So it is finally here! The 2012 European football Championships start tomorrow in Ukraine and Poland. We all may have read the many previews on the tournament and the predictions are rolling in so I am going to ‘put my 2 cents in’.
This is a short tournament of three weeks with little margin for error and teams will have to ‘hit the ground running’. The clear favourites are Spain,Germany and Holland.
Group A : Poland, Czech Republic, Greece, Russia
Group B : Germany, Holland, Portugal, Denmark
Group C : Italy, Spain, Croatia, Republic of Ireland
Group D : France, England, Ukraine, Sweden
Spain are the defending European and World Champions and their silky smooth, attractive short passing, possession game has caught the imagination of many football fans all over the world. However, Spain for all their many strengths have some issues this time out. Inspirational and experienced defender Carles Puyol is out injured and so is ace marksman David Villa who scored 5 goals in World Cup 2010. This has caused some selection headaches for coach Vicente Del Bosque. Sergio Ramos has been shifted from rightback to centreback and Spain’s attacking thrust from rightback has been affected. Spain do not normally start with traditional wingers and have been using David Silva and Andres Iniesta in wide positions during the pre-tournament friendlies. The role of the fullbacks is important in Spain’s system as they add width to the attack while Del Bosque tries to fit in as many playmakers higher up the pitch. New leftback Jordi Alba will be key in this regard as he is direct and quick. Up front in the absence of Villa, Del Bosque has a choice between Fernando Torres, Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Negredo. Spain has so much strength in depth, especially as they may have playmakers like Cazorla, Fabregas and Mata on the bench. Sometimes Spain’s play is too predictable but coach Del Bosque has the weapons to add variety to their game. It will be interesting to see if the Spaniards can be the first country to repeat as European Champions. I see Spain getting to the semi finals.
The Germans will be formidable opponents for their Group B adversaries, Portugal, Holland and Denmark. They were beaten by Spain in the World Cup semis 2 years ago but have improved and can possess the ball for long periods which has added to their ability to counter attack with lightning speed. Germany have a strong squad full of pace and depth especially in midfield and up front. Coach Jogi Low has to decide if to start with veteran poacher Miroslav Klose or prolific Bayern Munich forward Mario Gomez. The other attacking positions are likely to be filled by Thomas Muller and Lukas Podolski. The playmaker employed will be the crafty Mesut Ozil and his ability to make selfless runs and sublime defence splitting passes will be key for the Germans. The weakness for the Germans is in defence where Jogi Low does not know where to field star fullback Philipp Lahm as the other fullback options are not reliable. Reports suggest that Lahm will play leftback while Jerome Boateng or Bendikt Howedes will play at rightback. Badstuber and Mertesacker will probably play in the centre and they do not inspire the utmost confidence. My feeling is that the Germans will have a good tournament but fall short of the title once again.
The Dutch no longer play the beautiful game as in years past and we saw clear evidence of that in World Cup 2010. Coach Bert Van Marwijk has been fielding two midfield spoilers, Nigel De Jong and Mark van Bommel. This has sacrificed some creativity in midfield and the talented Rafael van der Vaart has been a casualty of this tactic and has had to be content with a place on the bench. Holland are in a tough group so I expect Van Marwijk to persist with the extra midfield protection and if necessary introduce a creative player in the 2nd half of games. Holland also have a patchy defence and the presence of two holding mids gives that much needed extra protection. Holland are blessed with a plethora of great attacking players such as Robin Van Persie, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Ibrahim Afellay, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and the previously mentioned van der Vaart. Sneijder’s through balls, intelligent runs and outstanding set piece deliveries are key for Holland and his understanding with the front three, especially the central striker will be important. I am not too impressed with the Dutch of late due to the lack of fluency in their play. They should progress out of the tough Group B at the very least.
Other teams to watch
I see France as being the dark horse in this tournament. They are unbeaten in their past 21 games and have slipped under the radar somewhat. They have been playing good football and are well coached by the astute former French international sweeper Laurent Blanc. Important players like forward Karim Benzema and midfielder Franck Ribery are in top form at the moment.
England are not highly favoured but I would not rule them out completely. New coach Roy Hodgson in his short time in charge has introduced tactics involving a disciplined ‘two banks of four’ when not in possession while trying to grab goals on the counter attack. He has setup England to be content to concede possession while limiting opponents to half chances at most. This is not a thrilling approach but can be effective against sides that are more technically skilled.
Of course we cannot rule out hosts Poland who have a trio of standout players from German club champions Borussia Dortmund. Prolific striker Robert Lewandowski, midfielder Jakub ‘Kuba’ Blaszczkowski and maverick rightback Lukasz Piszczek are all good players capable of lighting up the tournament.
Players to watch
David Silva – Spain
Arjen Robben – Holland
Mesut Ozil – Germany
Karim Benzema – France
Robert Lewandowski – Poland