Every four years football has the World Cup where the best teams come together for the biggest sports event in the world. In between each World Cup the continental federations hold their own tournaments to fill in the gaps between club seasons. In recent years, Japan won the Asian Cup, Zambia pulled off a stunning upset in the African Cup of Nations and Mexico have won the North American Gold Cup. The biggest continental tournament however is the European Championships which are taking place this month, in Poland and the Ukraine. Four years ago Spain beat an upstart Germany and turned that into a World Cup win two years later, with the squad still largely intact, the Spaniards are favourites to retain their crown.
Teams – Czech Republic, Greece, Poland (co-host) and Russia
Greece and Poland will be kicking off the tournament in the first game of the group stage on the 9th with Russia and the Czech Republic straight afterwards. The second round of games sees Greece playing the Czechs and Russia facing off against Poland on June 13. Group A’s final round takes place on the 17th and has the Czech’s facing off against Poland while Russia and Greece face off in the other game.
Recent results may suggest that the Czechs are struggling to find form going into the tournament but as always, these friendly results must be taken with a grain of salt as after all, they are only friendlies. There are three big names in the squad who could make or break the campaign. Starting off at the back, Chelsea’s Petr Cech will be looking to continue his Champions League heroics and if he is in form, could make a difference for this squad. Arsenal’s midfielder Tomas Rosicky is coming off the best patch of form since joining the club, his ability to dictate play could prove pivotal if he is given time on the ball. Looking to capitalise on the attacks will be the striker from Galatasalray Milan Baros who is beginning to enter the twilight of his career but is still a capable finisher. Overall this Czech squad has some solid leadership in it and will compete for a spot in the knockout stages but is lacking in quality which could hurt their chances.
In 2004 Greece stunned the football world by winning the Euro tournament with a performance that sent football back 50 years through stingy defence and doing just enough in attack (usually scoring 1 goal). This year’s squad does not possess that same ability to suffocate teams into submission and will likely struggle in their games. With most of the team based locally in the Greek league, they will benefit from continuity and familiarity with one another. While there is a distinct lack of star power, there was a similar label given to the squad in 2004, if this team manages to steal a spot in the knockout rounds you can never say never about their chances to surprise because as we all know in sport, momentum is a funny thing.
Every tournament the hosts seems to be able to capitalise on the momentum of playing in their home stadiums and can go on a fairytale run. Poland looks the more likely of the two nations hosting to be able to go on such a run with a solid, if unspectacular squad. Coach Franciszek Smuda has opted for a squad heavily loaded with midfielders and defenders lead by their captain Jakub Blaszczykowski from German champions Borussia Dortmund. His club teammates Lukasz Piszczek and Robert Lewandowski look to provide leadership to the defence and front lines respectively while the goal will hopefully be kept intact by Arsenal’s young goalie Wojciech Szczesny who was an impressive contributor all season long and has the confidence to shake off any mistake (and get under the skin of opposing strikers). The home field advantage and the depth available to the coach should be enough to see them progress through the group stage and possibly even top the group.
The Russian side had a successful tournament in 2008 with a golden generation of stars announcing themselves to the world. This tournament sees that generation a bit older and a few players who are looking for a move that will result in one last payday. Leading that bunch is captain Andrey Arshavin who spent the first half of last season struggling at Arsenal before a loan back to Zenit St Petersberg appeared to rejuvenate the diminutive playmaker. His ability to direct play and even score from range could be crucial however the striking power of this squad, combined with the decent defense should be enough to see them through the group stage.
Teams – Denmark, Germany, Netherlands and Portugal
This has to be the best group with all four teams ranked in the world’s top 10. Denmark is the lowest ranked team in 10th while the other three teams in the group could all be considered legitimate contenders to win the tournament. The Netherlands and Denmark will open day 2 of the tournament followed by Portugal and Germany. The next round sees Denmark and Portugal facing off before possibly the biggest group stage game of the competition between the Netherlands and Germany. In the final round the Dutch & Portuguese face off while the Danes take on the Germans. Out of all the groups, this one is likely to have the most exciting final day.
The Danish squad has taken a pretty big blow as their starting goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen has been forced to withdraw from the tournament with a back injury. The natural replacement for Sorensen, Manchester United’s Anders Lindegaard has been battling an injury as well so that position of strength has been dealt a severe blow. Christian Eriksen will provide the creativity in the midfield directing the Danish attack while up from Dennis Rommedahl will be a threat, as will the best striker in the world, Nicklas Bendtner, according to Nicklas Bendtner anyway (sadly for him, nobody who watches football agrees with that assessment). In pretty much any other group you could back the Danes to go through but sadly the draw will work against them as they have three better teams in their makeup.
In the last three major tournaments, the Germans have played some of the most attractive football demolishing opponents in the early stages of each competition and playing in a manner that defies the pragmatic, efficient stereotype that has been associated with Germany for so long. Of course as any Arsenal fan will tell you, playing beautiful football is great but it’s a hollow feeling when you don’t win a trophy and this approach has gotten the Germans close but not over the line. In the 2006 World Cup they finished 3rd on home soil, in Euro 2008 they were runners up to Spain and in 2010 they finished third once more. with the talent available in this squad, Germany are rightly considered as tournament favourites. The talent laden attack force should be good enough to overrun every opponent they face. Mario Götze, Thomas Müller, Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger making up the midfield and Mario Gomez leading a forward line capable of scoring at will. If this squad doesn’t make it through the group stage it would be a miracle given the talent on offer.
Runners up at the 2010 World Cup, the Dutch squad has the makings of a winner in this tournament with the same flaws as all other heavyweights. The squad has fantastic talent up front with the ability to pile on the goals, but with some serious questions at the back. Leading the line with be Arsenal’s talisman Robin van Persie, fresh off a career best season and he will be looking to lift a trophy with his national team. His back up in Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is pretty damn good too and can fill in if RvP’s injury history decides to catch up with him (touch wood). Directing play in midfield will be Inter’s Wesley Sneijder who is looking for a move to the Premier League this offseason and a solid tournament will only help him. Playing the role of midfield enforcer will be Nigel de Jong who is probably best known for his attempts to kick seven shades of shit out of the Spanish team in the World Cup final. None of the players at the back appear to have reached their full potential as yet but the leader appears to be Everton’s John Heitinga who will be crucial to his team’s success in the tournament. If this squad can gain some momentum in the early stages they will be very tough to stop and as such should win the competition.
Perhaps the best way to describe the Portuguese side to an American audience is that they are like the Cleveland Cavaliers in the LeBron James era, very successful but at the end of the day, a one man team. Playing the role of King James is Cristiano Ronaldo who will be asked to carry his team through the tournament while his teammates simply try to not screw up and hurt their chances. We are all well aware of what Ronaldo is capable of (see the highlights from pretty much any season since 2006/2007 when he started scoring goals for fun) but if he can get support from the midfield players such as Raul Meireles, Miguel Veloso and Nani (who was initially touted as the next Ronaldo) then this team may have a chance. As it stands, this is the team likely to suffer from the group of death, missing out on the knockout stage as the teams with more depth go through but enjoy watching this flashy team while you can.