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Everything You Need To Know About The 2012 Euros in Ten Minutes: Red + Yellow = Oranje

June 8, 2012

UEFA’s 2012  European Soccer Championships, or as every soccer fan calls them, The Euros, begins today, and for many hardcore soccer fans, this is their favorite international tournament.  I don’t really blame them. Sixteen of Europe’s best teams play hotly-contested matches for three-plus weeks (the first 12 days consist of two games a day) for continental bragging rights, and while cream often rises to the top (Spain in 2008 and France in 2000 come readily to mind), it may be the one tournament that any team in can win, witness the Great Danes of Denmark in 1992 or 150-1 shot Greece in 2004 (an event I call “The Death of Soccer”, but we’ll save that for another time).

It’s also become quite accessible to the novice or casual American fan, as thanks to ESPN in the United States we’ll be able to see every game live and in HD.  So if you’re thinking of catching a game or two before the Final on July 1, or if you’re like me and plan to DVR or live watch every game, here’s a handy guide to enhance your viewing pleasure

First off, some quick facts, as well as the ESPN website where you can get group standings, schedules, results as well as team rosters, profiles and tactics in their additional coverage.* This year’s tournament is co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine, with the Opening match in Warsaw, Poland (featuring Greece vs. Poland at 9:00AM PST), the Final in Kiev, Ukraine (participants to be determined), and the whole of the tournament to be played among four cities in each of the two countries (eight venues overall). Qualifying was comprised of 247 matches among every eligible European teams (except for the hosts Poland and Ukraine) that began one month after the 2010 World Cup ended.  Each of the 16 teams will play three games in group play, with the top two teams from each of the four groups advancing to an 8-team knockout stage of quarterfinals, semifinals and the Final; this has been the format since 1996.  As said above, Spain is the defending Champion (as well as the defending World Cup Champion), and are currently the 5:2 odds on favorite for the 2012 Title, which puts them in line to be the first nation to pull off a Euro-World Cup-Euro trifecta. The Euros were first held in 1960 and have been held every four years since, in the middle of the World Cup cycle. The Soviet Union won the first Euros, and since then nine different nations have won the 13 tournaments held (compared to the World Cup’s 8 different winners over 19 tournaments), with only Germany/West Germany (3 altogether), Spain (2) and France (2) to win more than once, and the 2012 tournament involving all nine of those past winners (if you count Russia in the place of the U.S.S.R.).  Among the more pressing subplots is the spectre of racism at the tournament games, an ongoing concern at the highest levels of soccer that has only drawn increased attention from a BBC documentary called “Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate” and renewed fears that FIFA’s “zero tolerance” policy on racism will be tested during Euro 2012 as reports of “monkey chants” at the Netherlands’ public training session surfaced on the eve of the tournament’s kickoff.

Next is a quick – some would say haphazard – look at the four groups in the first round of play, concentrating on the overall zeitgeist of each team entering the tournament and a quick assessment of their prospects.

Group A – This is easily the most mysterious and least-scrutinized of the four-team groups, with no big tournament favorite and no clear-cut group favorite within …  Russia plays an aggressive, high-tempo style under Dutch coach Dick Advocaat, and has plenty of attacking talent in Andrey Arshavin, Alan Dzagoev, Pavel Pogrebnyak (say that name five times fast), Konstantin Zyryanov and Roman Pavlyuchenko, but arrive as one of the oldest teams in the tournament facing questions whether their “Golden Generation” of players (12 players from their 2008 semifinalist squad return) has enough left to go deep in the tourney … Feast or famine describes the Czech Republic’s potential, having made scant noise internationally since making the Euro 2004 semifinals. The Czechs have one of the best goalkeepers in the world in Petr Cech and  established talents all over the pitch in Michal Kadlec, Vaclav Pilar, Tomas Rosicky and Euro 2004 Golden Boot winner Milan Baros, yet a lack of quality finishing in qualifying as well as an overall lack of depth cloud their prospects … Greece bears the hopes of an economically depressed nation and couldn’t survive past the group stage in their 2008 defense of the Euro 2004 Title, but yet again promise not to dazzle with their defense first, defense second, defense third and hope-to-score-a-set-piece-goal style, which might actually be enough to nab a spot in the quarterfinals. One other thing is for sure – announcers will have a lot of fun with the player names (and if you want a special treat, listen to Spanish-language commentators pronounce these names) …  Host country Poland finds itself with a much easier draw than their co-hosts Ukraine, and while one can not underestimate true home-field advantage, aside from Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and the Borussia Dortmund trio of Jakub Blaszczkowski, Lukasz Piszczek and Robert Lewandowski the Poles lack the quality, defense and creativity of Europe’s top squads …

Player to Watch: Alan Dzagoev, Russia.  The 21 year old CSKA Moscow playmaker is the future of the Russian squad and looks to introduce himself to the rest of Europe.

