While the French have rehabilitated their image, the English have tainted theirs in recent months, and a game between the two will surely include some fireworks. The Swedes are not short on confidence, and the Ukrainians are looking to cause the biggest upset in the Euro. Group D should go all the way to the last minute.
With the mutinous summer of 2010 behind them, France seems to have turned a new leaf under the staid leadership of former French captain, Laurent Blanc. For the most part, Blanc has purged the team of the players who turned against former manager Raymond Domenech on that now infamous bus ride in South Africa, and has rebuilt a team that not only combines youth with experience, but also includes players who apply their trade in the vastly improved French league. Take a quick glance at France’s twenty-three man roster, and the depth of talent at Blanc’s disposal is abundantly clear. The most impressive aspect of the French team is the fact that there is no apparent weakness. Hugo Lloris is one of the best goalkeepers currently playing in Europe, and with the physical partnership of Adil Rami and Philippe Mexes just in front of him, it’s hard to see any team in the group posing the French many defensive problems. The midfield is probably the team’s strongest unit, although most of the players tend to be offensively minded, and there isn’t anyone who can adequately replace the injured Jeremy Toulalan. Franck Ribery is the keynote figure, and the player who will be afforded a substantial amount of tactical freedom, especially since the creative Yoann Gourcuff failed to make the squad. Mathieu Valbuena, Samir Nasri, Yohan Cabaye, and Jeremy Menez should start alongside Ribery in a midfield that should prove intimidating to most teams, but is vulnerable to counter attacks. Karim Benzema will likely be the lone striker on the team, but with the offensive power just behind him, he doesn’t have the pressure of being the only scorer on the field. The French should cruise through the group stage of the tournament, and will probably deem an exit before the semifinals as disappointing.
The Three Lions have certainly given England’s ravenous tabloids enough fodder to fill an encyclopedia of turgidity. Whether as a result of club affiliations, captaincy parleys, or the sexual exploits of ex-girlfriends, Fabio Capello’s tenure was marked by an unusual amount of player-centered conflict – a matter that was only exacerbated by John Terry. Never one to avoid scandal, John Terry’s alleged racist abuse towards Anton Ferdinand was the tipping point that resulted in Capello’s resignation, and more recently sealed Rio Ferdinand’s premature international ‘retirement’. Capello’s resignation didn’t necessarily come as a surprise, but Roy Hodgson’s appointment was. With Harry Redknapp heavily tipped to replace the Italian, the English FA’s decision left some scratching their heads. Nevertheles, Hodgson’s appointment may have been a shrewd move by the FA. Known as a no nonsense manager, the Croydon native has already squashed much of the team’s internal strife, and has begun to build an identity that wasn’t particularly solid under Capello. Of course, the injuries that have plagued England aren’t doing the new manager any favors. With Rooney already suspended from the first two group games, Frank Lampard’s absence will be enormous, largely because England’s midfield is quite thin. Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker are both guaranteed starting roles in the middle of a conventional 4-4-2, which will help organize the team, but will probably prevent the Liverpool man from making his routine forays up the field. Ashley Young will have to provide much of the creative spark, which could be problematic since he has a tendency to fade out of big games (the friendly against Holland was not a big game). It’s foreseeable that Danny Welbeck will get the nod ahead of Carroll in attack, largely due to his speed, and Carroll’s dependency on an aerial game. England’s back four was to be the team’s strongest area, but with the injury to Gary Cahill suffered during a friendly against Belgium, there are some questions about Terry’s partnership with Joleon Lescott – Hodgson can breathe a sigh of relief that Joe Hart is in excellent form. Expectations have never been lower for an England team entering a major tournament, and while many observers see this as a blessing in disguise, the reality is that England will probably live up to them.
In typical Scandinavian soccer fashion, Sweden will rely on a very organized unit, and will hope that the brilliance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic will manifest itself. This recipe – organizational strength and one superstar – has often borne very good results at major tournaments in the past, and Sweden is definitely not the only team in the Euro hoping that it will work. Still, Swedish success will depend greatly on the exploits of the lanky striker. Ibrahimovic, like many players of his pedigree, has never reproduced his club form for country, and at one point, the AC Milan man put an abrupt end to his international career as a result of his and Sweden’s qualification woes. In turn, Ibrahimovic is going to depend on midfield players who are very familiar to each other. Kim Kallstrom is a vastly experienced box-to-box midfielder that has been an integral part of Lyon’s domestic and European successes, and can make a difference with his set-piece delivery. Anders Svensson is also a long-standing member of the national team, and while his career has been mostly domestic based, he has the skill to help Kallstrom control the pace of the game. Aditionally, Sebastian Larsson will be whipping quality balls for Ibra to feast on, from the right. The Swedish Achilles heel is that the team won’t exactly be tearing opponents apart with their speed, and this is particularly true when it comes to their defense, which is well anchored by Olof Mellberg and Jonas Olsson, nonetheless. Fortunately, the Swedes are in a manageable group and are more than capable of defeating a more highly rated English team. Progression to the knockout stages is possible, but that’s where a Swedish run ends.
In contrast to the Poles, the Ukrainians can only benefit from playing at home. As a team mostly made up of domestically based, relatively unknown players, the Ukraine goes into the tournament without great expectations. Yet, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a real belief that an upset is possible. After all, the English are wounded, the Swedes are an aging team, and more importantly, the Ukrainian fans can go absolutely insane in the stands, creating a daunting environment. The Ukrainian’s also benefit from having one of the greatest players in the history of the Soviet Union as their manager. Ukrainian by birth, Oleg Blokhin will be quick to remind his players that their pride is at stake, and that without the burden of expectations, anything is possible. That sentiment will surely be promoted by captain-Ukraine himself, Andriy Shevchenko. Shevchenko is no fledgling, but class, as they say, lasts forever, and the former AC Milan superstar can still pull off a few tricks on unsuspecting defenders. The same can be said for Andriy Voronin who’s rediscovered his form at Dynamo Moscow. The midfield will be well patrolled by Champions League finalist, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, who had a fantastic season with Bayern Munich. Also in midfield will be Andryi Yarmolenko. The young midfielder has set the Ukrainian league on fire this season, and has a knack for scoring important goals. Arsenal have actually been courting Yarmolenko for a while, and if the Dynamo Kyiv player lives up to his potential, other big teams will be calling, as well.