Hi all, my name’s Andy Logan, and I’m really delighted to be InsideSTL's newest columnist. I was born and raised – and still live - in England, so I’ll be writing articles about the Rams from a uniquely British perspective, covering the history of, and attitude to, the NFL in my country. Also, I’ll be writing regular soccer columns, too, based around the English Premier and other major European soccer leagues.
To start with, however, I’ve been tasked with creating a preview around Euro 2012, the biggest national football tournament played on European soil. It’s held once every four years, and I’ll be keeping you up to date throughout the tournament on the results, the goal scorers and the big stories as they happen.
By the time this is posted, the competition will have kicked off, and it’s entirely possible that my predictions and ramblings will already have proven to be so far off the mark I deserve a slap, but hopefully that won’t be the case.
(I should just add, at this point, that I don’t like to sit on the fence. I’m not the sort of writer who just throws out facts and stats and leaves things at that. I have opinions, and I’m not afraid to express them and stick my neck on the line. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I get it wrong. Feedback and your thoughts are always welcomed and appreciated, and I do love a good debate, so feel free to have your say, either in the comments section or via email.)
This time around, the tournament is being held in two countries, neither of whom are a traditional force in world football – Poland and the Ukraine. The media focus so far has been on the perceived problems that both countries (particularly Ukraine) suffer with racism. Hopefully as the tournament progresses the attempted media firestorm will have blown out and we will be talking about matters on the field and not off.
The winners four years ago were Spain, kick starting (no pun intended) the success that would see them add the World Cup two years later. At the time, they looked to have a team that would dominate European football for years to come, but four years is a long time in football, and, as we’ll see in this preview, I don’t think they’re quite the force they were, although they remain one of the teams to beat.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the groups, before focusing on the individual teams, reasons why they might win, reasons why they won’t win, and I’ll pick out a player to watch from each country.
POLAND, CZECH REPUBLIC, RUSSIA, GREECE
On the surface of it, not exactly a group to stir the imagination and get the blood pumping. However, over the years, the Czech Republic have earned a reputation for playing some wonderful football and in the sublime Pavel Nedved - now retired - had one of the greatest midfielders of the modern era (he had lovely hair, too. No, really, google him, it was a work of feathered art) There is a feeling, however that this is an average Czech side, not worthy of comparison with the great teams of the past. Russia continually flatter to deceive, often looking good in qualifying but flopping in the actual tournaments themselves, but having said that, they have a core of youngsters and some experienced heads who can spring a shock or two. Poland reached the semi finals of the World Cup in 1982, but it's been a long time since they reached those giddy heights and they've suffered since then; much like Russia, though, they are young, hungry and have something to prove. Finally, believe it or not, Greece are former winners of this tournament - even if they were the most unlikely team to lift the Trophy in its history, and did so by playing pragmatic, defensive and, frankly, rather dull football. Still, a win is a win, right?
Why they might win - Pedigree. Of all the teams in this group, the Czech's have the richest history in terms of football style and player skill. Tradition, however, is no guarantee of success. They are neat and tidy in defence and midfield without being outstanding, but can struggle to score goals.
Why they won't win - Not enough individual flair, and no world class players - the current side is a mixture of journeymen who have never achieved anything of note, or older players whose best days are behind them. Stalwarts such as Cech, Rosicky and Baros are not the players they used to be.
Player to watch – Arsenal’s Tomas Rosicky is the definition of a player who has never fulfilled his talent due to injury. He stayed relatively fit last season however, and at times looked back to his best of six years ago. Quick, nimble and able to play passes that other players can only dream of, he remains the hub of the side and easily its best player.
Why the might win - They are joint hosts, and you should never, ever underestimate the power of home advantage. Also, despite the expected pressure to succeed as a home nation, they’ve gone into the tournament with relatively low expectations. This is only their second appearance in the Euros, and they didn't cover themselves in glory the first time, so the fans and the press aren't putting too much pressure on. The last time that happened in a football tournament was with South Korea in 2002, and they went all the way to the semi finals on the back of it. Combine that with some skilful players and they're one of my dark horse tips for the tournament.
