Euro 2012 Preview and Predictions

There is still time to enter the Political Footballs Prediction Competition and your chance to win a $50 gift certificate for soccerpro.com – enter here before 12am midnight on Friday June 8th.

I made some projections back when the draw was made, but with Euro 2012 kicking off on Friday when the co-hosts Poland take on Greece, here is my updated preview and predictions for the tournament.

Poland’s chief goal-scoring threat, Lewandowski

Group A

Because they are one of the hosts of the tournament, Poland were rewarded with one of the top seeds in the draw and lucked out with a group from which they have a reasonable chance of progressing.  Arsenal’s keeper, Szczesny, provides them with a safe pair of hands at the back and they will need that, as Poland’s central defence is one of their main weaknesses.  Their star man is Borussia Dormund striker Robert Lewandowski, who scored 22 goals for his club’s title-winning season and was named the Bundesliga player of the year – also netting a hat-trick in Dortmund’s 5-2 win over Bayern Munchen in the German Cup final last month.  Poland will also be hoping that Rafal Wolski will come of age in this tournament – the young left-winger has quick feet and plenty of skills, providing pace off the bench that could help them exploit the opposition’s tiring legs late on in matches.  They are the lowest ranked side in the tournament however, and Poland will need all of the advantages they will get by being on home turf if they are to progress to the knock-out stages.

Russia are the group favourites and need their best striker, Kerzhakov, to continue the impressive form he has shown for Zenit St. Petersburg in the Russian league this season.  They also have a trio of players who have recently plied their trade in London: Arshavin started off well for Arsenal, but has lost confidence in recent years – a loan spell since January back at Zenit is yet to help him rediscover his form of 2008; former Spurs striker Roman Pavlyuchenko can at times look unable to control a ball, but he has a habit of scoring crucial goals; and Fulham’s January acquisition, Pavel Pogrebnyak performed excellently for his new side and may have won a place in the starting line-up.  The most important player to Russia’s chances will be midfielder, Roman Shirokov, who can dominate the midfield and links up well with the attackers – he is also a legitimate goal-scoring threat.

In any other group, I may be dubious about Russia’s chances, as all of their attacking players can blow hot and cold, but Group A is the weakest of the four and it is hard to see either the Czech Republic or Greece causing an upset against them.  However, along with Poland, any of the three teams could finish second behind Dick Advocaat’s side.  The Czech Republic have a strong midfield – anchored by Arsenal’s Tomas Rosicky, who is the playmaker of the side, and the energetic Jiracek.  Unfortunately for the Czechs, their main striker is still Milan Baros – top scorer in Euro 2004, but he lacks the pace he had eight years ago and his performance that summer looks like being his career high.  It is hard to write off the Greeks, as they triumphed in that tournament in Portugal in 2004 – providing the blueprint for success in Europe that Chelsea followed to win the Champions League this month: spoil the opposition’s play, and hope to score on the break.  This time around, Greece has more attacking flair than and all eyes will be on how Ioannis Feftazidis – dubbed the Greek Messi because of his close ball control – will perform in his first major tournament.  At left-back, Holebas is a threat going forward and the centre of defence will again be difficult for opponents to break down, with Papasthopolous and Papadopoulos both tall and impressive at the back.  If Greece are to have another strong tournament, then their likely star will be Sotiris Ninis – the playmaker who is the architect of his side’s attack, though he missed a lot of games through injury this past season.

Group A Prediction: 1. Russia; 2. Poland; 3. Czech Republic; 4. Greece

Group B

At every tournament, there is always one collection of teams in the first round that is dubbed the “Group of Death” – the theory being that all of the sides are strong and two will be heading home early, when with other draws they may have progressed.  For Euro 2012, that moniker has been applied to Group B, and rightly so.  Denmark are massive underdogs to progress to the knockout stages, yet they topped their group in qualifying and are ranked number 9 in the current FIFA World Rankings.  Despite being just 20 years old, Christian Eriksen is the puppet master in the Danish midfield and they will be relying on his quick-feet and play-making skills to break opponents down.  Up front, Nicklas Bendtner lacks nothing in confidence, but is yet to prove he can be relied upon consistently on the biggest stage.

Germany have become many people’s favourites to win the whole tournament and I picked them to win it all back when the draw was made in December.  One of the big pluses for Low’s side is that many of the starting eleven will be the team that played in the World Cup in South Africa, 2010. Going forward, the Germans have one of the most impressive line-ups around: Schweinsteiger and either Khedira or Kroos in the centre of midfield; Özil, Müller and Podolski playing in front of them; and Miroslav Klose as the lone striker.  If Klose is not able to start, then Mario Gomez will replace him – a player who has an impressive scoring rate, yet always flatters to deceive on the big occasion – the Champions League final being the latest example of such failings.  It is hard to see how Germany will fail to make the latter stages of the tournament, but if they are to come unstuck, Group B might be the exact place for it to happen.

