The winner of the 2010 World Cup and 2008 European Championships, Spain has embarked on a four-year run that has cemented La Furia Roja as one of the greatest international teams of all time. The overwhelming majority of the core of those two title-winning squads will be starting in this summer’s top eleven, with only David Villa and Carles Puyol out due to injuries. In qualifying, Spain won all eight games it played in: a perfect record. The only fear with this year’s edition of España is potential complacency and fatigue; many of the Spanish players have had physically grueling schedules between European play and Copa del Rey action. Still, the Spaniards remain heavy favorites to win it all once again.
The Germans once again have an extremely potent squad, possessing steady defenders, industrious yet technically gifted midfielders, and a dangerous attack. Die Mannschaft won all ten of its games in qualifying, scoring 34 goals and conceding seven. Germany also has the youngest squad in the entire tournament in terms of average age, an incredible testament to the nation’s ability to churn out talent. The midfield, powered by Mesut Ozil, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Toni Kroos, is arguably the most explosive in the world and can power Germany to European glory.
The Dutch, known for their beautiful football of the past few decades, have something to prove with their newly-found hybrid of play. A 4-2-3-1 formation utilizes two no-nonsense holding midfielders and features skillful players in attack such as Wesley Sneijder, Robin Van Persie, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Arjen Robben. The Netherlands led all nations during qualifying with a whopping 37 goals in their matches, showcasing the offensive firepower they are usually associated with. After the slugfest that was the 2010 World Cup final, the Dutch must show that they are more than a physically powerful side.
The French team is looking at EURO12 as an opportunity for redemption, as Les Bleus must rebound from the embarrassing display they put on in the 2010 World Cup. Much-maligned manager Raymond Domenech has been replaced by Laurent Blanc, who must get the most out of rising stars Yann M’Vila (status of his ankle injury is uncertain) and Adil Rami. However, the more experienced players such as Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema hope to mesh well with Samir Nasri and create an exciting attack that could put France into the semifinals. In wake of losing Bacary Sagna to injury, France’s defense needs to continue its form it had in qualifying (4 goals conceded).
The Azzurri joined its fellow 2006 World Cup finalist France in failing to advance past the group stage in South Africa two summers ago and is looking to bounce back in a tremendous way. Italy had the best defense of any nation in EURO12 qualifying, giving up a mere two goals to help guide the squad to an unbeaten record in 10 games. Cesare Prandelli has his hands full with a squad that has the dark cloud of a match-fixing investigation looming over it. Italy has an eclectic mix of young players like Mario Balotelli and Angelo Ogbonna, and seasoned veterans. The old guard of Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Pirlo, and Antonio Di Natale will have to play like it’s 2006 all over again.
Russia is always an interesting case going into big tournaments. Only two players on the squad play outside of the Russian Premier League, which simply does not receive as much attention and coverage as the other leagues in Europe. Playing in arguably the weakest group of the tournament (Czech Republic, Greece, and Poland), Russia could quite feasibly make a similar run as they did in 2008, making it all the way to the semifinal. They are a true dark horse of this tournament, and the squad’s players are technically gifted and capable of pulling an upset this summer.
Portugal is an unusual case going into big tournaments. This year is really no different; Portugal limped into the tournament with the second-lowest number of points (16) after beating Bosnia-Herzegovia in a play-off. The Seleccao hired Paulo Bento after sacking Carlos Quieroz and won five games and lost one in qualifying to rally and secure their place in the EUROs. The squad is packed with great talents; Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe and Nani are household names but other players like Raul Meireles, Fabio Coentrao, and especially goalkeeper Eduardo are impressive in their own right. Portugal will need to play a much more cohesive team game than what has been happening the last few tournaments.
Never lacking any controversy, the English come into the EUROs under newly-appointed manager Roy Hodgson. Star forward Wayne Rooney is suspended for the first two games of the group stage for a red card from qualifying and creates a void up top for the Three Lions. England won their qualifying group with 18 points, the lowest total of any group winner. The “golden generation” of the early 2000s never won anything of merit, so a new wave of Englishmen has been summoned to bring a trophy home. Unfortunately, the squad is a bit average after Joe Hart, Ashley Cole, and Steve Gerrard. One advantage that works in England’s favor is that this tournament has been met with less pressure than previous ones; a well-fought effort could push this nation past the quarterfinals.