Why they won't win – Not enough experience at the top level, a promising corps of players needs a few more years to develop. Despite the home advantage, this tournament has come to soon in the current team’s cycle. There is, as with other teams in this group, a lack of individual flair and guile, and they rely too much on stopping the opposition playing rather than creating chances and playing incisive football. There is also, despite having one of the up and coming young strikers in European football on their team, a nasty habit of not scoring enough goals.
Player to watch - Robert Lewandowski. Dortmund's leading scorer helped the German side win their league this year. He's a pacy, strong striker, very good in the air and possessing a fierce shot, who has been linked heavily to Man Utd.
Why they might win – In 2008, Russia reached the semi finals of the Euros playing some breathtaking football that at times evoked memories of the great Dutch teams of the 70’s. They failed to follow up on that promise, however, and missed out on qualification for the 2010 World Cup, something that really hurt their development as a team. The skill is still there, however, and the impression I get from watching them is of a team who are that bit older and wiser and feel they have a point to prove. For too many years, Russia has underachieved in tournament football and they are determined to prove that things are going to be different this time. That determination, the sense of injustice and the desire to put things right can inspire them. Along with Poland, they are my other dark horse tip, not just from this group, but for the tournament. The forward three of Kerzhakov, Arshavin and the sublime Dzagoev - when on form - are fast, fluid and a real handful. There’s goals in this team, make no mistake about it.
Why they won’t win – They’re a short team without a massive physical presence, which could cost them when they play aggressive, hard running sides such as Poland and Greece. They can be bullied and put off their stride by a team that’s prepared to get that little bit physical, and some players, such as Arshavin, are known to go missing when things aren’t going their way.
Player to watch – Easy one this, Alan Dzagoev. Could very well turn out to be player of the tournament, the attacking midfielder is lightening fast with the ball at his feet and scores more than his fair share of goals. Still only 21, he can become of the most sought after and exciting players in European football over the course of the next five weeks.
Why they might win - They did it in 2004, so why not now? To be fair, back then, they were ignored by the media, who viewed them as simply being at the tournament to make up the numbers, but they kept winning and winning, mainly by scoring goals from set pieces and playing largely dull but ultimately effective football. Being a dark horse without the weight of media attention and pressure can inspire teams to do great things, and it worked back then. Problem is, they’re not under the radar anymore – for sure, nobody expects them to win again, but nobody will be underestimating them, either. They have a great team spirit and ethos, are very defensively solid and are happy with doing virtually nothing for 88 minutes before working a set piece routine to steal a goal and a win. Exciting? No. Effective? Very.
Why they won’t win – If the set pieces don’t work out, they don’t score goals. It seems to be a recurring theme in this group, but the teams involved (except Russia) don’t have a great deal of skill and flair, with very few players who can do something unexpected that turns a game. Greece, more so than any of the other teams, are guilty of this. They play eight men behind the ball at virtually all times, forcing the forward line to feed off scraps. A team just as organized and determined as they are will have no problem containing them.
Player to watch – Kyriakos Papadopoulos. A defensive superstar in the making, Kyriakos plays his club football in Germany, for Schalke, and was in the top five players for tackles, interceptions and blocked shots in the entire league last season. He is the very epitome of the Greek team as a whole – strong, solid and dependable without being spectacular.
My prediction – Poland and Russia to go through.
GERMANY, HOLLAND, PORTUGAL, DENMARK
Ah, the good old “Group of Death”. Every tournament has one, that one single group where at least three teams participating are viewed as potential winners. Of course, only the top two can go through, which means at least one pre-tournament favorite is going to find themselves flying home early. Germany are THE football tournament specialists, having won trophies again and again by playing the most pragmatic if not always the most enjoyable football. This current generation, however, are renowned as much for their flair as for their solidity. Holland has their traditional mixture of talented individuals, but marry this with some more brutal players whose primary function is to stop the other team playing. Portugal have a raft of big name players but often flatter to deceive and they struggled to qualify for the Euros this time around. Denmark appear to be there as the group whipping boys, but the lack of pressure on them to qualify means that they could spring a surprise or two.
