The Tightest Show Of Them All! Euro 2012 Approaches

Whenever someone moans at me about the predictability and lack of drama in some soccer tournaments or leagues I know I can always point them towards the history of the European championships, a tournament that never fails to tick all the boxes. Since its inception in 1960 the tournament has provided drama, excitement and a hell of a lot of betting angst. It’s also given the typical plucky underdog story you’d find in a feel good sporting movie the Cinderella ending that is normally denied by a Germany, Brazil or Italy at the sharp end of a World Cup tournament. Competitive doesn’t even describe this event sometimes.

Star studded sides from the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia never even made a World Cup final but made the final of the Euro final 6 times between them (the Soviets winning once in 1960). Michel Platini was denied by the Germans in two world cup semi finals in the 80s but dominated Euro 84 which cemented his reputation as on of the great midfielders in the game’s history. There was the Danish side in 1992 that was a last minute replacement for the war torn Yugoslavia and went on to win the whole thing with the Laudrup brothers and some young guy called Peter Schmiechel starring. There’s the Dutch side in 1988 who had a then fit Marco Van Basten and finally took a trophy home to show off before going back to their usual ‘Geelong in the 90s’ mode of looking like scintillating world beaters but never having the end product when it mattered.

There’s the last time England ever made any meaningful inroads in to a tournament when they hosted the big dance in 1996 with a team of rough diamonds who didn’t mind a drink (and a coach that was like a real life Arthur Daley from Minder) but once again fell to the eventual champions Germany in a penalty shootout. There was also the Czechs who came from nowhere in 1976 to win the tournament with a cheeky chip and their heartbreak in 2004 when they looked like favourites with their Pavel Nedved led free flowing football before being another side to be ground down to dust by the ruthless Greeks. In the same tournament the Greeks themselves went on to break bookies’ hearts and shocked everyone by winning the tournament which made at least 52,279 people in Melbourne very happy on a cold July morning.

You can also bring up Italy in 2000 who fought and scratched like a cat being thrown in to a bath to knock out the up until then rampant co-hosts Holland on penalties in the semi finals. The tables were then turned a few days later when Italy were cruelly denied by a literal last second equaliser and then golden goal by France in the final; the French side adding to their World Cup crown from 2 years earlier and confirming their status as one of the great international sides of the ages.

With the smaller amount of teams in the tournament and neutral grounding there is always a tall poppy or two being cut down which should go well with the Australian psyche but this drama will soon end in many ways with UEFA wanting the goose to lay more golden eggs by extending the tournament to have 24 teams from 2018. This will mean a second round and more predictability with lesser teams qualifying. Still, there is one last tournament with 16 sides and once again there are pros and cons to every side that will line up in Poland and Ukraine from this Friday. Grab an Okocim and have a look at the contenders.

In Group A there will be no big name countries or no world beating superstars but it will provide and even and intriguing contest. First off you have co-hosts Poland who have never really been up to the level of their golden era of the 70s when players like Grzegorz Lato popped out from behind the iron curtain to entertain the world. This time around they are seemingly betting the farm on the brilliant Borrusia Dortmund striker Robert Lewandowski as well as a decent support cast. Like Australia they have also had a glut of decent keepers but a lack of talent elsewhere like defence. It might be worth putting on Money on Lewandoswki to be top scorer in such an easy group. The prize of possibly playing against Germany in the next round could inspire them.

In Group A we also have Russia who made the semi finals under Guus Hiddink in 2008 with a side based around the UEFA Cup winning Zenit St Petersburg side of the time. With only a handful of players playing outside of Russia they have a team spirit and still Zenit-orientated rock hard midfield that can get them in to the semis but a lot will depend on the form, fitness and attitude of the Arsenal man-child Andrie Arshavin. Arshavin announced his arrival on the international scene 4 years ago in this tournmanent with some wonderful efforts. He’s up to odds of 70/1 to score a hattrick in this tournament but woefully out of form at the moment.

