To begin our Euro 2012 roundup, we start with Group A. Perceived by many as the weakest group in the tournament, all four sides will fancy their chances of progressing to the latter stages of the competition:
Coach: Franciszek Smuda
Captain: Jakub Błaszczykowski
Star Man: Robert Lewandowski
One to Watch: Łukasz Piszczek
Fifa Ranking: 65
Previous Tournament History: Group Stages (2008 – only appearance)
If they were a film: Tintin and the Secret of the Unicorn – A bit of a nostalgic favourite that everybody wants to do well and the expectancy is rather overhyped. In reality, it’s just rubbish.
Qualifying Roundup: As co-hosts, Poland did not have to qualify.
Tournament Analysis: Poland face a tough task on home soil defending their country’s honour. They are the lowest ranked nation at the tournament, lying at 65 behind the likes of Sierra Leone and Panama, meaning coach Franciszek Smuda has his work cut out. He has therefore gone down the route of nationalising a number of non-Poles, perhaps in retribution for those that have converted to Germany in recent years (think Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski.) Having failed in attempts to win the services of Laurent Koscielny and Robert Acquafresca, they have had to settle for Ludovic Obraniak of Bordeaux and Sebastian Boenisch of Werder Bremen. This hasn’t pleased the fans, who are questioning the necessity to turn to players born outside of the country, while a row also erupted over the omission of the Polish White Eagle from the original tournament, prompting a swift redesign. However, Smuda does have a few star turns to rely on, with his Borussia Dortmund trio of skipper Błaszczykowski, star forward Lewandowski and highly rated right back Piszczek expected to perform well on home turf. Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has proved his quality between the sticks as well. Lewandowski in particular though, will feel the strain, as his 30 goals in all competitions for Dortmund has heaped the pressure firmly upon his shoulders. You can never underestimate the strength of home support, just look at South Korea in 2002, but Poland’s squad simply does not look good enough to challenge, even with the most fortuitous of draws. Expect their fans to be disappointed with an early exit.
Coach: Dick Advocaat
Captain: Andrei Arshavin
Star Man: Igor Akinfeev
One to Watch: Alan Dzagoev
Fifa Ranking: 11
Previous Tournament History: Winners (1960 – As the Soviet Union)
If they were a film: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – A bit dark and mysterious and no one knows quite how it will do. Performs well when the occasion comes though and impresses all viewers.
Qualifying Roundup: The Russians were drawn in a particularly kind group, facing no significant challenge to Euro 2012 qualification. They didn’t disappoint either, losing just the one game to Slovakia at home and drawing with Armenia and the Republic of Ireland. They therefore topped the group ahead of the Irish to book a comfortable passage through to the tournament.
Tournament Analysis: The Russians are probably the best bet in Group A for qualification, coach Dick Advocaat is an experienced figure who knows what it takes in major tournaments. They also know how to perform in this competition, having reached the semi-finals last time around. Their squad contains a number of talented players, especially out wide in Arshavin and CSKA Moscow youngster Alan Dzagoev. With Alexander Kerzhakov leading the line, the Russians will fancy their chances of breaking down the tough defences that lie in wait in the pool stage. Their defence is hardly leaky either, they have a number of solid defenders including Alexander Anyukov and Sergei Ignashevich, backed up by star goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev behind them. Russia could therefore fancy themselves as the dark horses of the tournament, they’ve been pitched in an easy group and therefore should build up good momentum come the quarter finals. Don’t bet against them making another semi-final.
Coach: Michal Bilek
Captain: Tomas Rosicky
Star Man: Petr Cech
One to Watch: Theodor Gebre Selassie
Fifa Ranking: 26
Previous Tournament History: Winners (1976 – as Czechoslovakia. Runners up – 1996 as Czech Republic)
If they were a film: Jaws 4: The Revenge – A former classic with an all-star cast, shocking the world with its performances, but gone on far too long with inadequate replacements. Painful on the eye with a few gory moments, never going to be a good watch from start to finish.
Qualifying Roundup: The Czechs battled their way through Group I, finishing behind Spain, but making the playoffs ahead of Scotland. They gave good accounts of themselves against the Spanish and took four points off the Scots, ending the Tartan Army’s chances of qualification. Montenegro were then comfortably seen off in the playoffs, beating them 3-0 on aggregate to send the Czech Republic to Poland and Ukraine.
Tournament Analysis: Gone are the golden days of Nedved, Koller and Poborsky who led the Czechs through a glorious era. The national side has never recovered following their retirements and many see them as rank outsiders, despite having such a favourable pool ahead of them. They lack significant strength in depth and any injuries to key players would ruin all chances of progressing any further in the tournament. Petr Cech though, reinforced what a fine goalkeeper he is during Chelsea’s end of season run, while Arsenal’s Tomas Rosicky impressed this season, putting his woeful injury record behind him for now. Apart from that, there isn’t much else. They look fairly strong defensively with Selassie becoming the first coloured player to pull on the national shirt, while Michal Kadlec and Roman Hubnik are also solid options. They may struggle up front though and they aren’t sure whether to pitch Tomas Pekhart, old timer Milan Baros or young pretender Tomas Necid in attack. Expect coach Michal Bilek to employ plenty of defensive tactics, playing mainly on the counter-attack. They won’t be pretty to watch that’s for sure, but then again, neither will England!
Coach: Fernando Santos
Captain: Giorgos Karagounis
Star Man: Sotiris Ninis
One to Watch: Sokratis Papastathopoulos
Fifa Ranking: 14
Previous Tournament History: Winners (2004)
If they were a film: Men in Black III – Had a great hit a while back, so everyone still talks about them. A bit boring, a bit predictable, but ultimately has the potential to do well.
Qualifying Roundup: The Greeks were excellent in qualifying, going unbeaten in a group that contained not only Croatia, but also potential banana skins in Latvia, Israel and Georgia. They racked up 24 points in traditional Greek style, conceding just 5 goals, but scoring only 14 to book their place for this summer’s showpiece event.
Tournament Analysis: Obviously, everyone knows Greece’s tournament pedigree, they have become the benchmark for anyone defending their chances of winning the competition who simply haven’t got a chance. You also know what you’re going to get from their side, defensive solidity through the likes of Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Avraam Papadopoulos, two young centre backs who have shown signs of having real quality, not to mention the experience of Vassilis Torosidis. Creativity is always a problem, but with Panathinaikos star Sotiris Ninis fully fit, there is someone to pull the strings in midfield. They will look to either Gekas or Celtic’s Samaras up front, meaning goals could be hard to come by. Portuguese boss Fernando Santos had huge shoes to fill taking over from Otto Rehhagel, but he’s done a fantastic job so far, indeed the side went unbeaten for the first 17 games of his reign. One would expect the Greeks to have too much quality when it comes to Group A and when it gets to the latter stages of the tournament, write them off at your peril!
Group A Predictions:
4. Czech Republic