If the recently concluded European club season has taught us anything, it is that the business of making predictions in soccer is bruising to one’s ego. Alas, with the Euro 2012 fast approaching, predictions are once again in order. After all, we have all those office brackets to fill out.
While the obvious upside to hosting a soccer tournament is automatic qualification, the downside is the enormous pressure to at least make it out of the group stage. Add the fact that Poland will be fielding one of its most talented teams in years, and the burden of expectations could prove too much to handle. Fortunately, though, the Poles find themselves in the easiest of the four groups, which is populated by teams that are far more likely to get knocked out in the quarterfinals than to make a serious impact on the tournament. Primarily a counter-attacking team under manager Fraciszek Samuda, Poland’s strength lies mainly in the experience and winning mentality of their three Dortmund based players. Luckasz Piszczek is arguably one of the best wing-backs in Europe, and with Jakub Blaszczykowski’s play just in front of him, the Polish right side will prove gritty and well-served. The crown jewel, however, is Robert Lewandowski – the Bundesliga’s player of the season. If Poland are to progress past the group stage, the German league and cup winner must score, especially since the Poles have recently been hard pressed to find the back of the net. Much of the goal-scoring drought has been blamed on Poland’s lack of offensive creativity, which has put the onus squarely on Ludovic Obraniak’s back. The Bordeaux man is expected to pull the strings for his national team, but there are those who feel he won’t rise to the occasion. Still, Samuda’s biggest concern will be his defense. Injuries have plagued the team, but the real issue is the lack of experience and playing time in top tier teams. It is quite likely that Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczesny will have his hands full, but that’s only if Poland’s opponents are misfiring.
Euro 2008’s surprise package, and the team being tipped by its own coach as this tournament’s dark horse, Russia is the group’s clear favorite, especially given an impressive defeat of Italy in their most recent warm-up match. Dick Advocaat’s team benefits from experience, and while the Dutchman likes to employ a very specific style of football, Guus Hiddink’s fingerprints are still visible. Like Poland, the Russians will rely primarily on a very talented attacking trident, which will certainly include Andrey Arshavin and Aleksandr Kerzhakov. After a year to forget at Arsenal, Arshavin has returned to form thanks to his return to Zenit, where he’s developed an efficient partnership with the well-travelled Kerzhakov. The remaining question is whether Advocaat chooses to start CSKA’s young starlet, Alan Dzagoev, along with the Zenit pair, or decides to go with the more experienced Roman Pavlyuchenko, who has seen little playing time at Tottenham. The other option is Fulham’s Pavel Pogrebnyak, who’s adapted very quickly to the Premiership since arriving from Stuttgart, but has found it hard to win over Advocaat’s confidence. Roman Shirokov is the main man in the midfield. Also based at Zenit, and a late bloomer with his national team, Shirokov is an archetypal box-to-box midfielder who could well become one of the best players in the Euro. His club teammate, Igor Denisov will not attract as much attention, nevertheless, his tough tackling will help protect Russia’s fragile defense, which might be intimidating to look at, but lacks the speed to keep up with the kinds of forwards it will face if the team moves to the knockout rounds.
Until Greece won the Euro 2004 in shocking fashion against the host nation, Portugal, the team had never progressed past the group stage in a major tournament. Greece’s success in 2004 was almost entirely a result of Otto Rehhagel’s defensive tactics, and it is no stretch of the imagination to think that success this year will be attributed to a very similar philosophy. Still, unlike his German predecessor, Fernando Santos seems averse to starting five at the back. Instead, the Portuguese manager likes to line-up in a less conservative 4-1-4-1, which depends heavily on stalwarts, Giorgos Karagounis and Kostas Katsouranis. At 35, Karagounis is still a creative threat, that can deliver pin-point set-pieces. The slightly younger Katsouranis is known mostly for his defensive prowess, but is very comfortable with the ball at his feet, and can easily drive a Greek counter-attack. The biggest obstacle to Greece’s progression is the team’s inability to score. Dimitris Salpingidis and Fanis Gekas, are far from being menacing strikers, although both have scored some big goals for clubs and country. Giorgos Samaras is perhaps the most established striker, scoring regularly for Celtic, however, Santos has tended to play the longhaired forward on the wings where he can see more of the ball and use his pace to take-on defenders. Santos’ tactical experience will be the determining factor. Often dubbed a boring manger during his time at Portugal’s big three, the Portuguese is a big proponent of the system, expecting his players to adjust to it, rather than the other way around. Greece will not win many neutrals over with their play, but one shouldn’t write off their chances. That’s what happened in 2004.
Semi-finalists in 2004, where they were defeated by eventual champions, Greece, the Czech Republic is a team in transition. Only a few of those players who played so well in Portugal remain. Milan Baros, Tomas Rosicky, and Petr Cech still form the Spine of the team. Euro 2004 Golden Boot winner, Baros, is far from the player he was in that tournament, but to be fair, the Galatasaray striker never really lived up to the reputation he earned. His stints with Liverpool, Aston Villa, and Lyon were mostly disappointing, and while his goal-scoring record at Galatasaray may be enviable, the Turkish league is hardly among Europe’s elite. Team captain, Rosicky will be dictating the pace in the midfield, and at thirty-one, the Arsenal man still has the flair of a player in his mid twenties; nevertheless, his propensity towards injury will have Czech fans chewing on their fingers every time they see a tackle flying in. Cech is Mr. Reliable in goal, entering the tournament in the best form of his career, and inspired by a fantastic performance in the Champions League final. Roman Hubnik, Tomas Sivok, Jaroslav Plasil, and Petr Jiracek all have international experience and will be responsible with clogging up the middle of the field. Plasil and Jiracek must be disciplined in the defensive midfield in order for Rosicky to be more adventurous, which is when he’s at his best. Manager, Michal Bilek knows that if the Czech number ten runs out of steam, his team will run out of ideas. The most interesting aspect of the Czech team will be the inclusion of the Viktoria Plzen call-ups. After their first ever season in the Champions League, the Viktoria players have had the opportunity to gain big-game experience, and attract the attention of big foreign clubs. The Euro offers yet another stage for players like Vaclav Pilar to shine. The young winger should open some eyes, and help provide some much-needed inspiration.