Why they might win – Take a look at this little list. Argentina, Uruguay, England, Brazil, Holland. You know what they have in common? Germany have beaten them all at some stage in the past two years. Traditionally known as a team that plays football to win trophies first and entertain second, this current crop of young German players are a delight to watch, playing wonderful football and winning games seemingly with ease. They scored 34 goals in qualifying and won 10 out of 10 games – the first time any Gernan side had ever done so. Their attacking options are frightening, and in Mario Goetze and Marco Reus, they have two of the very best young players around sitting on the bench and ready to come on and make things happen. Mesut Ozil is one of my favourite players to watch, Klose and Podolski up front seem to find another gear playing for their national team, and despite never having impressed me when I’ve seen him play, the striker Mario Gomez has a goal scoring record that’s second to none.
Whey they won’t win – They can be suspect in defence. Lahm can play at RB or LB, but apart from him and the sometimes erratic goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, there are no other world class players to chose from. Having said that, they have so much energy, skill and creativity in midfield and attack that it’s hard to get close enough to the defence to test them too much.
Player to watch – Bastien Schweinsteiger. Try and say his name without putting on a German accent. Go on, I dare ya. The midfielder may have missed the penalty that cost his club side Bayern Munich the Champions League, but he remains a big game player for the big occasion. He never stops running, and sits in front of the defence to act as a shield, breaking up attacks and feeding the ball to his more mercurial colleagues to work their magic. Without him, the Germans instantly become less physical and more vulnerable.
Why they might win – They’re largely the same team that reached the World Cup final two years ago, which means they have the experience of the biggest games and know what to expect. Traditionally more of a skill than strength side, they’ve faced some criticism in recent years from their own fans because of the “anti football” style they’ve been accused of playing. They have some of the most dynamic and talented attacking players in the world, and if they can continue their recent run of goal scoring form they’ll be hard to stop. 37 goals in qualifying meant that they were the highest scoring team. Klass-Jan Huntelaar was the top individual scorer for any nation during the process and while not the most technically proficient striker, he is a supreme poacher.
Why they won’t win – Too often, the Dutch implode, with team mates falling out and publicly bickering. It’s very rare that you hear of a unified Holland team going into a tournament without reports of tantrums and players falling out. So far - fingers crossed - there seems to be some harmony, but you get the impression this could change at any time. In Van Persie, Robben, Sneijder and Van Der Vaart they have four players who can win games out of nowhere on their day, but who have all, to varying degrees, failed to perform at their highest level for the national side. Defensively, they often look slow and tactically out of step.
Player to watch – Robin Van Persie. The best finisher in world football as far as I’m concerned, RvP has been breaking records for fun at Arsenal over the past year, after finally staying fit for virtually a whole season. He’s one of the favourites to finish top scorer in the tournament, but has never hit the same heights in orange as he has done in red.
Why they might win – Ronaldo. Nani. Moutinho. Veloso. Names to make you drool – that’s how good they are on paper. There is an inconsistency to their play that ensures they are either brilliant or dreadful, veering from one to the other, sometimes at half time during the same game. If their star players are in the mood, they have every chance of going very far in the tournament. Goal scoring remains a problem though - their main striker, Helder Postiga, simply isn’t very good.
Why they won’t win - Any team with the best European born player in football has to be considered as potential winners, but the Portuguese struggled to qualify for Euro 2012, losing their last game to Denmark, and having to beat Bosnia in a play-off to ultimately go through. Nani has always been Ronaldo-lite, never as good as his compatriot, and he can spend far too much time running up blind alleys instead of creating chances. Ronaldo, for all his skill, has a petualant streak that can throw him off his game, and has a need to be the center of attention that means he tries to do everything himself.
