While the Major League Baseball season is going on with several surprises in early contention (Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New York Mets, Cleveland), the NBA playoffs sees Lebron James and the Miami Heat on the brink of elimination, and LSU breezing through to the Super Regionals in college baseball, the biggest soccer tournament on the planet behind only the World Cup is starting this week in Europe.
Starting Friday and spanning over the next month, the journey will begin among 16 teams to determine the European champion. Spain is the defending champion, and also holder of the World Cup (which they will look to defend in 2014 in Brazil). They are not without challengers in a tournament packed with the powerhouses, a couple of dark horses, and drama from injuries to scandal.
Who will come out on top? The month of June will tell, but here is my best stab at the proceedings in the tournament hosted this time by two countries, Poland and Ukraine.
GROUP A CAPSULES
CZECH REPUBLIC- Any side featuring still one of the best keepers in the world is a force to be reckoned with in the easiest of groups. Petr Cech was big in the Czech run to this point posting a pair of clean sheets in the two-leg playoff against Montenegro. It made up for a group effort that saw the Czechs draw Scotland and lose once to Lithuania. One of the questions is the fitness level of forward, Milan Baros who is dealing with a thigh injury. Baros is a significant part of the Czech attack although they do have several who can put the ball in the back of the net. Midfielder, Tomas Rosicky can score and set up others, and it looks like he will be a full go for the start of the tournament despite missing the last tune up, a 2-1 loss to Hungary on June 1st.
GREECE- Magic was the one word to describe the Greeks' shocking run through Euro 2004 en route to their first major soccer title ever. What happened in 2008? Zip. The Greeks drew a group that featured the eventual champion Spaniards, and also lost their other group games to Sweden and Russia. Now with a different coach patrolling the sidelines, and a new attitude, the Greeks took the automatic route of qualification by winning their group. Fernando Santos, who was hired in 2010, has lost only 1 match in 18 since taking over (10-7-1). Greece at their best is a patient side, and very opportunistic. That alone predicates their ability to play with just about anybody in the world on their best. However, if they fall behind to quality opposition it becomes a different story. They're solid on the back line and healthy coming in, and will rely their offense on Giorgos Samaras and veteran, Giorgos Karagounis who is one of the few still left from that magical run in '04.
POLAND- Having an automatic spot in the tournament, the Polish did not have to go through qualifying, play-offs, or any of that. So is that an advantage? For what is perceived to be one of the weakest teams in the tournament, Poland will take anything they can get. The question then becomes of their form. While friendlies sometimes don't offer the best gauge, they have put up some impressive results beating Argentina, and scoring 2 in a draw against Germany. With the full nation behind them, the Polish look to improve on their '08 campaign when they finished bottom of the group and only gathered 1 point. Defensively, they have not allowed a goal in their last 5 matches including a 0-0 draw against Portugal where keeper, Wojciech Szczesny put through a really solid performance. Forward, Robert Lewandowski picked up 4 goals to lead all Polish scorers ahead of this tournament, and will be sought upon to deliver here along with club level teammate, Jakub Blaszczykowski.
RUSSIA- The Russians are determined to prove they can be a dark horse in this tournament, and they just may have what it takes to do a lot of damage in this group. Beyond that would be a tough draw, but this has been a determined side since losing out on the World Cup in the play-off for qualification. They tied Slovenia on aggregate 2-2, but lost on away goals. The Russians coasted through group play in qualifying here, only losing 1 game while allowing just 4 goals. The steady hand of coach, Dick Advocaat who guided his home country in the Netherlands to the semi-final in 2004 is a big plus, and defensively Russia has been strong. Do they have enough firepower up front? That can be answered in the form of Roman Pavlyuchenko who only scored once outside of his hat trick in one qualifier against lowly Armenia. Also, Andrey Arshavin was held off the sheet in all 10 matches.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:
3. CZECH REPUBLIC
GROUP B CAPSULES
DENMARK- When you're up against it in a tough group, you need all hands on deck. Unfortunately for the Danes they will not have that. Goalkeeper, Thomas Sorenson did not make the trip because of a back injury. Kasper Schmeichel was called up to replace Sorenson on the squad while Stephan Andersen started the last warm up, a 2-0 win over Australia. The Danish did go through top of their qualifying group, which included Portugal who they will see again in the opening round. Key for Denmark is the steady voice of coach, Morten Olsen who has been on the sideline since 2000. He is well respected, and gets the most out of his players. On the pitch, it starts with Nicklas Bendtner along with Dennis Romedahl up front. Denmark also has a nice mix of promising youth and experience at the back line with Daniel Agger leading that group. Also, who will start at central defender next to Agger? A pair of 23-year olds, Simon Kjaer and Andreas Bjelland saw 45 minutes each against Australia.
