The ‘group of death’ could completely overshadow the remainder of the tournament. Germany and Holland will start off as favorites, but Portugal may prove to be the tournament’s dark horse, and Denmark could be the perfect foil.
Perhaps no team is more poised to win Euro 2012 than Germany. Since taking over from Klinsmann in 2006, Joachim Low has built an offensive powerhouse that moves seamlessly from defense to offense. Low’s six-year tenure has allowed him to inculcate a system that is more typical of a club team, and that has enabled his players to produce at the highest level. In fact, under Low, some German players have performed better for their national team than they have for their clubs. There is no better example of this than Lukas Podolski. Now on his way to Arsenal, Podolski has never managed to replicate his national team performances at club level. Bayern’s Thomas Muller also appears to be at his best when wearing the white Mannschaft jersey. Together with either Mario Gomez, or Miroslav Klose, the Germans have a formidable attack that should be able to score relatively easily against group opponents. It is Germany’s midfielders, though, that are the team’s biggest asset. Led by arguably the most complete midfielder in Europe, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Germany’s midfield reflects the most important principle of Low’s blueprint: efficient possession. Germany likes to possess the ball, but unlike teams like Holland, and Spain, Low emphasizes an attack minded approach, which aims to keep defenses under constant pressure. The biggest worry for Low will be his defensive line-up. Lahm and Hummels are shoe-ins, but the remaining two spots are up for grabs. It’s likely that Per Mertesacker will partner the Dortmund man, but there are concerns about his fitness after the lanky defender suffered an ankle injury. Lahm should start on the right, with Marcel Schmelzer making the left side his own, but if Jerome Boateng gets the nod, the German captain will slot in on the left. Whatever Low decides, chances are Germany’s defense won’t be seriously tested until the tournament’s latter stages.
While the names on the team sheet are as resonant as ever, Holland’s playing style has lost much of the flashiness that won over neutrals all over the world. Under Bert van Marwijk, today’s Holland is a far more pragmatic team that aims at being defensively sound, and depends on individual inventiveness in order to score. Marwijk likes to line-up in a 4-2-3-1 that employs two defensive midfielders to help shore up a defense that is vastly experienced, but lacks speed. Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong’s intimidating presence just in front of the centre-backs allows players like Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben to roam forward without the constant responsibility of tracking back. Sneijder is coming off one of his more inconsistent seasons, but the coaching change at Inter has rejuvenated the mercurial ten, which is a huge relief to Oranje fans. Robben may feel responsible for Bayern’s Champions League failure, but the Dutch winger is never short on confidence, and he’ll be looking to find redemption by leading his team to success. With so much attacking talent, it will be interesting to see whom Marwijk with start as the lone striker. The choice should fall on Robin van Persie, but Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has just as much of a claim to the position. Van Persie is more effective up-front, and there’s no doubt that that’s where he will be looking to play. Still, if Huntelaar gets the nod, van Persie will drop back to the right wing, pushing Robben to the left. Marwijk will be lucky if this turns out to be his biggest headache. The Dutch are notorious for infighting, and if things don’t go well against Denmark in their first game, player rivalries could derail a tournament favorite.
Members of the Portuguese soccer federation, including Paulo Bento, are tripping all over themselves to take some pressure off of Crisitano Ronaldo. Without Messi in the picture, the limelight is fixed on the Portuguese superstar, and the burden to carry Portugal on his back is immense. Ronaldo himself has claimed that the Portuguese are going to into the tournament without any pressure, thanks to a difficult qualification, and their place in a ‘group of death’ that features two heavy favorites. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to think that the burden of expectation isn’t being felt. Portugal is probably the best team never to win a European Championship, and with the shocking home defeat to Greece in the 2004 final still fresh in the country’s psyche, and with Ronaldo nearing his thirties, the consensus is that there may not be a better time to win. Paulo Bento’s arrival has definitely given fans some hope. Under his leadership Portugal seems to have discovered the attacking verve that so clearly defined the Golden Generation of Luis Figo, Rui Costa, and Fernando Couto. Although, Ronaldo aside, Portugal are still missing a proven goal scorer. Helder Postiga and Hugo Almeida are very good players, but both of them have a knack for scoring impressive goals rather than finding the net consistently. Raul Meireles and Joao Moutinho have solidified their spots in a midfield that is expected to maintain a lot of possession throughout the tournament. Miguel Veloso appears to have won the defensive midfield spot, but considering the physical play of the Danes and Germans, Bento may be better suited with the hard-tackler, Custodio. With a defense anchored by Pepe and Bruno Alves, Portugal clearly have the talent to go a long way, but they’re going have to find ways to score in order to do that.
Unless you’re Nicklas Bendtner, chances are you think Denmark will be the proverbial punching bag of the group. That could be the case. However, no one should be surprised if Denmark end up being more of the Banana skin the big three get to slip on. To begin with, Denmark have an excellent recent record against the Portuguese, beating them in their final head-to-head to win Group H. Additionally, the Danes are the kind of physical team that could prove problematic to the Germans and the Dutch. Needless to say, Denmark will not get bullied off the pitch. There is no evident star power in the Danish squad, but Morten Olsen has built and experienced and organized team that defends well and is quick to break on the attack. Simon Kjaer and Daniel Agger will form a strong centre-back tandem that will be protected by defensive midfielders William Kvist and Christian Poulson. Kvist is a hard-nosed tackler who is a key figure in Stuttgart’s midfield, and Poulson is far from the player with saw at Liverpool. Like some of Germany’s players, Poulson performs well for his country, and often helps dictate the pace of the game. Much of the creative responsibility will fall on Christian Eriksen. The Ajax midfielder is only twenty, and some good performances in the tournament should attract the attention of some big clubs. Of course, all eyes will be on Bendtner. Few players share the Dane’s boisterous confidence, and with an ever-growing chip on his shoulder, Bendtner wants to prove that he’s as good as he claims. The reality is that Bendtner does score for country, and he could just score the goal that sinks one of the big favorites.