Player to watch – Obviously, its Ronaldo. If he’s not on form, neither are Portugal. There isn’t another team in the tournament who rely on one player as much as Portugal do on Ronaldo.
Why they might win - 20 years ago, Denmark didn’t originally qualify for the Euros, but were a late call-up to replace Yugoslavia, who had to withdraw. They went on to win the entire shooting match, beating heavyweights such as Holland and Germany on the way. What price history repeating itself? Theyr’re not a bad side at all; they were in the same qualifying group as Portugal and a tough, hard to break down Norway side, but beat them both to finish top. Except for the hugely promising Christian Eriksen in midfield, they don’t have very many eye catching players, but they know how to play possession football and don’t give away cheap goals. They’ll need some luck, but with the attention on the other ‘big three’ teams in this group; they could spring a shock or two.
Why they won’t win – They could have a say in who does go through, but I don’t think they have the quality to progress very far. They’re too pedestrian and don’t have enough attacking prowess. If main striker Nicklas Bendtner was half as good in reality as he is in his own head, then he’d be a good shout for top scorer. Sadly, he’s not and he won’t be.
Player to watch – Christian Eriksen. Still only 21, he’s the great white hope of Danish football. Talented and tidy with the ball, the weight of an entire nations hopes rest on his shoulders. It remains to be seen if early promise will be translated into greatness.
My prediction – Germany and Holland to go through. Germany to win Euro 2012.
SPAIN, ITALY, CROATIA, REPUBLIC OF IRELAND
You have to say that Spain and Italy look favourites to qualify from this group. Croatia are hot and cold and but do have some immense attacking talent and surely Ireland should be happy to just be there and soak up the atmosphere. However, when it comes to team spirit and the love of playing for their country, both of the underdogs have to be taken seriously. I predict a shock here - a resurgent Croatia to qualify at the expense of one of the two favourites.
Why they might win – Still the team to beat, despite recent performances and results suggesting that this ‘golden generation’ is beginning to wane. Perhaps Spain’s biggest problem is finding room to accommodate all their players in the same team – it’s an embarrassment of riches that saw them win the last Euros and the last World Cup. Spain are scary good at keeping possession and creating chances, and qualified with a goals for and against ratio of 26-6. If Villa gets fit and Torres continues to rediscover his mojo, they’ll be hard to beat, but that’s a lot of “ifs”.
Why they won’t win it - There’s no doubt that their defense is not as solid as it was four years ago, and they can be susceptible to pace. Puyol has slowed considerably and was embarrassed on more than one occasion this past season, and his partner at centre back, Pique, has struggled for form. If you can get the ball from them, and somehow contain the riches they have in attack, there’s goals to be scored against this team.
Player to watch – You could pick almost anybody from the front five or six, but Xavi remains the heartbeat of the team. He virtually never gives the ball away, and is capable of keeping it short and neat and then playing a jaw dropping through ball that no other player on the pitch was expecting.
Why they might win it – Finally, after too many years of relying on the same old players, Italy have started to bring through youth and inject some much needed pace and verve into an aging and increasingly marginalized squad. Much depends on which Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano show up – two on song and in the mood players means that Italy will be a real handful, but both players are as likely to sulk as score. They rely on the full backs to provide width and play with virtually four centre midfielders – great for retaining possession, not always conducive to opening up the field and attacking from different angles. They remain, however, the most exciting Italy side to watch in years.
Why they won’t win – Injury questions plague Cassano, and attitude problems plague Balotelli. They rely far too much on those two players, and should either or both fail to hit the heights they’re capable of, then Italy will struggle. The lack of a recognized winger or wide player means they play very narrow and that puts pressure on the full backs to provide width, which can lead to positional errors.
Player to watch – Mario Balotelli. Always in the news, as often for his off field antics as his exploits on it, the mercurial Man City player gives the impression that he’s just as likely to get sent off as his is to score goals. He could develop into a true great as he continues to mature, and has pace and power to spare.
