in sport, Bastian Schweinsteiger, in the middle of the park, Manuel Neuer guarding the goal, and the ever outstanding Mario Gomez up front, certainly bodes well for the German hopes to end their current 16-year title drought.
Last, but not least, Portugal. After a surprisingly poor performance in qualification, Portugal nonetheless finds itself at the world’s second most prestigious tournament. As per the usual, despite the talent littered throughout the lineup, a great burden will be placed on Cristiano Ronaldo’s back to carry the team through. I hate myself for it, but I’m taking the favourites in this one; Germany and the Netherlands should come out of group B.
Spain – Italy – Ireland – Croatia
For most casual soccer fans, the mere mention of Spain pricks their ears up, but this group has so much more to offer. Yes, the star-studded cast of La Roja is always entertaining to watch, but don’t expect another championship from this squad. Along with missing prolific scorer, David Villa, if Spain were to take Euro 2012 it would be their third title in a row. Quite a feat. However, I predict a return to mediocrity and choking exits for the Spaniards from here on in.
Italy is another recent title winner in the group. After being gifted the 2006 World Cup using a combination of elegant Italian flopping and biased refereeing, the Azzurri have not been up to much, but that may change this year. With the ever troublesome (both on and off the pitch) Mario Balotelli being given the number nine shirt by coach, Cesare Prandelli, it seems like Euro 2012 is set to see a host of the talented but classless striker’s antics. Several familiar aging faces still anchor the squad, namely Andrea Pirlo in the midfield and Gianluigi Buffon in net, and the Italians may just have something in their bag of tricks this time around.
Ireland has one of the more underrated teams in the tourney. The boys in green have finally found their way back to a top championship after being denied a trip to the last World Cup by Thierry Henry’s “Hand of Gaul.” Ireland manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, runs a tight ship, if an unspectacular one, and the group will need a few timely goals from captain Robbie Keane if they hope to advance. The added incentive for some of the veterans such as Shay Given and John O’Shea is that this may be their last chance to play at a major competition before age catches up to them.
Croatia is always an interesting bunch to watch. Luka Modric is one of the world’s best midfielders, and he has a decent enough supporting cast that the Croats could pull off an upset here and there. Going out on a limb for the first time with my picks here; watch out for the shock of the tourney as Italy and Ireland move on.
Ukraine – Sweden – France – England
In group D we find the other co-host, Ukraine. Like Poland, Ukraine shouldn’t really be here. Their roster seems to have little to boast other than being a commentator’s nightmare, and the few recognizable names they have are well past their prime. In order for them to succeed, Bayern Munich man Anatoliy Tymoshchuk will have to be the team’s rock in the midfield, and Andriy Shevchenko will have to scrape the bottom of the tank and hope there’s enough left for one last go.
Sweden has Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With a suspect back line, but the ever consistent Andreas Isaksson between the sticks, the Swedes may turtle for the most part, and place their hopes on Ibrahimovic or one of their free kick specialists popping one in.
France is coming off one of the most embarrassing events in World Cup history after Patrice Evra led a stand against then coach Raymond Domenech. The French would most likely be satisfied with simply avoiding such a debacle again, but this squad has some serious talent that could do some damage if manager Laurent Blanc can get them to play. When a team has Samir Nasri, Karim Benzema, and Franck Ribery on the field, you had better pay attention. The French could go far as long as no internal fires spring up.
England can never seem to get it together. This year will continue that trend. The only good news for England is that, due to Frank Lampard being ruled out due to injury, the ridiculous partnership of Steven Gerrard and Lamps will not be seen this time around. The other age-old problem still exists though: Wayne Rooney has no one to play with up front. At the very least, English supporters can take heart in having a real goalie once again, Joe Hart. I just can’t see the three lion’s international woes ending here; France and Sweden will take the punch.