With Euro 2012 fast approaching (kickoff is June 8 when Poland hosts Greece in Warsaw and Russia faces the Czech Republic in Wroclaw), it’s time to start previewing each of the four groups before we get into match analysis in June.
First up, Group A, which looks the most wide-open of any of the quartets. Group win odds are listed.
Russia (6/4): The Russians have gone “Dutch” again, enlisting veteran Dick Advocaat as the coach after fellow Dutchman Guus Hiddink was unable to steer the team to World Cup qualification in 2010. The Russians proceeded to win their European qualifying group for the first time in five attempts, as Advocaat steered the squad to the top of Group B qualifiers, losing just once in 10 attempts.
Topping a modest Group A looks well within reason at Euro 2012, but a repeat of Euro 2008, when Russia careened its way into the semifinals before losing 3-0 to Spain, might be asking a bit much.
Advocaat enters the tourney with a couple of question marks, specifically in goal where CSKA Moscow’s Igor Akinfeev is in a race to regain fitness after a serious knee injury. He returned to active duty in late April but could be pipped by Zenit’s Vyacheslav Malafeev, who posted clean sheets in his four qualifier starts.
But the big question remains attacking midfielder Andrei Arshavin, who parlayed a breakthrough performance in euro 2008 to a big-money contract with Arsenal. Arshavin’s form, however, has dipped, and he played on loan at Zenit this past season. The rap on Arshavin is that he lost his hunger after Euro 2008, but if he regains the look that terrorized opposition in Switzerland and Austria, then Russia might be able to advance through at the top of this group.
Advocaat’s side conceded only four goals in the 10 qualifiers but has not introduced much new blood into the lineup, with most of the key components aged 30 or more. That would include Arshavin and Lokomotiv striker Roman Pavlyuchenko, recently at Tottenham and battling with Zenit’s Aleksandr Kershakov to be the target man in the middle of the front line in Advocaat’s expected 4-3-3 deployment. Prediction: 2nd place, advance to second round.
Poland (5/2): The Poles have been mostly in the international football wilderness over the past few decades, rarely making a peep on the world stage since the Zbignew Boniek-inspired squads of a generation ago. Co-host status in Euro 2012 gives hope that Poland can again make some noise in a big event.
With guaranteed entry, however, the lack of a qualifying run provided a conundrum for manager Franciszek Smuda, who replaced veteran Leo Beenhakker in 2009. A subsequent 8-month run without a win set off alarm bells in Warsaw that only subsided briefly in a 3-1 friendly win over the Ivory Coast.
Smuda had significant defensive concerns that have abated somewhat with his active recruitment of reinforcements. Smuda believes he found some help in the Bundesliga when convincing some Polish-born Germans to return home for Euro 2012 with the promise of playing time on the big stage. Thus, the likes of Werder Bremen left-back Sebastian Boenisch, defensive midfielders Adam Matusczyk (Cologne) and Eugen Polanski (Mainz), and a French addition, Sochaux central defender Damien Perquis, were all handed international debuts by Smuda and have slightly improved the outlook.
After much experimentation, Smuda has decided upon a 4-2-3-1 alignment with Borussia Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski, Poland’s Player of the year in 2011, as the target man up front.
Smuda, however, lacks a creative playmaking element at midfield. Winger Jakub Laszczykowski, one of three Dortmund stars likely in lineup, is a livewire capable of causing some havoc for the opposition. The pressure will also be on young Arsenal GK Wojciech Szczesny, especially if the rebuilt defensive rearguard should leak. Prediction: out in group phase.
Czech Republic (4-1): Longtime linchpins such as Pavel Nedved and giant striker Jan Koller are long gone from the international scene, but a few familiar faces remain from past Czech squads, including the Euro 2004 edition that advanced to the semifinal round. Remember, it was then 22-year-old striker Milan Baros, property of Liverpool at the time, who won the Golden Boot at Euro 2004 in Portugal. Baros, now campaigning for Galatasaray in Istanbul, is one of the few faces remaining from Euro 2004 or World Cup 2006 for the Czechs.
Considered outsiders in Poland and Ukriane, the Czechs nonetheless offer an interesting blend of youth and experience. Baros, the likely target man in manager Michal Bilek’s preferred 4-2-3-1, and Arsenal talisman Tomas Rosicky provide a heady veteran presence. Support from the wings in the forms of another pair of vets, Bordeaux’s Jaroslav Plasil and Anorthosis’ (Cyprus) Jan Rezek, formerly at Sparta Prague, provides capable width in attack.
And there is no goalie entering Euro 2012 on a greater high that Chelsea’s Peter Cech, one of the heroes of the recent Champions League finale.
The Czechs were far outpaced by Spain in Group I qualifiers and had to advance to Euro 2012 via the runner-up knockout route, taking care of Montenegro in a home-and-home to advance. The established veteran core of the squad, however, makes it a legitimate threat to win this group. Prediction: Group winners, advance to second round.
Greece (4-1): Whenever Greece enters international competition, we are reminded of Euro 2004 in Portugal, when as 100-1 shots, the Greeks proceeded to shock the football world by winning the tournament.
Subsequent appearances in international competition saw the Greeks continue to employ the methodical style preferred by veteran manager Otto Rehhagel that worked so well in 2004. The recipe, however, never worked quite the same, and Rehhagel eventually retied after World Cup 2010, replaced by Portuguese gaffer Fernando Santos.
Many forget that the Greeks were able to succeed in 2004 with a dominant midfield that won possession consistently and dictated pace and flow. That dynamic, however, was not replicated as effectively after 2004, and Santos prefers a more attack-minded 4-3-3 alignment.
Greece qualified at the top of a tame Group F, nosing out Croatia for the automatic ticket to Euro 2012, but enters with questions in goal following an injury to Aris’ Michalis Sifakis, the preferred number one choice of Santos.
A couple of holdovers from Euro 2004, the Panathinaikos pair of midfielders Kostas Katsouranis and Giorgios Karagounis, remain in the lineup, but in their mid-30s have a bit less spring in their step than they did eight Junes ago. Another 30-something, Sansunspor striker Fanis Gekas, was Europe’s top scorer in World Cup qualifiers with 10 goals. But Santos’ “attack-minded” setup scored only 14 goals in ten qualifiers, suggesting that firepower issues could haunt the Greeks as was the case at World Cup 2010. Prediction: out in group phase.