GERMANY- The Germans are among the favorites, and they're a side just waiting to pounce on this opportunity. They have scorers galore, and are technically sound all over the pitch. After sweeping through their qualifying group with a +27 goal differential, Germany's form had slipped in friendlies leading up to the competition. That is until they showed in their last snapshot in a 2-0 win against Israel, the brilliance they exhibit at their best. This team is overall young, and most of those youthful players have developed quite nicely. With a front line that brings Lukas Podolski, Miroslav Klose, and Mario Gomez along with Thomas Muller in the midfield who was brilliant in the 2010 World Cup, the Germans are poised to get back to the top of Europe. Another player to watch is Mesut Ozil who displays nice artistry in the midfield (5 goals, 7 assists in 9 qualifying appearances). There isn't one or two guys you can key on with this group, which is why they are a favorite.
NETHERLANDS- Runners up in South Africa, now the Dutch return to another big stage looking for a complete breakthrough with some silverware to match. There is no doubt the orange scoring machine is in tune after thrashing Northern Ireland 6-0 in their last friendly before the competition. They provide a formidable challenge, and rank just a bit behind favored Germany and Spain. They have toughness in the midfield, scoring up front with Robin Van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and great depth behind the likes of Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder who are both capable of scoring and creating from the midfield. Their back line has only continued to improve as they breezed through qualifying for the tournament. The ultimate key will be keeper, Maarten Stekelenburg who is coming off a shoulder injury. He has kept a pair of clean sheets since, but the competition will be steeper than Slovakia and Northern Ireland.
PORTUGAL- For the amount of talent on the pitch with Portugal, one would expect better results on the global stage. After exiting Euro 2008 in the quarterfinals, the Portugese seem like a side that just can't break in with the likes of Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and on the worldwide stage, Brazil and Argentina. They seem to be a notch behind the top teams, and that may show again with the form Portugal has displayed. A pair of draws and a 3-1 loss to Turkey have been their recent results, and one of those draws came to Macedonia. To their credit, the words from Portugal's camp still exude confidence, and they do have one of the top players in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo. They also have an experienced defense, and Nani holding up shop in midfield. Will that translate better than their recent form? Certainly, the hope is such that the talent will come together in a tough group.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
GROUP C CAPSULES
CROATIA- Another side that could be a dark horse, even in the toughest group of them all, the Croatians snapped to life in their play-off win over Turkey to qualify for the tournament. Croatia netted a 3-0 win in the first leg, and held the Turkish off the score sheet again in Leg 2 to arrive here. One bit of bad news is that the Croatians will be without experienced forward, Ivica Olic who suffered a torn hamstring. He had picked up 2 goals in just 5 qualifying matches, and brought lots of experience to this stage. However, the news is not all bad from the Croatian camp. Most everyone else is fit, and midfielder, Luka Modric should be fine after battling the flu. Croatia can surprise in this tournament with how the group may shake out with balanced scoring from Eduardo and Niko Kranjcar among others.
ITALY- For those who want to say this is 2006 again, this doesn't look to be quite the same. Italy won the World Cup despite match fixing allegations heading in. Now, the Italians are locked in another slimy match fixing scandal, and there was even question at a time about their participation in the tournament. Through the clouds, they are here. However, they might as well not have been if they're going to bring their last tune up efforts to the party. Italy was hammered 3-0 by Group A favorite, Russia. In that match, keeper, Gianluigi Buffon banged his shoulder and came out for precautionary reasons. All Russian goals were conceded after his exit. Buffon's health is critical to the Italian run. He has 114 caps, and a World Cup to his name. With Daniele De Rossi playing through injury, and the naming of erratic Mario Balotelli to the squad, the Italians are in the midst of a lot of uncertainty. Still, if nothing more happens, they are always to be respected.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND- With the start of the tournament just a few days away, Ireland are facing their own dilemma with goalkeeper, Shay Given. Though it is insisted by the Irish camp that he will be ready to face Croatia, Given is no given to start with a knee injury suffered a couple of weeks prior. His training for the tournament has been limited, and there may need to be a back-up plan in place for Ireland. They went the play-off route of qualifying for the proceedings, and are enjoying their second trip ever to the European Championships. Their first came back in 1988. However, they aren't just happy to be here. The Irish are intent on making some noise even in a tough group, and if Given is fit, don't be surprised if Ireland put themselves in the mix of advancing out of the group. They also have Robbie Keane on their side who was brilliant throughout the qualifying stage, especially in Leg 1 of the play-off where he had 2 goals and an assist in a 4-0 win against Estonia.