There’s Greece, a team that seems to keep on trucking but facing their first tournament without their title winning coach and father figure Otto Rehhagel. Gone are the ultra-defensive tactics of 2004 but watch out for a possible upset if they qualify from the group and get out in to the open waters of the knockout stages as their qualifying form showed they’re not living on past 2004 glories. Georgios Samaras is someone worth putting some money on to score first in any of their 3 group games but be warned as for his club Celtic he’s either a fleet footed world class wonder boy or has the work rate of a three-toed sloth. Greece also topping the group is still playing decent odds too and shouldn’t be discounted.

Finally in Group A there’s a Czech Republic side that is a shadow of their brilliant side from 1996-2006. They only just managed to finish above Scotland in qualifying and whilst they still have an in-form Petr Cech, a finally fit Tomas Rosicky and evergreen star striker in Milan Baros they have little support from the veterans still left from their glory days. Ignore people putting money on this side to do much, many are still seduced by the Czech’s giant killing run at Euro 96 but in a group this weak they’re not to have a line put through them completely.

Group B is THE group of death when it comes to groups of death. It’s a bubonic plague compared to a mere Ebola virus. You have the efficient, ruthless and quite unlucky German side that has a constant injection of young talent under Joachim Low but always seemed to miss a vital player in a big semi final or final and fall when it matters (normally to Spain). Ozil! Muller! Neuer! Klose! Gomez! What a team and a team that deserve a title. A lot may depend on the psyche of the Bayern Munich players (who make up over a third of the squad) after their Champions League heartbreak and if they can find a full back to complement Bayern captain Phillipp Lahm on the other wing. It’s hard to not at least put money on them for the semi finals. Muller is also still long odds to repeat his golden boot from South Africa at 26/1.

With Germany are bitter rivals The Netherlands who made the World Cup final with a side built around individual skill (Robben), opportunistic brilliance (Sneijder) and sheer brutality (Van Bommel). The ace in the pack is Robin Van Persie, someone who has never starred for country as much as he has for club. This is also a player who was the EPL player of the season and may not even get in to the starting XI ahead of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. This just shows the talent the Oranje have and how coach Bert Merwick is like Chris Scott in that he trusts his system before he trusts a player. The June 13 clash between these two will be a major highlight for anyone wanting to stay up to watch at least one group stage game on Setanta. Wesley Schnieder could somehow get top goalscorer in this group at 15/1 and going on his efforts in South Africa (5 goals) it could be worth a bet. Let’s just hope it doesn’t come down to Arjen Robben in a penalty shootout.

Denmark, for all it’s hard work in qualifying, will be cursing being drawn in such a tough group. The ghosts of 1992 will have be conjured to get anywhere near the knockout stages but if they can hopefully get a Dutch side off its game or Nicklas Bendtner can finally grow up and perform (both unlikely) then hope springs eternal. Watch for the flying winger Christian Ericksen for the Danes too as he’s touted as the most exciting talent since the Laudrups. Captain Danny Agger at 13/1 to be the first goalscorer for Denmark might be worth something. He takes their penalties and shown to score important goals for Liverpool when up for a corner.

The final team in the group of death is Portugal, a team that has failed to deliver since 2006 when they made the semi finals of the World Cup. Yes they have Cristiano Ronaldo coming off another brilliant season and a bundle of talent but they were very underwhelming in qualifying and managed to bore people senseless in South Africa two years ago with a defensive boorish attitude that got them through to the last 16 but no further. Under new coach and former international Paulo Bento they’ve rediscovered a little of their attacking flair but they still seem a little disjointed and fragile, especially without their first choice central defenders who fell out with Bento. The first game against Germany will be a big test and must get something to be a chance to finish ahead of one of the tournament favourites.

In Group C you have two major giants of the continent expecting to go through and two sides hoping for some plucky luck and memories of upsets past can have them sneak through to the final 8. Defending European and World Champions Spain are the favourites once more but will be swimming up stream to make history as being the first country to win three major tournament in a row. Striker David Villa’s finishing prowess was missed by Barcelona towards the end of the league season and he may be missed by Spain too when it comes to the crunch. An out of sorts Fernando Torres and still ‘He’s okay but…’ Fernando Llorente will have to pick up the slack to cover Villa with the quite brilliant Spanish midfield coming off a marathon season. Chuck in the loss of former captain and ‘spiritual leader’ Carlos Puyol and Spain look vulnerable but how many times do you say that about a true champion in any sport? Good odds going around on nil all draws for all Spainish games.

