The build-up to the 2012 European Championship has been nothing short of exciting.
Manchester City’s last-gasp efforts in England, Dortmund’s dominance in Germany, Real Madrid’s return to power in Spain, Juventus’ success in the Serie A and Chelsea bidding farewell to Drogba amid unbelievable scenes in the Champions League final. The way seasons in Europe panned out, it became the perfect setting for the launch of perhaps the second most important International football event of the world - the Euros.
For just over three weeks, across eight stadiums in Poland and Ukraine, the event will take hold of the collective consciousness of the world of football fans that has been waiting to see the European powers lock horns. The hype and excitement is justified by sweeping a glance across the fixtures in the opening week: Poland faces Euro 2004 champions Greece, Germany taking on Portugal, Italy fight for points against holders and world champions Spain while England will try their luck against France.
Critics have also put the Euros above the World Cup - Out of the 51 teams that took part in the qualifying stages, only the top 16 managed to squeeze their way to the showpiece event, ensuring quality and the competitive spirit that creeps in from the group stages and lasts through tot he final.
A lot has been said and written about favourites with most pointing at Spain once again. The ever-consistent Netherlands and the most successful team at the Euro Championships, Germany, are not that far behind. However, statistics and history counts for nothing once these European giants clash on the pitch to prove their mettle.
The next 24 days will not only be a stage for teams to stamp their authority in Europe but also for the players, who would be looking to raise their stakes in the market. With scouts from around the world expected to keep a close eye on current and upcoming European talent on show, enthusiasts can brace themselves for fireworks at Euro 2012.
The Czechs come into the tournament having scored the least number of goals in qualifying (12) among all finalists. But they have Petr Cech, Tomas Rosicky and Milan Baros who can help put up a decent fight. They might find it tough to progress but can manage a few surprises.
Another dark-horse in major tournaments, the Russian side is a compact unit looking to overpower and squeeze the opposition’s midfield with solid defensive support. With players like Arsenal’s Andrei Arshavin and Fulham’s Pavel Pogrebnyak, the team possesses an attack that could fire them to the later stages with ease.
With a formidable defence, having conceded just five goals during qualifying, Greece can replicate its Euro 2004 tactics of soaking up play and literally boring the opposition into defeat. Those plans can help them progress into the knockouts where, as we saw eight years ago, anything is possible.
This tournament might have come too soon for co-hosts Poland. Coach Smuda has managed to assemble a team that possesses all the qualities of becoming a top side and will probably hit its prime in 2014. Poland is young, full of energy — a recipe for a successful run.
Always coming close but going home disappointed, Portugal, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Nani, are a force to be reckoned with. With proven players like Fábio Coentrão and Hélder Postiga, Portugal’s first challenge will be to progress from the group.
The star-studded Germans stand in good stead for the title. Their strength will be the midfield – Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira. Veterans like Philipp Lahm and Manuel Neuer and a strike-force of Lukas Podolski and Mario Gomez add spark and could propel Germany to glory.
Perhaps the weakest team in the group, Denmark might struggle to stay alive. The side has spunk and thrives on a dynamic spirit that pushes it to perform. In addition, Daniel Agger, Christian Eriksen, Simon Kjaer and Dennis Rommedahl will prove vital.
After coming incredibly close to winning the 2010 World Cup, the Dutch come in as one of the favourites. Robin Van Persie’s current form, Huntelaar wit and Luuk de Jong, as a substitute, are capable of anything. With goal-scoring midfielders like Wesley Sneijder, Rafael Van Der Vaart, Arjen Robben, and Dirk Kuyt, Netherlands are in good hands.
Republic of Ireland
An unknown entity in the competition even though they are ranked 18th, Republic of Ireland feature a host of players from the Premiership. Stars like Robbie Keane and a tactically astute coach in Giovanni Trapattoni, they could really be a surprise package if they can make it past out a very tough group.
An underrated team which brings out its best when challenged by best. Croatia has plenty of talent throughout the squad and their A-game can be a real problem for any opposition. Blessed with Luka Modric, Nico Krancjar, Ivan Perisic, and captain Darijo Srna, Croatia’s success starts and ends with the midfield.
With Italy under a cloud of match-fixing, the former World Champions might find it difficult to press on with their high-pressing tactics and a short-passing, possession-based style. With Mario Balotelli, Antonio Cassano and Sebastian Giovinco in the side, Italy are looking to play a high-paced, technical game.
Perhaps the most talented and technically gifted team in the tournament, World Champions Spain’s attack comprises Xavi, Mata, Silva, and Iniesta. You would expect the holders to be the team to beat. Anything but the final would be a disappointment for Spain but the loss of Puyol and Villa could be telling.
France may not have the kind of togetherness or talent of 1998, the side looks to have veered sharply from the shambles that coach Domenech left them in. France approach the tournament in good stead and with players like Karim Benzema, Frank Ribery and Patrice Evra, it could be the potential dark-horse for Euro 2012.
Ukraine might have lost their pedigree over the last few years but they do possess stars that could aid their campaign. A lot will depend on Andry Shevchenko who would be hoping, along with the rest of the nation, that his scoring ability returns. However, considering the group, very few would give them a chance.
Never short of stars but failing miserably in major events. Led by Liverpool talisman Steven Gerrard, England would be looking to forget heartbreaks of the past and making amends at this year’s Euros. If they can convert the fire power - Wayne Rooney, Joe Hart and Ashley Cole - they will be a force to reckon with.
The Swedes have a tricky path to the knockouts. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of the world’s premier strikers and he should get favourable service playing in front of Kim Kallstrom, Sebastian Larsson and Christian Wilhemsson. With questions hovering over England, Sweden could be poised for a spot in the knockouts.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 8th, 2012.