Outside of the World Cup, no tournament gets more attention than the quadrennial European Championships for the quality and standard of play. 16 nations square off from June 8- July 1 to determine the champion of European soccer. The 2012 tourney is being held jointly in Poland and The Ukraine and the 2 hosts are joined from qualifying by 9 group winners, the best 2nd place team by point total and the 4 playoff winners from the remaining 2nd placed teams. There were few surprise omissions from this year’s tournament, only Turkey, Serbia and Switzerland causing a minor lift of the eyebrows at their failure to qualify unlike in 2008 when England failed to even make the finals. The defending champion is Spain (also the current World Cup holder).
Note: The opinions written below are my own, please feel free to disagree about anything and everything. I listed a number of key players as midfielders when many consider players like Lukas Podolski and Franck Ribery to be forwards. With the prevalence in this tournament of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations that use forwards as advanced wingers, I chose to list those tweener guys in midfield. Whatevs. One final thought, I have listed key players as I currently believe them to be playing. Injuries will happen between now and the tourney start so if a guy doesn’t end up playing and I’ve said he’ll be the star of the tourney… sorry!
One really special note, for some reason these Euro douches love putting crappy music to all the highlights. Some of it really sucks so just be forewarned when clicking links.
TV Schedule All matches are on ESPN/ESPN2
Poland- Perennially a fringe team in major tournament qualification, Poland is here by virtue of being a host nation. Largely known for producing a few quality players per generation, Poland has long suffered from potential stars choosing Germany over their Polish heritage, Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski being two recent examples. This Polish team however, has a shot to advance as they are blessed with being placed in the weakest of the 4 groups. Poland’s coach has left 2 high profile players home, GK Artur Boruc and MF Slawomir Plezco, for drinking offenses, leaving a very young Polish squad. Poland’s best player, Robert Lewandowski, exploded into prominence at Dortmund this past season and $30+ million bids are being lined up for the 30 goal hit man. The best of the rest are probably Dortmund MF Jakob Blaszczykowski and young Arsenal GK Wojciech Szcsesny.
Greece- Stunning victors of Euro 2004 in Portugal, the Greeks have not done much in tournament play since, failing to qualify for World Cup 2006 and failing to advance from the group stages at Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010. Known for their stodgy defense, Greece rarely wins style points by playing some seriously ugly footy, then snatching the odd goal here or there. There aren’t a lot of exciting players to highlight here and if we ignore some solid defenders, Samsunspor striker Theofanis Gekas is probably the best of the bunch.
Russia-The Russkis should be considered overwhelming favorites in Group A. Blessed with a number of talented offensive players in Pavel Pogrebnyak, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Aleksandr Kerzakov, if talismanic attacker Andrei Arshavin can recover from a disastrous season at Arsenal which saw him loaned out to Zenit, Russia has the firepower to go a long way. Young MF Alan Dzagoev is an intriguing player with 18 caps at age 21 and don’t forget GK Igor Akinfeev, who might just be the best goalkeeper you've never heard of.
Czech Republic- The Czechs don’t currently boast the quality they had in the last decade and while it was no surprise that they came in 2nd in their qualifying group behind mighty Spain, a home loss to Lithuania was a bit of a head scratcher. The Czechs were fortunate to draw Montenegro in the playoffs (probably the 2nd weakest team of the 8) and their 3-0 aggregate win has gotten them round trip tickets to Poland. Petr Cech is still a top class GK and any hopes they have of advancing likely rest in his capable hands but looking at their roster doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence. MF Tomas Rosicky looks past it when on the field for Arsenal although young striker Tomas Necid, who plys his trade in the frozen tundra of Russia, could be a future star.
Fire Starkey says- Forget the Czechs, a GK can only take you so far. Russia is a near lock to win the group but either Greece or Poland could finish 2nd. I’ll give the Poles the advantage based on home field advantage. Order: Russia, Poland, Greece, Czech Rep.
Netherlands- 2010 World Cup runner up, the Dutch emerged from that tournament with a reputation for thuggery and on field violence unmatched in recent memory after their 8 yellow cards, cynical fouls and a flying karate kick that somehow didn’t get an ejection in the Final. Seemingly gone are the days of Total Football, the style of soccer invented by the great Dutch teams of the 70’s, but despite their nasty reputation, Holland oozes offensive talent. Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben and Klass Jan-Huntelaar are about as good as it gets at the forward position and Dirk Kuyt still has something to offer there as well. Wesley Sneijder and Rafael Van der Vaart are two of the most creative midfielders on the planet and are anchored in the midfield by dual leg breaking thugs, Nigel de Jong and Mark von Bommel. While GK Marcus Stekelenberg is more than adequate between the sticks, defense remains the question for the Dutch. Gregory van der Wiel is solid at RB but Joris Mathijsen and John Heitenga hardly inspire confidence in the middle.
