Thursday, April 12, 2012
Euro 2012 Preview
It's getting close to time for the second-biggest global soccer spectacle, the Euros. Spain are the defending champions, and solidified their hold as the best team in the world by following that up by winning the World Cup. Will they win three major championships in a row?
Euro 2012 will consist of four four-team groups, although for the next iteration they will expand to 24 nations taking part in the final. The top two teams from each group will advance to the quarterfinals.
Group A is the weakest, with just one team, Greece, that qualified for the last World Cup, where they were bounced in the group stage. They also responded to their surprise championship at Euro 2004 by going winless and drawless in Euro 2008. They still have to be considered the favorites of the group.
The group will also be hotly contested by Russia, ranked just slightly ahead of Greece in the FIFA rankings and coming off a surprise third-place finish in Euro 2008. The winner of this match should take down the group, with the loser finishing second.
That leaves the Czech Republic, who squeaked out of their qualifying group over Scotland after losing to Lithuania early, and home-standing Poland who has fallen to 65th in the world rankings. Neither team will come within two goals of Greece or Russia.
By contrast, Group B is definitely the "Group of Death." All four of the squads are in the top ten in the world rankings, and three are in the top five. By contrast, none of the Group A teams are in the top 10.
The marquee matchup will be Germany, ranked second in the world, against the Netherlands, ranked fourth and losers of the World Cup final to Spain. Right behind them will be Portugal, ranked fifth and with Christiano Ronaldo, whom I can't stand, but I have to say I believe he is the best player in the world right now.
Poor Denmark. Ranked ninth, they would probably win Group A, but will be very fortunate to get a point off this lot.
Group C should be an interesting battle for second place. I don't see Spain dropping any points in their matches, but Italy is looking to improve on a devastating World Cup performance, but they have to do it against Croatia, which is probably the best squad in Europe that is not considered elite. Though they failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, they are still ranked 8th in the world, and you might remember their quarterfinal run in the last Euros and their shocking 3rd place finish in the 1998 World Cup.
That leaves Ireland. This is the first time since 1988 they qualified for the Euros, and only their second qualification ever in the competition. Not counting the hosts, they are the lowest ranked team in the competition besides the Czech Republic. Still, if Italy's struggles continue, then they could sneak into the quarterfinals. Their match with Croatia is the key one.
Group D features England as the favorites, who seem to do their best when the chips are down, and worst (finishing behind the U.S. in their 2010 World Cup group, then getting throttled by Germany in their round-of-16 match) when expectations are high. Hard to say whether the chips are down right now or not. They breezed through Euro qualifying, but will be under the services of a new manager who has not yet been named.
If Italy is reeling from a fall from grace, then France is doubly so. They only qualified for the World Cup in 2010 on a blown call on a Thierry Henry goal that he twice touched with his hands, and then limped out of the Group Stage amidst a player revolt. That opens the door for Sweden and Ukraine, who co-hosts the competition with Poland. Both Poland and Ukraine got easy group draws, with Poland having no one particularly tough in their group and Ukraine drawing teams in questionable states of mind. Unlike Poland, I think Ukraine will take advantage of this and finish runner-up in the group.
Final Order Predictions
Netherlands over Greece
Germany over Russia
Spain over Ukraine
Croatia over England
Netherlands over Spain
Germany over England
Netherlands over Germany
The Netherlands only have one major title to their credit, Euro 88. But they have really been knocking on the door, losing the 2010 World Cup finals to Spain in extra time, and seven other top-four finishes in either the Euros or the World Cup since 1974. It's time for them to break through, and the Euros, more often than not, are about surprises.