The Vatreni (Blazers) are managed by Slaven Bilic, a former international star and great character in coaching. This will be his last tournament as manager before he departs to coach Russia’s Lokomotiv Moscow, and he will attempt to at least match Croatia’s success from EURO 2008, an appearance in the quarterfinal. Despite not making the 2010 World Cup, the squad contains several playmakers and dynamic forces in attack like Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivica Olic and the naturalized Brazilian Eduardo. Josep Simunic and Vedran Corluka hope to anchor a defense that is average at best.
The Swedes had an impressive qualifying campaign, winning eight and losing two matches while outscoring its opponents 31-11. If there is a time for the Blagult (Blue-Yellow) to shine, it should be at this tournament; many of the players on the squad, including captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic, have reached their prime and should score a handful of goals against France, England, and the Ukraine. Only two players under the age of 25 will receive significant playing time: midfielder Rasmus Elm and defender Martin Olsson. Ibrahimovic has a reputation of disappearing in big games for his clubs, but if he can deliver in the group stage, Sweden can definitely steal points from England and maybe even France.
Although the Greeks have usually been dismissed for a negative brand of football, the fact that they are efficient cannot be denied. They won their group in qualifying with an unbeaten record (7 wins and 3 draws in 10 matches), albeit scoring a paltry 14 goals. Unlikely to repeat the shocking victory of EURO 2004, the Greeks do have the advantage of playing in a mediocre group (Group A). It is very well possible for the squad to advance past the group stage, but anything past the quarterfinals will require extreme discipline and execution from Fernando Santos’ side.
12. Republic of Ireland
The Irish are making its second appearance in the EUROs, its first since 1988. The “Boys in Green” have a few stars on their squad, including goalkeeper Shay Given and serial goalscorer Robbie Keane, who is only one of two players on the Irish squad who play football outside of England. (Tricky winger Aiden McGeady plays for Spartak Moscow.) Kevin Doyle of Wolves and Fulham’s Damien Duff will create decent attack for the Irish, but there is nearly not enough depth or defensive stability to take the squad out of the group stage; considering their group also contains Spain, Italy, and Croatia, the Irish may need a bit of luck.
This may be a repeat of the summer of 2010 in South Africa, where the hosts of the tournament failed to make it out of the group stage. Poland comes into the EUROs at 65th in FIFA’s world rankings, the lowest among all teams in the tournament. After reaching their first ever EURO in 2008, Bialo-czerwoni (the White and Reds) possess a relatively youthful squad, with Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and striker Robert Lewandowski among the young promising stars. Ludovic Obraniak and captain Jakub Blaszczykowski help comprise an impressive attack, but an average defense will have to step up to get Poland out of their group.
The great Danes won their group in qualifying with a stout defense, allowing 6 goals in 8 games. However, their crown jewel is 20-year old Ajax midfielder Cristian Eriksen, who was the youngest player in the World Cup in 2010. De Rod-Hvide (the Red and Whites) will most likely not replicate their EURO triumph in 1992, especially considering they are placed in the tournament’s “Group of Death” having to compete against Germany, the Netherlands, and Portugal. The squad’s chances heavily rely on Eriksen’s ability to link up with Dennis Rommedahl and Nicklas Bendtner. Liverpool defender Daniel Agger will be wearing the captain’s armband and will attempt to lock down attacks for a nation hoping to survive its group.
As one of the host nations of EURO12, Ukraine automatically gained entry into its first ever European Championship. Although only two players’ clubs are based outside of their home country, fans may recognize the names of Bayern Munich defender Anatoliy Tymoschuk and of course, former striking legend Andriy Shevchenko. Unfortunately, the rest of the squad’s quality is not on the same level, and it is very difficult to forecast the Ukrainians advancing past the group stage.
16. Czech Republic
Unfortunately to say, this isn’t the mid 2000’s anymore. The Czechs had the lowest points in qualifying amongst all nations in the tournament with 13 and scored a meager 12 goals in eight games. Gone are the days of Pavel Nedved, Milan Baros and the golden generation that carried the Narodak to the semifinals of EURO 2004. Now, it is up to Baros and goalkeeper Petr Cech again to bring the Czechs back to prominence. With the exception of the two host nations, this squad has the lowest FIFA world ranking (26th) in the tournament. Don’t expect anything too wonderful.