It wasn’t the same in Euro 2008 without the English, who failed to qualify four years ago in Austria and Switzerland. But, no worries, we have England and its always-entertaining sideshow back for Euro 2012.
Speaking of sideshows, has anything in world football ever provided the sort of off-the-field fireworks as did France’s embarrassment at World Cup 2010? Remarkably, Les Bleus have remade themselves in quick order. More remarkably, they enter Group D play as a slight betting favorite to win this quartet.
So it goes in this very curious-looking group, hardly the “death” foursome in the tournament but we dare say the most lively bunch for off-the-pitch antics and controversies. Co-host Ukraine and Sweden, the latter a longtime foil of ’ol England, round out the quartet.
Before we get into our match previews next week, we offer our Group D overview, with group win prices included in parentheses.
France (6/4): That Les Bleus are a narrow favorite in this group says as much about the perceived quality of the opposition in this foursome as anything else. And also that France hardly appears to resemble the fractious bunch that made such hash out of its World Cup 2010 appearance.
Credit that to manager Laurent Blanc. A longtime French international and member of the “golden generation” of stars including Zinedine Zidane and Manu Petit that won at World Cup ’98 and Euro 2000, not to mention an extensive club career at most high-profile European ports of call (Italy, Spain, and England in addition to France), Blanc has gradually become comfortable in his new role and fostered the sort of esprit de corps in his troops that embattled and embarrassed predecessor Raymond Domenech could only dream about.
Though not considered among the top favorites in Poland and the Ukraine, France could present interesting possibilities on a long-shot wager, as indicated by a recent 18-match unbeaten streak. True, automatic qualification from group qualifier play was not assured until the final minutes of the last qualifier vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina, but for the first time since World Cup 2006 there is something to get excited about in the France camp.
Blanc’s 4-2-3-1 features a rock-solid combination in the defensive center consisting of AC Milan’s Philippe Mexes and Valencia’s Adil Rami in front of Lyon GK Hugo Lloris, and also boasts of accomplished Man U fullback Patrice Evra (one of those in the middle of the World Cup 2010 controversies, and ultimately suspended for five matches). Another EPL-based charge, Arsenal fullback Bacary Sagna, has been ruled out due to injury. Blanc, however, likes the cover that exists within his squad, and Man City’s capable Gael Clichy could fill in on the back where needed.
More EPL flavor exists in midfield, where Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye, Man City’s Samir Nasri and Chelsea’s Flourent Malouda provide plenty of class, with the flair courtesy of Bayern Munich wing Franck Ribery.
Blanc’s concern is along the frontline, where Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, finally featured somewhere after conceding the spotlight to Cristiano Ronaldo and others at the Bernabeu, looks by far the best target-man option. If Benzema doesn’t fire, Montpellier’s precocious Olivier Giroud or perhaps another Newcastle flyer, Hatem Ben Arfa, could get the call, although the class seems to drop precipitously beyond Benzema. Man, could this Les Bleus edition have used Thierry Henry in his prime! Group forecast: Winners.
England (13/8): The news has been mostly disconcerting for the English since veteran gaffer Fabio Capello stepped down as coach in the qualifiers, with the well-traveled Roy Hodgson recently appointed to duties behind the bench. Since Hodgson is no stranger to international football, having coached in big tourneys as long ago as Euro 1996 – Can it really be 16 years since that festival of football in England? – with Switzerland, England loses little (and maybe even gains an edge) in that transition from the dogmatic Capello. But other developments are a concern.
And the news has not been good in the past week, either, with word that Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard would have to be scratched because of a thigh injury. This is no ordinary loss, because Lampard had been penciled into a crucial holding midfield role. With Spurs’ Gareth Barry sidelined and teammate Scott Parker dealing with Achilles tendon issues, Lampard’s presence was considered even more important, but now Hodgson will have to scramble to reconstruct the base of his midfield. Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson has been drafted in as Lampard’s replacement on the roster.
