Friday, 8 June 2012

Euro 2012 Preview

By Shane Thomas



The co-hosts are the lowest FIFA ranked team in the tournament, but there's a history of hosts (or co-hosts) overachieving at the Euros; Sweden in '92 and England in '96 being strong examples.

Their style will be defensive, with the Poles looking to score on the counter-attack. What works to the advantage of the coach, Francisek Smuda, is that he has a crop of key players that lend to such a system. Arsenal's Wojiech Szczesny can be an inspired presence in goal, and you feel he will need to have at least one outstanding game. From there, the focus will be on their right-hand side. Right-back, Lucas Piszczek and right-midfielder, Jakub Blaszczykowski have struck up a fine understanding when playing for German champions, Borussia Dortmund. From there they will be expected to supply their club-teammate, Robert Lewandowski in attack.

All three have come off the back of such fine domestic seasons that some have affectionately nicknamed their club, "Polonia Dortmund". The performances of these aforementioned four players are pivotal to Polish hopes, as they have no Plan B.

As well as having a raucous home support behind them, with their young(ish) squad, underdog mentality, and the fact that their citizens are likely to be more hospitable than the ones from The Ukraine, Poland could easily develop into the neutrals "second team".

Prediction - Quarter-Finals; Key Man - Robert Lewandowski; One to Watch - Jakub Blaszczykowski


The surprise package of the last European Championships, but they failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. However, if you're looking for a dark horse, look at Russia. They are in the weakest group - which I'd expect them to win - they have a potential star of the competition in Alan Dzagoev, and are built on a foundation of players who play together for the same clubs. 

The Russian squad is primarily a collection of players from Zenit St Petersburg and CSKA Moscow. Given that all international tournaments - especially one as condensed at the Euros - are about peaking at the right time, it is a boon that a lot of the personnel will have the comfort of familiarity when they take to the pitch. The initial game plan is for the goals to come from their midfield, but if that tactic doesn't work, they can leave out the selfless Alexander Kerzhakov, and use a sharper goal threat up-front, in the shape of either Roman Pavlyuchenko or Pavel Pogrebnyak.

A lot of the teams don't look particularly solid in defence, which could play into Russia's hands. Don't be surprised if they end up lifting the trophy come July 1st.

Prediction - Semi-Finals; Key Man - Andrey Arshavin; One to Watch - Alan Dzagoev


They may have an enviable record in this competition; finalists in '96, semi-finalists in '04 - and they should have won both times - but there's an alarming wave of pessimism surrounding the Czechs. The coach, Michal Bilek is unpopular with the fans; a recent survey had 96% wanting him to be fired, and the last vestige of the strong Czech teams of yesteryear is almost gone.

They will rely heavily on captain Tomas Rosicky and Petr Cech. The good news is that both of them seem to have got their groove back after a below-par couple of seasons. But beyond that, the only attacking threat is likely to come from young tyros, Vaclav Pilar and Jan Rezek in the wide areas. Both are willing, but vastly inexperienced at this level. It's a microcosm of problems that will probably see them eliminated early.

Prediction - Group Stage; Key Man - Tomas Rosicky; One to Watch - Tomas Hubschman


New coach, Fernando Santos has claimed that his Greece team are more attacking than sides of previous vintage - including the side that shocked football to win Euro 2004. But then it's not hard, when you're starting from the ground floor. In the past, Greece have been as exciting as a Bank Holiday in IKEA. This time around, they'll probably be more like a Bank Holiday spent mowing the lawn.

They are technically more proficient, but the fact that their most vibrant attacker, Sotiris Ninis, will probably be on the bench, shows that Greece will remain one of the competitions most functional sides. And that function will be to try and keep clean-sheets, and nick a goal from a set-piece.

Prediction - Group Stage; Key Man - Giorgos Karagounis; One to Watch - Sotiris Ninis



Since 2006, Germany have developed from the efficient team that you "rule out at your peril" to one of Europe's most entertaining sides. Looking at their squad list, it's easy to see why. However, there are a few dilemmas that coach, Joachim Loew's has to address.

Will he rely primarily on the players that impressed many at the last World Cup? Will their heartbreaking loss in the Champions League Final to Chelsea still be on the minds of the Bayern Munich contingent - many of whom are expected to make the starting XI. Should some of the younger, coruscating talents be given their head, or only be deployed as impact substitutes?

When you think that players like Mario Gotze, Marco Reus and Toni Kroos are unlikely to start for Germany, you can see why they are many people's favourites for the competition. But the depth means little if Loew doesn't use it correctly. And their back four looks vulnerable if put under pressure, while in goal, Manuel Neuer can be as liable to drop a clanger as win you a game. Don't go giving Nationalmannschaft the trophy just yet.