Germany- Pre tourney favorites Germany were a revelation at World Cup 2010. Boasting a large quantity of outstanding young players, Germany surprised many by advancing to the semi-finals and signaled their intent to resume their perch as Europe’s top team. In my opinion, it will be shocking if Germany isn’t in at least the semi-finals of every major tournament for at least the next decade. Up top, Miroslav Klose is somewhere around 2000 years old so it will be a surprise if hulking man beast Mario Gomez isn’t the starter. It is in midfield where Germany has an incredible wealth of talent. Former wunderkind Lukas Podolski, he of the incredible 95 caps at age 26, Bastian Schweinsteiger (90 caps at age 27), Mezut Ozil, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller and Sami Khedira are all already tried and true at the international level. That doesn’t even mention Andre Schurrle, Mario Gotze and Marco Reus, all youngsters ready to explode on the international stage. Defense is a mild concern, particularly at center back where Per Mertesacker is coming off an injury and Holger Badstuber and Mats Hummels are merely competent, but Phillip Lahm is one of the best attacking fullbacks in the world and GK Manuel Neuer is well on his way to being a star.
Portugal- Ahhh, lucky Portugal, to be placed in a group with 2 of the top 5 teams in the world. Despite boasting the world’s best player not 5’4” tall and Argentine, Portugal could struggle badly here. They managed to squeeze through qualifying despite an embarrassing 4-4 draw at home to Cyprus and losses to Denmark and Norway on the road. An easy playoff draw with Bosnia enabled them to advance only to likely be sacrificed at the altar of the footy gods. There’s nothing really bad about Portugal’s roster, it’s just uninspiring once you list Cristiano Ronaldo’s name. Nani is decent, Helder Postiga is decent, the defense led by Pepe and Bruno Alves is ok… I just don’t see Portugal doing much against what is the toughest group in the tournament. That sound you’re hearing is either the air being let out of a hot air balloon or an enormous fart coming from Lisbon, I can’t really tell.
Denmark- The word to best describe the Danes is “plucky” because I have no clue why they are able to be successful on the global stage so consistently. Despite only turning out world class players in dribbles, the Danes have been a mainstay in major tournaments since the mid 80’s. Qualifying was relatively easy for them, only Portugal offered them much resistance and the Danes emerged victorious from their group. Dennis Rommedahl and Niklas Bendtner are adequate up top but the real player of interest for me is 20 year old Christian Erickson in midfield, he has all the attributes to be a superstar. The defense is extremely solid with Daniel Agger and Simon Kjaer in the middle flanked by Lars Jacobsen and Simon Poulson. Thomas Sorensen is the longtime GK and is decent.
Fire Starkey says- If the Netherland and Germany don’t advance, it will be stunning. Portugal is a mess, I see them having zero chance. Denmark will need help. Order- Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Portugal.
Spain- Defending Euro and World Cup champion Spain has some issues. Injuries have ravaged the team in the past season so long time stalwarts Carlos Puyol and David Villa are out. In addition, Fernando Torres has endured a miserable season at Chelsea and the rest of the Spanish forwards are largely untested internationally. Fernando Llorente is likely to get some looks but I wonder if younger players Pedro or Alvaro Negredo will get some significant playing time. Midfield remains Spain’s strength with long time studs Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Juan Mata available. Don’t forget the world’s most notorious flopper, Sergio Busquets either. Despite his Shakespearean antics, he is one of the world’s best holding midfielders. The defense is a concern without Puyol and while Shakira’s boyfriend, Gerard Pique, is good, and Sergio Ramos has his moments, the likes of Joan Capdevila and Arvalo Arbeloa hardly inspire tons of confidence. GK Iker Casillas has a big reputation but I am not a fan as he has a tendency to give up bad goals at inopportune times. Spain still can win this tournament but I could also see them going out early in the knockout stages.
Italy- One of the world’s footy Super Powers, Italy suffered through a disastrous World Cup 2010, failing to advance from a laughably easy group of New Zealand, Slovakia and Paraguay. Age had caught up with The Azzurri and new coach Cesare Prandelli has junked Italy’s traditional defense oriented counter attack strategy. Still, qualification was a breeze and the Italians boasted the best defense on the continent during qualifying. Unfortunately, the goals have dried up since American born Giuseppe Rossi’s Kodiak like ACL rupture and subsequent relapse/tear and Antonio Cassano’s heart problems. In addition, Prandelli is choosing to go significantly younger so this may be a transitional tournament for the Italians. The old guys are Juventus’s allegedly neo-fascist Gianluigi Buffon, who is still a top class keeper, 33 year old Juve MFAndrea Pirlo, one of the world’s best free kick specialists and 34 year old Antonio Di Natale from Udinese, whose 88 goals the past 3 years make him hard to ignore when you consider Italy’s lack of firepower up top. Head case Mario Balotelli has the potential to be one of the world’s best forwards but he is extremely emotional and can disappear for long stretches on the field. Italy is one of the big puzzles in this tournament, they have a lot of talent but have not been able to get the goals recently in home losses to the US and Uruguay.