Italy will be one of the more interesting sides to watch in this tournament. They were an embarrassment in South Africa when as defending champions they sent a virtual Dad’s Army to defend their crown and were laughed out of the dark continent. Rather than stick to fan favourties and old hands coach Cesar Prandelli has gone for some shocks with the players like tattooed serial nutter Alessandro Diamati with one cap to his name getting a gig as well as veteran Antonio Cassano recovering from a stroke to take the fabled #10 guernsey. There’s also the long possibly demented shadow of Mario Ballotelli cast over the team. Is this when he grows up and finally becomes the man rather than the petulant child? It’s a defining time in Mario’s career. The rabble of newish players will be led by the always unflappable Gianluigi Buffon who seemed to keep Italy competitive in the last Euros when they seemed to be suffering a massive World Cup hangover. Whether they can win the whole thing is debatable (despite having the best defence in qualifying) but it’ll be interesting to see how entertaining they can be on and off the pitch. An unpredictable Azzuri side at a tournament is a nice change.

Croatia come in to the this tournament with something to prove after they were eliminated in an entertainingly random way by Turkey in 2008 and then failed to make the 2010 World Cup. Still coached by bass guitar playing uber-cool weirdo Slaven Bilic you can point to Tottenham’s Luka Modric and Everton striker Nikica Jelavic to show what class they have but both haven’t been amazing for the national side as yet. Many of the players they have playing in Croatia or elsewhere in Eastern Europe does mean that they aren’t to be dismissed though. Two Ukrainian based players to look out for are captain and defender Dario Srna (who you may remember was the one who scored the magnificent free kick against Australia in 2006) and Ognjen Vukojevic who rules the Dynamo Kiev midfield with an iron fist. Srna as first goal scorer in any game is worth looking at odds wise.

The final team in Group C you’ll recognise quite quickly in the tournament. Their football will be turgid but effective, their fans will probably come dressed as the Pope and you will see a huge bus parked in front of goals. Ireland you could say have underachieved since their fantastic World Cup efforts in 2002 under Mick McCarthy with the time of Steve Staunton as manager a particular disaster; but under Giovanni Trappatoni they’ve become Greece V.2 in more than a financial terms by being well organised, dour and not ready to given an inch thanks to their rigid system held together by Richard Dunne. It’ll probably be the last time we’ll also see stalwarts Robbie Keane, Shay Given and Damien Duff in the green too so they’ll be wanting to send them off on a high by at least getting one scalp. The Ireland V Croatia game first up is pivotal in this group and not the game either would have wanted first up. If one can get all 3 points then look out for a possible dumping of the ‘big 2’ from this group.

In Group D all the focus will again be on England. The tsunami of ego and underachievement may again consume this side and makes the equally fragile French squad look like a bunch of BFF. The injuries to some players has also exposed the lack of depth the side possesses with Roy Hodgson finally fulfilling his promise of ‘getting Liverpool in to Europe’, I just didn’t think it would be through the England team by picking a majority of the English players Liverpool has. Gerrard seems to be the sacred cow by being made captain but god help them if he decides to do his own thing and chase the ball around like a Labrador chasing a tennis ball, something he tends to do for Liverpool from time to time. It could come down to England getting something from the first two games (even two draws) before Wayne Rooney returns from suspension. In the friendlies under Hodgson so far they’ve been extremely conservative and will continue to be in the tournament so they’ll be hard to break down. Can they win it? Of course. Will it be another heroic loss in the Last 8 with an Oasis ballad playing over slow moving pictures of players and fans crying on the ITV coverage again? Probably. Like Italy they’re an unknown commodity which will make it intriguing to say the least.