The Netherlands were the runners-up to Spain the 2010 World Cup and will be aiming to emulate their European Championship success of 1988.  In Robin Van Persie and Wesley Sneijder, the Dutch have two world-class players who can win any game single-handedly, yet the abundance of talent alongside them may prove to be their downfall.  With Rafael Van der Vaart, Arjen Robben, Klaas van Huntelaar and Ibrahim Afellay all worthy of a starting place, at least two of them are likely to be left disappointed about a lack of action, increasing the likelihood of familiar fighting within the Dutch squad.  Those facing the Netherlands will be hoping that Van Persie’s form will mirror the tail end of the Premiership season, where he tailed off, as opposed to the middle of the campaign where he was scoring goals by the handful.

One of the hardest sides to predict in this competition is Portugalthey have no reliable striker, Helder Postiga will continue upfront, despite

Ronaldo – the best player at Euro2012

lacklustre club form; their defence has been depleted by the absence of Carvalho and Bosingwa, both of whom fell out with the manager; and their midfield trio of Meireles, Moutinho and Martins are all very similar players.  Nevertheless, with Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal have two mercurial talents who can produce a moment of brilliance to win any match by themselves.  In Ronaldo, they also boast the best player in this tournament, even if his form for his country has not been great since his debut tournament in 2008.  I can imagine any scenario for Portugal – from them exiting in the first round, to them winning the entire tournament, it all depends on if their defence holds up and they are able to provide any kind of service to their Real Madrid talisman.  The Portuguese have the hardest possible start, facing Germany in their first match, but their third game against the Netherlands is likely to decide which of those two nations will progress to the quarter-final stage.  Because I trust Ronaldo more than Van Persie, I’m going to take Portugal to grab second place – and then they may prove unstoppable in the knock-out rounds.

Group B Prediction: 1. Germany; 2. Portugal; 3. Netherlands; 4. Denmark.

Group C

In the same way that they were in the build-up to the 2006 World Cup, Italy are once again embroiled in a match-fixing scandal as they prepare for a major international tournament.  Six years ago in Germany, the Italians were able to use the adversity to their advantage and the kindred spirit it fostered in the squad took them all the way to the trophy; it is unlikely they will prevail again this summer.  Two players on their roster are being investigated in the latest round of police enquiries – the Juventus pairing of Buffon and Bonnucci – and Criscito was left out all together because of his alleged involvement in the scandal.  Italy’s strike-force also has significant issues: Mario Balotelli’s temperament was called into question time and again in his season with Manchester City; Antonio Cassano had to undergo minor heart surgery in September, only returning two months ago; while Giuseppe Rossi misses out all together through injury.  If they are to prevail, the Italians will need Marchisio to produce the type of midfield performances he gave to Juventus this year in their unbeaten title-winning campaign.

The Republic of Ireland also have an Italian manager on the sidelines for this tournament, and Trapattoni has made the Irish a tough team to beat.  Their holding midfield pairing of Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews will be charged with breaking up the opposition play, then feeding Duff and McGeady on the wings to initiate counter-attacks.  The L.A. Galaxy’s own Robbie Keane will be Ireland’s main attacking threat – he is the country’s all-time record goal-scorer – but he is likely to play behind Kevin Doyle, a striker who holds the ball up well, but is not the most clinical of finishers.  While the Irish will concentrate on defence, Croatia put their focus on attacking their opponents and their coach, Bilic, likes to change tactics often during the game to keep his side fluid and unpredictable.  They will be missing Olic, the Bayern München striker has been forced to withdraw through injury, but former Arsenal striker, Eduardo, and Everton’s Jelavic will be worthy replacements.  In midfield, the Spurs duo of Modric and Krancjar may not have had the best season domestically, but they are influential playmakers who can change a game with threaded pass, or a goal of their own.

Euro 2008 winners, Spain

Spain are the favourites to win Group C, yet many are discounting their chances of winning it all this summer.  If they did so, it would be their third consecutive major international trophy – having won Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 – a feat that no other side has achieved in the history of the game.  It is hard to find a weakness in their side: Casillas is reliable in goal; Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos will more than make up for the absence of Carlos Pujol in the centre of defence; their midfield is overrun with talent; and either Torres or Llorente up front should provide all of the firepower the Spanish need to progress deep into the tournament.  The biggest headache for manager, Vincente Del Bosque, will be deciding who to start in the midfield: Busquets, Iniesta, Alonso and Xavi are closed to being guaranteed starters for the Spanish; but that leaves Fabregas, David Silva and Juan Mata fighting for just one spot in the line-up.  The consensus opinion appears to be that,because Barcelona failed to beat Chelsea, Spain will have problems breaking sides down in the Euros – but that does not necessarily follow.  However, David Villa will be a huge absence for them up front and, if he was fit, I would probably pick them to win it all.

