Euro 2012 kicked off yesterday with an exciting game between one of the host nations, Poland, and the 2004 champion, Greece.
After the last World Cup final, where Spain and Holland battled for the crown of best team in the world, much of the attention of the international stage has been set in Europe. While Messi and Neymar, allegedly two of the best players today, compete with Brazil and Argentina, nearly all of the other top 50 professional soccer players will be competing in Euro 2012. Ronaldo, Ozil, Robben, Schweinsteiger, Benzema, Ribery, Van Persie, Gerrard or Mario Gomez will partake in Europe’s top international tournament. Those names are enough to keep fans glued to the TV for the next month, but there will be a lot more stories coming out of Poland and Ukraine that will make the tournament worthwhile.
For instance, we will be able to witness whether or not Spain can become the first National Team to ever claim 3 major titles back to back. We will also have the chance to see if Arjen Robben can break his bad spell and finally lift a trophy this season, after coming so close at the club level.
England, Portugal and Italy are total enigmas right now. England is, probably, the team that has suffered the most injuries by key players; truly affecting their chances in the tournament. On top of it, Wayne Rooney will not be able to help on the first three matches, because of a suspension. So, unless his teammates can qualify to the quarterfinals, the Manchester United forward will not be able to compete. Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry and Gary Cahill are some of the key players who will miss the tournament from Roy Hodgson’s team for health reasons, while Rio Ferdinand was ruled out by the coach given his issues with John Terry.
Portugal has had a very bad run up to start of the Euro. The team lead by Cristiano Ronaldo has not found the right gear in the friendlies they have played in preparation for the tournament, with a meaningless tie and a blushing defeat against Turkey. Paulo Bento has not decided on his line up yet, and perhaps the biggest headache will be deciding who the attacking forward will be. Helder Postiga and Hugo Almeida have had very poor seasons, while Nelson has barely played for Benfica. The option of mining the midfield and placing Ronaldo as the lone forward is always tempting, but CR7 has already complained when he has been put in that situation at Real Madrid.
Italy, on the other hand, has had a tough time with both injuries and yet another scandal involving professional players rigging games for a profit. The Federation, given their involvement on the case, has already ruled some players out of the competition and Prandelli even admitted that if it benefited Italian soccer, he would be willing to take the team back home and not compete in the Euro, as a measure to control the further tainting of Italy’s reputation.
Giuseppe Rossi was not included on the call up list, Antonio Cassano recently recovered from an open-heart surgery, and most of the team’s hopes seem to fall on the shoulders of wildcard Mario Balotelli. With this situation at hand, Prandelli will most likely lean on his natural leader, Andrea Pirlo, to drive the team to victory, and hope for the talents of Giovinco, Marchisio and De Rossi to really come together to create something similar to what the generation of 2006 did: a cohesive, competitive team that was able to push its way to victory despite the lack of talent when compared to other teams.
On the surprise category, I would never write off Croatia and Ireland. One, because their younger players, led by Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic, have proven that they have enough talent to leave a mark in the Euro. The other one, because coached by Giovani Trapattoni, and unmistakably driven by their natural unwillingness to give up, can be the surprise of the toughest group, where they have also been matched with Italy and Spain.
While Denmark and Sweeden have a good chance of being the surprise of the tournament, thanks to their young squad and passion for attractive attacking soccer, these are two teams who have failed to succeed in the last 20 years. Denmark won the 1992 Euro, totally by surprise, as they were the last team admitted to the tournament once the Former Yugoslavian republics gave up their spot after the War of the Balans erupted. Sweeden, on their part, ended up with a bronze medal in 1994’s World Cup, and crowned Thomas Brolin as a national hero. But ever since, and although both nations have put together interesting squads in the last two decades, they always seem lo leave something to be desired. Sweden, even with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s as its biggest star, have not been main role players in the last two World Cups and Euros.
The surprise contender will, in my mind, be France. Although many would put their money on Germany or Holland, I don’t think they could be considered as much a surprise as France would, if they turned out victorious. Les Bleus have a good enough team to battle for a spot on the final. Franck Ribery and, mostly, Karim Benzema are in tip-top shape, and Laurent Blanc has been able to build a strong team that plays an attacking style. This playing philosophy benefits the team’s stars and I’m sure they will be a great match up for any of the main contenders.
Germany and Holland will be clear main players, but my money is still on Spain to take it all. Del Bosque’s team has now a winning mentality and a strong infrastructure that will allow them to compete at an advantage with the rest of the teams. The defensive end is superb, where the only hiccup was noticeable on the left flank. However, Jordi Alba has proven he is ready for prime time. He wants to celebrate his more than probable signing with F.C. Barcelona with a European title, and he has shown that he can be one of the best players of the tournament.
However, the main burden of the team’s hopes will fall on the shoulders of the team’s superstars: Andres Iniesta and David Silva. They have both finished the season with their clubs very strongly, winning the Copa del Rey with Barcelona and the Premier League with Manchester City, respectively, and seem to be a notch above the rest. If Vicente Del Bosque can find a good enough forward (Torres, Negredo or Llorente) to mesh with the rest of the midfielders (Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Busquets), the Spanish National Team will not have a hard time putting on high- quality shows as good as the ones they performed in South Africa in 2010.
Finally, the biggest disappointment of the tournament will, most likely, end up being host nation Ukraine. This is a team full of veterans players, most of them playing locally or in the Russian league, and dangerously clinging on the old glory days of super star Andryi Shevchenko. The team has not been able to rejuvenate in time, and perhaps not having had to qualify to the tournament has probably hurt them more than it has helped them. Ukraine has not had a competitive game in two years and now, although they will have the strength of their fans behind them, it will be hard for them to really shine.
These are my predictions and the next 4 weeks of soccer will determine how right or off I actually am. One thing is sure, Euro 2012 promises to be a great show with some of the most talented players competing for the crown held by Spain since 2008.