Ireland- My beloved Irish! Cheated out of a World Cup 2010 appearance by Thierry Henry and the dirty, cheating French scum, Ireland may be making their final major tourney appearance for a while. There is little youth on this squad and no real stars on the horizon. Despite a recent injury, Robbie Keane looks like he will be available and will lead the line. Hopefully he has a few goals left in him because Kevin Doyle and Shane Long are rather uninspiring partners for him in attack. Stephen Hunt and Damien Duff will add grit to the midfield but the Irish need to hope that Darron Gibson or Keith Andrews can chip in with something. Defense is solid with John O’Shea and Richard Dunne while long time GK Shay Given still has plenty to offer. That said, anything but last place in this group will be a moral victory and if by some miracle the Irish do advance from the group stages, coach Giovanni Trappatoni will be immortalized in the annals of Irish lore along with Michael Collins, St. Patrick and Cu Chullain.
Croatia- A little bit of an unknown are the Croatians. Since the breakup of Yugoslavia, Croatia has performed reasonably well on the European stage and boasts a number of quality players that could make them a dark horse in the tourney. Up top, Nikica Jelavic was a midseason revelation for Everton after his transfer from Rangers and there is depth there with Ivica Olic, naturalized Brazilian Eduardo and Ivan Klasnic available. Luka Modric is a playmaking midfielder that seemingly every major team in England is chasing this summer and if he has a good tourney, watch out! Nico Krancjar and Danijel Pranjic should also offer something from midfield. The defense is a bit iffy, Stipe Pletikose is a decent option at GK but Vedran Corluka and an ageing Josip Simunic hardly inspire confidence on the back line.
Fire Starkey says- Spain and Italy are the clear choices here and if they don’t advance it will be a surprise. Croatia has the ability to cause some problems but the Irish pose little threat. Order: Spain, Italy, Croatia, Ireland.
Ukraine- Little is known about co-host Ukraine as all but 2 of their players are domestically based and get little exposure continentally. 15 of the provisional 27 man roster play for either Dynamo Kyiv or Shaktar Donestsk so at least they should be familiar with each other. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of offense in the Ukrainian side with only the ageless Andriy Shevchencko having more than 10 international goals to his credit. Shevchenko was the best striker in the world 10 years ago but he is almost 36 now and he’ll have to come up big for the hosts to do anything. Andriy Voronin and Artem Milevskiy are the other underwhelming choices up front. In midfield, 33 year old Anatoliy Tymoschuk must also come up big as I don’t see a ton of quality there. Defense and goalkeeper look relatively inexperienced so the Ukraine may need to ride home momentum to advance out of the first round. Fortunately for them, they are in the 2nd weakest group so they may be able to squeak through.
Sweden- Like the Danes, Sweden plays a smart brand of footy that has caused problems for a multitude of power teams over the years. Unlike the Danes however, Sweden boasts some seriously high end players, most notably the volatile Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a big powerful striker who can score in bunches. He is partnered by the capable Johan Elmander and the midfield trio of Rasmus Elm, Kim Kallstrom and Sebastian Larsson will provide plenty of service. Outside of Olof Mellberg, the defense lacks experience but GK Andreas Isaksson is a good one.
France- The luster from France’s “Golden Generation” is gone but the Frogs still boast plenty of talent. Their disgraceful exit from World Cup 2010 highlighted the dysfunction of the team and the coach and several players were subsequently jettisoned. Up top, Karim Benzema will almost certainly lead the line and the Real Madrid striker has bags of talent. Jeremy Menez is an interesting option there but Loic Remy is injured and he would’ve helped. Attacking midfield is France’s strength and much of the offense will likely flow through the cartoonishly ugly Franck Ribery. Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa enjoyed excellent seasons at Newcastle, Yann M’Vila is a rock and if Samir Nasri can rediscover previous form, the Froggies could be tough to handle. Defensively, GK Hugo Lloris is a stud and it will be interesting to see if Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny (who enjoyed an outstanding season but only has 1 cap) will get the nod to start alongside Phillipe Mexes at CB. Patrice Evra, for all his douchenozzleyness, is an excellent RB and Gael Clichy may get the nod on the left. If France has sorted out their locker room issues, they could be a force in this tournament.
England- What team has crap goalkeeping, an aging defense with no depth, old but good midfielders who can’t play together on the same field, shitty strikers and their best player is suspended for the 2 toughest games of group play? England, that’s who! Joe Hart is actually a pretty good keeper but he’ll have to carry this team and England’s keepers have sucked at the international level since at least the days of David Seaman (Peter Shilton, where are you???). Defensively, Ashley Cole is still capable of brilliance at left back but John Terry is starting to slow down and the English will have to hope that Gary Cahill or Phil Jones can help out in the middle. The midfield, once a strength, is now a load of meh and Steven Gerrard is going to have to have a good tournament because defensive mid stalwart Gareth Barry is out injured which won’t help things. Floposaurus Ashley Young can produce when he’s not rolling around in feigned agony and Theo Walcott has been known to produce but at forward, England is really hurting. Wayne Rooney’s idiotic red card against Macedonia means he’s out versus France and Sweden but maybe Andy Carroll or Danny Welbeck can give something. I don’t have high hopes for this English squad, they look really underwhelming to me. Famous last words no doubt…
Fire Starkey says- France should walk this group and I trust England as far as I can throw them. I think Sweden beats out the Ukraine for 2nd. Order- France, Sweden, Ukraine, England.
Quarterfinal winners: Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Italy
Semifinal winners: Germany, Spain