Group C Prediction: 1. Spain; 2. Croatia; 3. Italy; 4. Ireland

Group D

Co-hosts Ukraine enter the tournament with concerns surrounding their starting goalkeeper: Olexsander Shovkovskiy has been their first choice number 1 for many years, but misses out this summer because of a shoulder problem; and his replacements, Rybka and Dikan, are missing through a doping ban and injury respectively.  Their most impressive player is probably Tymoshchuk, the holding midfielder who plies his trade with Bayern München, but their chief threat will come from the young wingers, Yarmonlenko and Konoplyanka.  The Ukraine like to play a counter-attacking style of football and the pace of that pairing could prove to be the undoing of their opponents.  A major issue might be the forward line, where Andriy Shevchenko is still the first choice striker, many years after he looked washed-up at Chelsea.  If the group games were being contested anywhere else, I would not give them a chance, but home-field advantage has a strange habit of assisting sides in these international tournaments and thus I would not be surprised to see the Ukraine grab second place.

In Ribery and Ibrahimovic, France and Sweden have players who have performed outstanding for their clubs in the last decade, yet have failed to perform for their county on the big stage.  For Sweden, the enigma of Ibrahimovic may have been resolved in recent fixtures by dropping him back to a playmaking role behind an out-and-out striker – a position likely to be filled by Elmander.  Sebastian Larsson on the right-wing had a good season for Sunderland and will hope to re-produce that form this summer, but beyond those players there are no outstanding talents within the Swedish squad, who had a mixed qualifying campaign and will be lucky to make it to the knock-out stages this time around.  In contrast, France have Real Madrid striker, Benzema, as another world-class option to Ribery, and if either one performs to the ability they have shown they are capable of this season, Les Bleus should top Group D.  However, they will be missing both of their first choice full-backs: Eric Abidal on the left is absent after undergoing a liver transplant; while Bacary Sagna misses out due to a broken leg.  Their replacements, Patrice Evra and Mathieu Debuchy, are quality players in their own right – the latter is a great crosser of the ball and a potential break-out star this summer.  Alongside Ribery in the midfield is a plethora of talent: Manchester City’s Samir Nasri, Yann M’Vila of Rennes, the Newcastle pairing of Cabaye and Ben Arfa; PSG’s Jeremy Menez; and Mathieu Valbuena of Marseille.  The biggest weakness for the French will be the centre-back pairing of Mexes and Rami – neither of whom showed good form for their clubs this summer and that flaw is likely to stop France from having any realistic chance of winning the tournament.

The other team in Group D is, of course, England.  With a new manager in charge since the qualifiers, it is hard to see exactly how they will play or project how far they might progress.  Looking at the group of players they have in the squad, it is hard to see England making much of an impact this summer: the centre of midfield has been depleted through the absences of Barry and Lampard, with neither Gerrard nor Parker fully fit heading into the competition.  The absence of Rooney, suspended for the first two group games because of his sending off against Macedonia in the qualifiers, could prove crucial and his replacements – Defoe, Welbeck and Carroll – will need to prove they can perform at this level and fast if England are to have any chance of avoiding elimination before their star player returns.  Roy Hodgson has tournament management experience from his time as boss of Switzerland, but that was the best part of two decades ago, and his West Brom side hardly set the Premiership on fire this season.  With all of that said, I still have not even talked about the centre of defence, where Lescott will partner John Terry, who faces a criminal court case in July for allegedly racially abusing Anton Ferdinand.  His inclusion has led to the absence of Rio Ferdinand – Anton’s brother – from the squad, though Hodgson has insisted that he was not selected solely for footballing reasons.  The media in England have started to express their belief that this will be the year the national team triumphs once again, meaning that a penalty shoot-out loss is about the best they can hope for.  Since making the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup, the English have won only two knock-out games – against Spain in 1996, and Denmark in 2002 – there is little chance they will add to that tally this time around.

Group D Prediction: 1. France; 2. Sweden; 3. Ukraine; 4. England

And now the rest of my predictions for the Political Footballs competition:

Quarterfinals:

1. Russia vs Portugal – Portugal to win

2. Poland vs Germany – Germany to win

3. Spain vs Sweden – Spain to win

4. France vs Croatia – Croatia to win

Semi-Finals

1. Portugal vs Croatia – Portugal to win

2. Spain vs Germany – Germany to win

Final

Portugal to win

Tie breaker 1 – Predict total number of goals in Euro2012 (not including penalty shootouts): 68

Tie breaker 2 – Predict minute of first goal in the Final (if no goals prior to penalty shootout put 120): 37

Since I will not be claiming the $50 gift certificate if I win, my friendly competition will be against my wife, who does not follow football too closely but has submitted the following picks for the tournament:

Group A Winner: Poland

Group A Runner up: Russia

Group B Winner: Germany

Group B Runner up: Portugal

Group C Winner: Spain

Group C Runner up: Italy

Group D Winner: France

Group D Runner up: England

QF 1 Winner: Portugal

QF 2 Winner: Germany

QF 3 Winner: Spain

QF 4 Winner: Italy

SF 1 Winner: Spain

SF 2 Winner: Italy 

Euro 2012 Winner: Italy

Tie breaker 1 – Predict total number of goals in Euro2012 (not including penalty shootouts): 78

Tie breaker 2 – Predict minute of first goal in the Final (if no goals prior to penalty shootout put 120): 66


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