Euro 2012: part 1
|June 9, 2012||Posted by Joe Slater under sport|
The casual football fan could be forgiven for simply not realising that the second biggest international football tournament on the planet has just begun. Of course, there is a multitude of reasons this, the main one being that all the three-lions-filled patriotic nonsense has been exhausted celebrating the Queen’s diamond jubilee. It was unusual, but also slightly refreshing, to look at the back pages of a newspaper, just a few days before the start of an international tournament, and not see a plastering of hopeful ambitions and improbable expectations. But while England’s dreams seem unnaturally subdued, that’s not to say this tournament isn’t set to be an absolute belter. Seven of the top ten sides in the FIFA world rankings are set to appear in Poland and Ukraine, and if we can take anything from the whirlwind, up-and-down nature of European football this season, it’s to expect the unexpected. It’s often said that Euro football presents a much more compelling spectacle than that of the world cup; with just 16 teams, everyone’s competitive and there simply are no dead rubbers.
It would be wrong not to mention the dark side of European football, which has detracted much media attention away from the actual sport. The ominous spectre of racist chanting and violence has been lurking beneath the veneer of international football for a long time, and has been shown to be worryingly commonplace in both Ukraine and Poland. As a recent BBC Panorama investigation highlighted, to maintain the idea that these problems have simply disappeared is to remain blissfully ignorant of the facts; something which FIFA have proven themselves to be time and time again. Racism has been a constant theme across Europe and the John Terry row has particularly grabbed the headlines of late. It’s something that will always be in the background, gnawing away at the enthusiasm Roy Hodgson has attempted to create around his team. Until FIFA take these issues seriously the problems simply won’t go away.
But enough of that: there is football to be played and Europe’s biggest stars will be on show in what looks to be one of the most competitive tournaments of recent history.
Expectations always seem higher for the Czech Republic these days; ever since their incredible run to the final of Euro ’96 teams have been determined not to underestimate them. But this Czech Republic side are certainly past their best: long gone are Karol Poborsky and Pavel Nedved, with no one really filling their shoes. This doesn’t mean the Czechs are pushovers. They have a solid spine filled with Premiership talent such as Petr Cech, Tomas Rosicky and former Liverpool and Aston Villa striker Milan Baros. As demonstrated during their crushing defeat last night, they will probably continue to play in the newly fashionable European formation of 4-2-3-1 with Rosicky as their number 10. They are organised and composed, but, as shown last night, you wonder where the goals will come from and how they’re going to break teams down.
Prediction: Group stage
After their result last night, a game riddled with misfortune for the Greeks, many back home might find themselves reminiscing about their seemingly impossible victory in Euro ’04. Playing the type of football that appears in soon-to-be-former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola’s nightmares, they frustrated their opponents and took their chances mostly from a variety of set pieces. Things are different for Greece now – Otto Rehhagel, their experienced and pragmatic coach, has left – but the blueprint remains much the same. Greece will be hard to beat as Poland discovered last night, but teams know what to expect now and this reporter doesn’t anticipate them winning any games. Lightning doesn’t strike twice.
Prediction: Group stage
Co-hosts Poland are the lowest ranked team in the Euros, which might be an unfair statistic seeing as they haven’t played a competitive match in two years owing to their automatic qualification. This Poland team, however, are a lot better than their rank suggests. They have an influx of talent largely arriving from the right-hand side of Borussia Dortmund’s double-winning side; right-back Lukasz Piszczek and winger Jakub ‘Kuba’ Blaszczykowski will provide quality link-up play and are the real strength of this team. If they can remain solid and organised at the back, marshalled by Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczesny in goal, then they have every chance of doing damage in this tournament. That is, if they can provide service for the other Dortmund player in this side, Robert Lewandowski, scorer of 26 goals in the Bundesliga last season: he’s one of the hottest strikers in Europe and will score them goals. Despite being held to a draw by Greece and losing Szczesny for a game after he was sent off last night, if Poland can get back on track and combine their talent with the boost of being the host nation they could be a real dark horse in this tournament.
We know what to expect from Russia under experienced coach Dick Advocaat: organised at the back with touches of quality at the front. They were the surprise package of Euro ’08, but don’t expect them to surprise anyone this time; they can no longer be described as an unknown quantity. Russia can however boast large squad unity, which could provide them with extra edge. As Spain have demonstrated in recent years, having players who play together at club level can be very important. Russia could field a team with as many as 10 players coming from either CSKA Moscow or Zenit St Petersburg. As he and his two goals demonstrated last night, Alan Dzagoev will be the key man playing opposite Andrey Arshavin; he’ll need to unlock defences if Russia are to go far.
Denmark are, perhaps unfairly, the underdogs of this group. They certainly have the talent to go the distance in this tournament and they have the qualifying record to go with it, finishing above group rivals Portugal. As it seems all Danish teams do, they’ll take advantage of the wings using the positively elderly Denis Rommedahl and the slightly younger Michael Krohn-Dehli. The aim is to create space for young starlet Christian Eriksen, who will feel it’s finally his to time to show the world what he can do. Denmark won’t roll over for anyone in the most difficult group in the tournament, but unfortunately that won’t be enough.
Prediction: Group stage
The most dynamic, youthful and entertaining side in the tournament will expect nothing less than a victory. They’ve come close on the past two occasions and now is the time for their new golden generation to go all the way. Germany have sailed through qualifying and are undoubtedly a better squad since South Africa two years ago. The emergence of Mario Gotze, Marco Reus and Andre Schurrle will supplement the world-class quality of Khedira, Ozil and Neuer. Defence is still a problem for Germany, with Per Mertesacker being the preferred option at centre-back despite his poor form and injuries this season. But this tournament is theirs for the taking if they play to their immense quality.
For the Dutch, the lingering memory of South Africa will be Nigel de Jong karate-kicking Xabi Alonso as their strong campaign ended with bitter disappointment. The coach, Bert van Marwijk, has tried to make his team more fluid and considered playing only one holding midfielder, but fears his defence will lead him to stick with his more rigid approach. Defence is still a problem for the Dutch, so expect the more innovative teams to get at them. But up front they have a wealth of talent. Unfortunately van Marwijk won’t be able to include both of The Netherlands’ star strikers, with Robin van Persie being given the nod ahead of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. The Netherlands should get through the group, but I don’t see them going much further with a leaky defence and a very rigid formation.
Perennial underachievers Portugal will still be haunted by their defeat in the final of Euro ’04. In truth, the team hasn’t really gone anywhere since; new manager Paulo Bento has got them playing more attacking and fluid football, but the same problems linger. Without a real striker they’ll be forced to start with Hugo Almeida who simply doesn’t score enough goals. The three in midfield won’t provide enough creativity, forcing pressure on the wingers Nani and Christiano Ronaldo to deliver. Ronaldo will be key for Portugal linking up with Real Madrid team-mate Fabio Coentrao on the left flank. But if Portugal are to go anywhere in Poland and Ukraine, they’ll have to be dragged there by their talisman.
Prediction: Group stage