Why they might win it – It’s a cliché, but very few players take as much pride in playing for their country as the Croatians do. It’s a matter of immense pride for them to be able to pull on the shirt and they never give less than 100% every time they play. They crashed out in heartbreaking circumstances at the last World Cup, losing to Turkey on penalties, despite being ahead in the last minute of extra time, and it’s taken them a long time to mentally recover from that blow. In Luka Modric they have one of the best midfielders there is, a playmaker whose small stature belies his immense courage. Blessed with attacking options, they can have a major say in the direction of this group.
Why they won’t win it – Very few, if any, recognized stars in defence, Croatia are average at best at the back. Manager Slaven Bilic often picks a midfield packed with offensive minded players, choosing to put all of his faith in his team’s ability to score more than their opponents. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. How far they go in the tournament depends entirely on whether it works in the coming weeks.
Player to watch – Luka Modric. The best player in the team by a mile, Modric is one of the best passers in the game. Lightening quick, he has an incredible football brain and always seems to be thinking two or three steps ahead of his rivals.
Republic of Ireland
Why they might win it – Discipline. They work so hard to win the ball and every player knows what his job is and how to do it. They rely on the counter attack on and on feeding long balls to a centre forward and support striker, either direct from midfield or down the wings. Very difficult to break down and score goals against because of the number of players they keep behind the ball, Ireland go into this tournament with the remit from their fans to just enjoy themselves and make people proud. Their discipline can be a weakness, however, as they just keep trying the same thing over and over again instead of adding some variety to their play. The lack of pressure could give them an edge of their more illustrious rivals. Funnily enough, Ireland going a goal down often sees them play their best football, as they have no choice but to throw off the rigidity and just go for it.
Why they won’t win it – They give the ball away far too cheaply, and if a team has strong, dominant central defenders, the long ball they employ far too often is just mopped up. Not enough imagination or inventiveness to go really far, although any team that underestimates them could come undone.
Player to watch – Robbie Keane. An obvious choice, but their most experienced and lauded outfield player remains their best. Time is against Keane now at the age of 32, and this is almost certainly his last chance to experience tournament football. They’ll be relying on him for goals, inspiration and leadership.
My Prediction – I just have a hunch, here. Croatia and Italy to go through.
FRANCE, ENGLAND, SWEDEN, UKRAINE
France have recovered from a very low ebb in recent years and are seen as of the favourites for Euro 2012, something you never would have predicted after the disaster of the 2010 World Cup. England are at a low ebb themselves at the moment, with a new manager being dogged by selection controversies and a paucity of genuine world class talent. Sweden will be as organized as ever, but continue to rely too heavily on an aging crop of players, and Ukraine…well, I think they’re the worst team in the tournament, and they’re only here as they qualified automatically as joint hosts with Poland. Do they deserve to be there on footballing merit? No.
Why they might win it – The fiasco of the 2010 World Cup, when infighting and arguing cost France dearly, seems very far away now. Laurent Blanc has replaced an old and bitter group of players with a younger, hungrier and less egotistical squad. Up front, Karim Benzema has finally begun to fulfill his early promise and has had a superb season for Real Madrid, and has the talent to challenge for the top goal scorer award. Samir Nasri quite often looks better as a French player than he does as a Man City one, and looks to be taking on the senior role as leader on the pitch that the French have lacked since Zidane retired.
Why they won’t win it – Defensively, they’re shaky, and teams with plenty of attacking options shouldn’t have too much trouble. The two CB’s, Rami and Mexes have struggled with form and fitness all season, and Patrice Evra is no longer the world class LB he used to be. In attack, Franck Ribery still too often doesn’t replicate his awesome Bayern Munich form for his country and the media in France spend as much time debating his individual merits as they do the team as a whole.
Player to watch – Yann M’Vila has one remit as a midfielder in this team – intercept the ball and get it to the players who can make something special happen with it. His ability and positional awareness means he is a vital cog in the team, shielding an often suspect back four and helping launch attacks at speed. France need him at the top of his game.