SPAIN- Powerful, defending champions, and banged up. That describes the Spanish in a nutshell. They are the defenders of this title, and also hold the World Cup title in their grasp. However, they are without important pieces in forward David Villa and crucial defender, Carles Puyol who are both missing the tournament because of injury. Still, Spain is deep and full of Picassos on the pitch. Their midfield is the most talented in the world with the likes of Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, and Cesc Fabregas. They also are sound in goal with Iker Casillas manning the net. While the injury concerns should not dampen their chances in the group phase, the door is now cracked open for the other favorites in this tournament to jump up and snatch the title away. Also, no defending champion of Euro has ever repeated in the tournament's history.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
4. REPUBLIC OF IRELAND
GROUP D CAPSULES
ENGLAND- It's hard to imagine anyone has had more rotten luck than England coming into the tournament. They have lost a few key pieces in midfielders, Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry. Also, defender, Gary Cahill busted his jaw in the final tune up against Belgium, and is now out for the tournament. Though laboring at times, England did put themselves through automatically by winning a group that featured Montenegro and Switzerland. With world class striker, Wayne Rooney on their side, he always gives England a chance. Plus, they still have experience with John Terry and Ashley Cole at the back. Though decimated by injuries, the British can navigate this group successfully considering the talent still left especially up front with Rooney, Jermain Defoe, and midfielders, Steven Gerrard, James Milner, and Ashley Young.
FRANCE- From a side which was fortunate to qualify for the World Cup in 2010 to now, the French are hardly recognizable. That couldn't be better news for coach, Laurent Blanc and his side. After an awful effort in South Africa, this could be a story of redemption. In any event, this side is not to be written off now. They blitzed Estonia 4-0 in their final warm up for the tournament, and have looked the part of a side that can cause damage. Hugo Lloris has been sound as the French keeper, and they have ability with the pace of Florent Malouda, the experience and versatility of Patrice Evra, and the scoring prowess of Karim Benzema who at age 24 is only getting better as a scorer.
SWEDEN- 4 consecutive victories in friendly matches have the Swedes' confidence level at a high. Included in that winning streak are victories over Croatia and Serbia. After getting bounced in the group phase in 2008, the Swedish are looking to push their way a step further this time. For them, they have a potent attack led by Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He notched a goal in each of his last three appearances, and also put forth a hat trick during the qualifying round against Finland. Another key part to their attack could be Johan Elmander who is trying to get healthy off a foot injury. He has not appeared in an international game since the Swedish knocked Croatia back in February. Overall, their form has been solid, and it's certainly the hardest group to peg, which means that Sweden does have at least some potential say in this fight.
UKRAINE- The co-hosts of the tournament also didn't have to qualify their way in because of their co-hosting privileges. Their warm up matches have left a lot to be desired with losses to Austria and Turkey dimming their prospects according to most to threaten in this group. Coach, Oleh Bohkin has expressed concern over the recent form, and it would be easy to write off the Ukrainians. They don't have the scoring punch that they possessed just a handful of years ago. Plus, they are young in the center of their defense. Six years removed from a quarterfinal run in the World Cup, Ukraine has a different style to them this time around predicated more on fast paced play, and trying to force the issue than the counter attacking style they have used in past successes.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:
With that, we are down to the knock-out stage. Here is how I see the rest of the tournament playing out.
NETHERLANDS OVER RUSSIA
SPAIN OVER ENGLAND
GERMANY OVER GREECE
CROATIA OVER FRANCE
SPAIN OVER NETHERLANDS
GERMANY OVER CROATIA
GERMANY OVER SPAIN
In conclusion, I have the Germans reversing the script of 2008 where they had lost in the final to Spain. Injuries play a role in this decision, but the amount of young talent that continues to develop is impressive. Goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer is also improving himself, and is now entering his prime at age, 26. Germany could possibly be on the doorstep of putting themselves where Spain currently is in the world discussion. They have a more than capable coach in Joachim Low, an abundance of skill, and a great understanding of their own strengths.
The Spanish are the defending champions, and are to be respected despite the injuries. They still have great artistry in the midfield, and are solid in goal. Meanwhile, Netherlands are going to be fun to watch again, and when they knock heads with Germany in the group, it could potentially provide a final preview.
One surprise team I have is Croatia getting to the semifinal. I like their balance, and they can perform with most of Europe on their best. Still a relative newcomer to the stage, they've experienced the high (3rd place in the 1998 World Cup, and winning the group in Euro 2008), and the low (only 1 win in 2 World Cup appearances since, and failing to make the field in 2010). It depends on the performance of their defense and goalkeeping, but they have enough firepower to threaten on this stage.
As I mentioned, Russia is another dark horse that is not to be taken lightly. They are in solid form, and have a passable group that they can get through. France is a contender on how well they have played. Their attitude is a complete turn-around from South Africa. Meanwhile, even through the injuries, England still has the depth to be able to compete in this tournament.
This is a wide open tournament as far as who can advance out of the group phase. Germany, Spain, and Netherlands are supposed locks to get through their group, but very few teams are without a chance to make it to the final eight. It should be a fun tournament over the next month, and something for New Orleans sports fans to keep tuned into in the lull before training camps open.
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