The waters are also muddied when predicting France due to their complete implosions in the past two tournaments and with this being the first tournament since Raymond Domenech was finally turfed off. The attacking players in this French squad are immense if on song. Ribery, Benzema, Nasri, the Chelsea veteran Malouda and even Newcastle United’s quite brilliant Ben Arfa but they all lack goals at international level. Ribery only scoring 7 goals in 57 appearances. The trouble with this Lauren Blanc side is also the defence. There was always a question mark over why AC Milan defender Phillipe Mexes was never selected under Domenech and it might be that it’s because he’s not that good a defender and prone to mistakes as has been seen. His defensive partner Adil Rami had an awful last 6 months for Valencia so don’t bet on a clean sheet for Les Blues. Arsenal bombscare Laurent Koscienly might be the one to come to try and tighten things up which says something really. It might be worth putting something on Benzema for the tournament’s golden boot if he can find the net early and get some confidence with the support he’ll have from the midfield.

The co-hosts Ukraine will have the considerably large support behind them but feature a team spine hanging on to the past to spite the future. Legendary striker Andrie Shevchenko is still around with his bad back while former Liverpool striker Andrei Voronin also gets a gig despite only scoring 2 goals in 5 years for the mother country. This side will hope to counter but it’s hard to have that tactic when your defence isn’t too crash hot either. You can’t ignore their pre-tournament form though, 5 wins out of 6 (including Germany) is not to be sniffed at but then again they were only friendlies. This is also the debut of Ukraine in the Euros too. Can only really see them doing what Austria did when they hosted 4 years ago…hang on like grim death and not having enough.

The last team in this group and out of the 16 is Sweden. This is a side that is now starting to play a bit more out of it’s skin under Erik Hamren but with a defence that has the pace and turning circle of the USS Missouri, don’t put money on them for keeping clean sheets. The dashing and self absorbed AC Milan striker Zlatan Imbrahimovic will captain and lead from the front for the Swedes but whether he banishes his reputation of never performing when it counts or not is up to the supply he gets. Sweden has also never lost to England in a competitive match in over 40 years too which will be a stat mentioned 458 times between now and when they play. That stat and the fact the Swedish fans will be travelling with their own Iron Maiden cover band to play for them when camping (true story) gives you some inkling to hope they can cause an upset and get through to the knockout stages.

16 teams, 31 matches and plenty of early morning drama to come. Bring on the sleep deprivation, oddly dressed fans and late night cups of tea. I absolutely cannot wait.

Comments

  1. Great round up! Nice work big fella.
    Loving the tournament already.

  2. haiku bob says:

    great stuff dennis.
    sweden going for the eurovision-european championships double.
    someone might like to confirm if this would be unprecedented.

  3. Peter Flynn says:

    Unprecedented HB.

  4. haiku bob says:

    and unlikely.

  5. The ‘Robots’ will just plug away with ‘boring boring’ football and take the title.

  6. Mark Doyle says:

    A good preview Dennis! This tournament is second only to the soccer world cup for all football codes’ national representitive competitions. Did you see the excellent documentaries on Euromaxx about the eight host cities in Poland and Ukraine as well as the doco.about the lack of human rights in Ukraine? Hopefully, the international media focus will lead to better human rights in Ukraine.
    Go Germany!

  7. GA Thompson says:

    “Roy Hodgson finally fulfilling his promise of ‘getting Liverpool in to Europe”
    is one of countless outstanding observations

    Great piece – thanks!

  8. Dennis Gedling says:

    I haven’t seen those Mark but heard about it through Amnesty, also the stories of stray dogs being culled in Ukraine before the tournament. Ukraine still are a young country in the scheme of things though so still much to do perhaps. SBS’ Dateline tonight (tuesday) are showing the BBC Panorama doco from a month or so ago called ‘Stadiums of Hate’ about the hooligisim and right wing extremists in Eastern Europe. I know Panorama can be a bit melodramatic sometimes and have been accused of staging a lot of violence they just happened to be near when it broke out to record footage but will be worth a watch.

    Out of the many things I have got wrong so far was implying Shevchenko was past it. For an old man with a bad back he certainly still knows how to finish like he did twice against Sweden last night. The complete striker.

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