Prediction - Quarter-Finals; Key Man - Mesut Ozil; One to Watch - Mario Gotze


Another of the pre-tournament favourites. And like Germany, they boast a formidable forward line; Arjen Robben, Wesley Sniejder, Rafa Van De Vaart, and a certain centre-forward that couldn't stop scoring... Klaas-Jan Hunterlaar. Yes, Robin Van Persie also had a stellar campaign for Arsenal and will probably start up-front, but it says a lot about the Dutch's firepower that Huntelaar scored 37 goals for Schalke and will have to content himself with a place on the bench.

However, they also suffer from a creaky back-four, with a relative novice in Jetro Willems at left-back, and Joris Mathijesen laid low by a hamstring strain. This could be offset by the two holding midfielders favoured by coach, Bert Van Marwijk. It may be considered heresy to Dutch football purists, but given their defensive woes, it's the most pragmatic course of action. A lot will depend on the outcome of their group game with Germany, but as long as they avoid defeat, they'll be on the road to becoming European Champions for the second time.

Prediction - Winners; Key Man - Mark Van Bommel; One to Watch - Ibrahim Afellay


Cruel judges may appraise them as the Arsenal of the tournament; capable of exciting football, not as good as they used to be, always frustrating their fans, and overreliant on one exceptional player.

Such an assessment would be harsh and reductive, as Portugal have plenty of talented names beyond the luminescent Cristiano Ronaldo; Nani, Joao Moutinho, Paolo Coentrao, Miguel Veloso. But they have three main problems. First, the amalgam of certain elements of the side seem rather hodgepodge. Their three centre-midfielders are too similar; what they'd give to have a Rui Costa type in the centre. Second, I don't know what they put in the water in Portugal, but they seem unable to produce a lethal striker. They haven't had a reliable goalscorer since Eusebio - and he was born in Mozambique. 

Finally, they've been unlucky to have been drawn in the toughest of the four groups. They would have romped Group A, but they'll do well to finish in the top two here, especially if CR7 fails to fire.

Prediction - Group Stages; Key Man - Cristiano Ronaldo; One to Watch - Hugo Viana


They may be fourth favourites in Group B, but one shouldn't patronise Denmark by perceiving them as minnows. They qualified top of a group that included Portugal, and have a side of some skilled technical players, with no little flair. 

The primary focus will be around the impish and dashing Cristian Eriksen. He tormented England in a friendly last year, and has the ability to do the same in Poland and The Ukraine. Regardless of how far Denmark progress, this next few weeks could send Eriksen's transfer value sky-rocketing.

They also have in Dan Agger and Simon Kjaer, two stylish centre-halves, who are both comfortable on the ball, and can contribute to Denmark's forward moves. However, they are both susceptible to being dominated by classy centre-forwards, and Kjaer has come off the back of a pretty rotten season for Roma. Added to the fact that first-choice goalkeeper, Thomas Sorensen is absent with injury, and it puts a lot of pressure on Eriksen and Nicklas Bendtner to navigate a path for Denmark out of the "Group of Death".

Prediction - Group Stages; Key Man - Cristian Eriksen ; One to Watch - Michael Krohn-Dehli  



They stand on the brink of history. No country has ever won three consecutive international tournaments, and Spain sit as bookmakers favourites to do just that, which is understandable when you look at the abundance of talent they have at their disposal. However, it's who won't be at Euro 2012 that is as pertinent as who is. No David Villa or Carlos Puyol could be damaging - especially in the competition's latter stages - with coach, Vicente Del Bosque admitting as much.

Also, Del Bosque's strength has always been bringing a disparate group of individuals together rather than any tactical prowess. With the aid of Puyol, Xavi and Iker Casillas, Del Bosque managed this admirably as Spain became World Champions for the first time in 2010. However, the ongoing rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona has exacerbated potential fissures in the group, and Xavi has publicly denounced Sergio Ramos in the lead-up to the tournament. Del Bosque will have to do some more firefighting, and he won't have Puyol to rely on. La Roja's fate could depend more on what happens off the pitch, than on it.

Prediction - Runners-Up; Key Man - Xavi; One to Watch - Fernando Llorente


One thing you can be sure of watching Italy, it won't be dull. The country's football is embroiled in yet another match-fixing scandal, they are an uncharacteristically expansive outfit, relying heavily on the lustrous passing of the game's best progenitor, Andrea Pirlo. Their forward line will probably feature the unpredictable, match-winning and capricious talents of Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano. The defence will be led by the pertinacious Giorgio Chiellini, and behind them they have the world's finest keeper in Gigi Buffon.

However, this Italy team seem to be a myriad collection of talents that coach, Cesare Prandelli is yet to assemble into the whole sum of its parts. With their personnel, Italy have what it takes to catch fire, and go all the way to the final, but they could just as easily crumble under pressure. It's a combustible cocktail that the Italians will bring to the tournament. And all this from the land of catenaccio.

Prediction - Quarter-Finals; Key Man - Andrea Pirlo; One to Watch - Mario Balotelli


A tough side to assess, and a common pick for punters looking for a nation to spring a surprise.