Of course, there is also the matter of Man U striker Wayne Rooney, suspended for the first two group play games against France and Sweden due to a red card late in the final qualifier vs. Montenegro. There are not many other reliable attacking options at the disposal of Hodgson, who might have to opt for Liverpool’s Andy Carroll or Rooney’s Man U teammate Danny Welbeck as the target-men in the 4-2-3-1. Upon Rooney’s return, look for Hodgson to opt for a 4-3-3 alignment instead, with Rooney in the center of the frontline.
Meanwhile, the likes of Liverpool midfield maestro Steven Gerrard and Chelsea defender John Terry (stripped for the second time of team captaincy) have never been able to translate their club success into the national team. There also figures to be lots of pressure on Man City GK Joe Hart to keep England within touching distance in each outing, as we don’t see a lot of scoring options on the roster besides Rooney. Group forecast: out in first round.
Ukraine (9/2): The co-hosts were given a pass through the qualifiers, but enter the tourney nonetheless having endured a bumpy ride over the past couple of years. Included are three coaching changes that finally settled upon Oleg Blokhin, the former gaffer who was in charge of the Ukraine sides between 2003-07.
Blokhin was not able to settle the squad in a series of tune-ups, experimenting with 41 different players and various lineup combinations in 10 friendly matches. Blokhin still has no fixed pair of center-backs in front of Dynamo Kiev GK Olek Shovkovskyi and could continue his lineup juggling past the opening match vs. Sweden at Kiev on June 11.
Ukraine’s strength appears to lie up front, where the spry, young Dynamo Kiev pair of wingers, Oleg Husiev and Andriy Yarmolenko, provide width in Blokhin’s 4-4-2 which can be altered to a 4-5-1. Another Dynamo Kiev charge, striker Artem Mylevskyi, figures as the target man, with vet Andriy Shevchenko, a featured striker in years past with AC Milan and Chelsea but now finishing his career at Dynamo, more likely to be used in a support role behind Mylevskyi. Group forecast: Out in first round.
Sweden (6/1): That the longest shot to win this group is priced at a mere 6/1 indicates the competitiveness of this quartet. And the Swedes have advanced into the knockout phase of several big tourneys in recent memory, including advancement all of the way to the semifinals at World Cup 1994.
The Swedes missed out on World Cup 2010 and the current squad is absent longtime familiar faces Freddie Ljungberg and Henrik Larsson, who both finally hung up their international boots. The Swedes are also in a major tourney for the first time since Euro ‘96 without coach Lars Lagerback, who quit after Sweden missed World Cup 2010. Which was probably a plus, as Lagerback’s safety-first style had become something of a bore.
New coach Erik Hamren prefers a more attack-minded 4-2-3-1 and has had success with AC Milan forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a star in these events as long ago as Euro 2004 in Portugal, in a more-withdrawn frontline role, sitting just behind Galatasaray’s Johan Elmander, who has passed a fitness test and will be available after nursing a foot injury late in the Turkish season.
Offense shouldn’t be a problem for the Swedes, who scored 31 goals in their 10 qualifiers and will pressure the opposition thanks to the bombing runs of fullbacks Mikael Lustig (Celtic and now healthy) and Martin Olsson (Blackburn), two of the several newer faces from recently successful youth set-ups now making their big tourney debuts in Poland and Ukraine.
Hamren, however, might play it a bit more on the back foot at the Euros, considering how his fullbacks were ruthlessly exploited on the stop end by the Dutch during the qualifiers. Olsson, in particular, could be a defensive liability. The 34-year-old vet central defender Olaf Mellberg, an uncompromising sort now drawing paychecks from Olympiakos, looks to be the rearguard’s only steady defensive presence in front of PSV GK Andreas Isaksson.
It is worth noting that the Swedes have not lost a competitive match vs. England since 1968; their June 15 match at Kiev could have a lot to say about which team might advance to the knockout phase. Group forecast: Second place, advance to knockout phase.