Why they might win it – For the first time in a generation, England go into an international tournament with a disenchanted media and fan base not singing their chances of winning from the rooftops. The pressure and expectation that has plagued the national squad since 1966 - and has at times reached hysterical heights - simply doesn’t exist at this moment in time. Yes, there is a desire to see the team do well, and also a determination to ensure they don’t come home having been embarrassed, but such is the lack of belief in the team’s ability to do well that qualifying for the knockout stages will be seen as an acceptable performance. I think this low key approach will benefit England, as it will remove the crippling sense of fear that has been felt for too long. Roy Hodgson seems to have realised that England need to play to their own strengths and not the oppositions, and has, in his short time in charge, sent out teams to play functional and safety first football. There is the talent in the squad to do well, even better than many people are expecting, but it remains to be seen if England can avoid the self destructive streak that has cost them dearly in the past.
Why they won’t win – Love him or loathe him, Wayne Rooney is England’s best player, and he’s missing for the first two group games due to suspension. By the time he comes back for the final game, England could already be mathematically eliminated, rendering his return irrelevant. There isn’t a great deal of strength in deep, particularly in midfield and attack, and there has already been selection controversy with the whole Rio Ferdinand affair. The press have a habit of building England up only so they can knock them down again, and although the expectation level is through the floor at the moment, it won’t take much for the media frenzy to start. Can the players perform when the pressure is on?
Player to watch – Danny Welbeck seems set to get the nod as the lone striker with Rooney out against France and Sweden. Welbeck scored a sublime goal against Belgium recently and has bags of pace and trickery. He also looks to link up well with Manchester United team mate Ashley Young. If Welbeck can keep his new found momentum going, then perhaps England won’t miss Rooney as much as people think they will.
Why they might win it – A very experienced team who are never easy to beat, Sweden play a very “English” version of football, often as not relying on 4-4-2 and setting themselves up in a way that makes them very hard to beat. In recent games they’ve started to experiment with different formations in an effort to be less predictable, with varying results. Yes, they’re playing with more pace and width than in some time, but their defensive solidity has gone and they’re relying more than ever on Zlatan Ibrahimovic. They are far more exciting to watch than I’ve ever seen them, though, and if they play with the confidence they’re capable of, they have a chance of progressing.
Why they wont win it – Like I said above, they rely too heavily on one player – the walking ego that is Zlatan. The striker is a veritable veteran of the side now, and one of those players whose hype has passed me by. Put simply – I just don’t understand why he’s rated so highly, he’s looked very ordinary to me, and has only shown the odd moment of brilliance.
Player to watch – Duh – Ibrahimovic. A captain who often acts as if he couldn’t care less about the team and only about himself, it’s time for him to live up to the (often self generated) hype.
Why they might win it – They won’t. Four managers in two years, a 4-1 hammering by France recently, another loss to group opponents Sweden in a friendly, losses to the Czech Republic and the Italians, Andriy Shevchenko still leading the line despite being 108 and a shadow of his former self, and a group of young players who have failed to impress despite numerous chances means that this a very poor side in my opinion, who will do well to come away with more than 2 points on their way to a first round exit. Still, home advantage will make a difference, and in Andriy Yarmolenko they have a midfield player who I think will be one of the very best in the world in the near future.
Why they won’t it – See above. Not enough quality throughout the team, sorry Ukraine fans. I just look at the individual players, the team performances and the tactics over the past two years and I don’t see anything that makes me think you can win.
Player to watch – Yarmolenko has scored 12 times in 20 league games in the past season and appears to have the Holy Grail of physical strength and technical ability. He could have a breakout tournament and a move to one of the bigger European clubs surely awaits.
My prediction – England and France to go through. England only just.
So there you have it, my thoughts and predictions for the group stages. Now we can have some fun and see just how off base I was! Stick with me for analysis and opinions as the tournament goes on.