There's no doubt that they have some fine players. Luka Modric is a class act, and will be expected to dictate attacks, while Nikica Jelavic is one of the best first-time finishers in the game - he may be a good outside bet for the competition's top scorer. I'd also keep an eye on wide-man Ivan Perisic, who scored an outstanding goal to deny Arsenal a win when they played Borusssia Dortmund in a Champions League encounter early in the season.

However, their main worry - like a lot of sides - is their defence. Both Josip Simunic and Gordon Schildenfeld are ponderous and can be exposed by fast and mobile strikers. And the loss of Ivica Olic up-front is a huge blow.

Prediction - Group Stages; Key Man - Luka Modric; One to Watch - Ivan Perisic


Giovanni Trapattoni looks to have invoked the spirit of Jack Charlton's Ireland teams, as he'll probably provide the most defensive version of 4-4-2 seen for years.

This isn't to impugn the venerable Italian. It's a manager's job to make the most of the tools he has available, and after being far too hospitable to opposition attacks for years, "Il Trap" has given Ireland a cussed edge. They'll be among the tournament's most awkward challengers, and are capable of ruining things for one of Croatia, Italy or Spain. But with a forward strategy that doesn't go further than relying on set-pieces, or getting the ball to the wingers and hoping they do something, you can't see how Ireland will get enough points to make it to the knockout stages.

Prediction - Group Stages; Key Man - Richard Dunne; One to Watch - James McClean



Manager Laurent Blanc has engendered one hell of a metempsychosis since France's farcical campaign at the last World Cup. They come into Euro 2012 unbeaten in their last 20 matches, boasting an impressive forward line. Karim Benzema - who had a stunning year at Real Madrid - has what it takes to be the star of the competition, and is my tip to win the Golden Boot.

Their attacking flair reminds me of the Spain side that played some lovely stuff at the 2006 World Cup before running out of steam at the knockout stage. One area where France look brittle is at the back. Adil Rami and the intemperate Philippe Mexes don't seem to dovetail well at centre-half, and Blanc inexplicably seems to favour both of them over Arsenal's Laurent Koscielny. Also, they remain untested, and can be hurt when pressurised.

Prediction - Semi-Finals; Key Man -Karim Benzema; One to Watch - Mathieu Valbuena


This year's European Championships may be the final chapter in a book entitled, "How Not To Prepare For An International Tournament." England's problems in the lead-up are multitudinous, but has Roy Hodgson got the players finally understanding that they're no more than an average side?

England look as if they will be playing the most bland and sapless football in the competition, but it could just do the trick. They may not monopolise possession, but the key is what England do when they have the ball. If they can use it effectively on the counter - see Ashley Young's goal against Norway as an example - then they can reach the latter-stages, especially as they may be one of the best teams suited to exploiting set-pieces.

However, in their warm-up games, England's passing has been atrocious, Wayne Rooney is suspended for the first two matches, and their self-belief looks to be at a low ebb.

Prediction - Group Stages; Key Man - Steven Gerrard; One to Watch - Ashley Young


Similarly to England, Sweden are also a limited outfit with one or two high-class performers, whose outcome will depend on how well the players function as a team.

With Lars Lagerback now replaced by Erik Hamren as head coach, this is a more expansive Sweden team than we have seen in recent major tournaments. Whether a more progressive style is advisable to extract the best from these players remains to be seen.

There's no doubt that Kim Kallstrom and Seb Larsson add quality to the midfield, and obviously there's Zlatan. Hamren made an interesting tactical move back in February, which was to convert Zlatan Ibrahimovic from his usual position as a centre-forward to a deep-lying striker. It's something that Zlatan has enjoyed, and whether he operates in between the lines with another man - either Johan Elmander or Ola Toivonen - ahead of him, will either be shown to be a coaching masterstroke or a reckless maneuver.

Prediction - Quarter-Finals; Key Man - Zlatan Ibrahimovic; One to Watch - Seb Larsson


The competition's other co-hosts walk into Group D with high hopes, but average expectations. Home advantage can only go so far, and didn't do much for Switzerland and Austria at the last Euros. Like Poland, they will rely heavily on a handful of names; Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, captain Andriy Shevchenko, and young starlet, Andriy Yarmelenko.

These aforementioned players will have to overachieve, as will the supporting cast if The Ukraine are to have any hope of making it to the knockout stages. Personally, I think winning one game would constitute a successful campaign.

Normally in these situations, you'd expect them to attempt to scrape 1-0 wins, but given that a cruel run of luck means they'll have their fourth choice goalkeeper in between the sticks, and their best centre-half, Dimitry Chygrynskiy is also missing with injury, I fail to see how The Ukraine are going to keep any clean-sheets.

Prediction - Group Stages; Key Man - Anatoliy Tymoshchuk; One to Watch - Andriy Yarmelenko

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