Most Intriguing Game: Russia vs. Czech Republic, June 8, 11:45AM PST.  This opening day match should tell a lot for both teams going forward, and reveal if either team is susceptible to the lesser talented Greece and Poland squads in group play.

Game to Skip If You Have To:  Any game involving Greece. Seriously. Zzzzzzzz …

Predicted to Advance: Russia to win the group, and the Czechs as runners-up, barely.

 

Group B – The so-called “Group of Death”, every major tournament has one but this may be the most deathly version yet with four of FIFA’s Top 9 ranked teams, and I expect the eventual winner of the entire tournament to come out of here … Germany has become the popular, 3:1 odds choice to supplant Spain as European Champions, with good reason.  Manager Joachim Low has a spectacular array of talent and depth at his disposal, filled with youth, experience, skill, creativity (a word that hasn’t often been used to describe German soccer) and grit.  Offense should provide goals aplenty while the defense led by goalkeeper Manuel Neuer should be stingy … World Cup 2010 Finalists the Netherlands return the bulk of their difference-makers from two years ago and may have the most dazzling attacking talent this side of Spain, headed by Inter Milan star Wesley Sneijder and Arsenal’s prolific Robin van Persie. Central defense remains the lone question mark but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Euro 2012 may become a Dutch treat … Portugal may be THE Euro 2012 “darkhorse” contender, a team blessed with enough talent at 10 positions on the field to command respect from any opponent including the best pair of wingers in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani. Their problem lies in that 11th man, the center striker, where they lack a quality finisher and have for years at the international level.  Still, maybe the pressure being focused on favorites Germany and the Netherlands will pay off for the Seleccao … It is tempting to write off Denmark as the “minnows” of the group (the small fish, the easy mark, the underdog, what have you), but considering they won their qualifying group (that included Portugal and Norway) and that they are currently ranked 9th in the world by FIFA, it’s also tempting to think they could win any group in the competition.  Unfortunately for the Danes, they lack depth beyond the starting XI and appear to be outgunned by their other three opponents …

Player to Watch:  Mesut Özil, Germany.  While Ronaldo may get all the headlines at Real Madrid, Özil is the engine that makes both the Spanish League Champions and Die Mannschaft run.

Most Intriguing Game: Portugal vs. Netherlands, June 17, 11:45AM PST.  While the Netherlands-Germany game on June 13 could be a Euro 2012 Final preview (wink, wink), this game should largely determine which two teams advance out of Group B.

Game to Skip If You Have To:  Portugal vs. Denmark on June 13 just doesn’t have the shine as the rest of the matches do, but regardless, I won’t be skipping it.

Predicted to Advance:   Netherlands (1st) and Germany (2nd), on goal differential.

 

Group C – For me personally, this is easily the most interesting group of the four, rife with personal connection (I claim both Spanish and Irish heritage) as well as volumes of historical rivalry and past famous matches among all four nations … With all due respect to the rest of the field, fatigue may be Spain’s most dangerous opponent, as the Titleholders field a roster full of players key to several high profile league and club tournament champions who played deep into May. Look for Manager Vicente Del Bosque to be strategic with lineups in the group stage and use his depth in order to conserve the energy of key stars like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Juan Mata, David Silva, Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso … Rumors ran wild in the days leading up to the start of Euro 2012 that Italy would consider bowing out of the competition in light of their umpteenth match-fixing scandal, but the last time such a scandal hit before a major tournament, the Forza Azzuri went on to win the 2006 World Cup. While Italy will play, I don’t see that history repeating itself, although they should get to the quarters on talent and experience alone, between the evergreen Gianluigi Buffon, unyielding Giorgio Cheilini, creative Thiago Motta, ageless Andrea Pirlo, resolute Danielle De Rossi and the volatile starlet Mario Balotelli … Croatia has more than just snazzy uniforms (usually featuring the red-and-white check from their flag), they have the experience and technical skill to compete with any team in the world. Luka Modric, Ivan Raketic, Darijo Srna and Niko Kranjcar should give their more heralded Spanish and Italian midfield counterparts all they can handle, but they may be undone by a shallow bench and a lack of what experts call “pace”, or speed. In Croatia’s favor is the fact they are unbeaten against Italy (3-0-2) since the collapse of Yugoslavia and their emergence as an independent team, including a 2-1 victory in the 2002 World Cup Group stage … With legendary Italian Manager Giovanni Trapattoni at the helm, Ireland will employ a style that will be more catenaccio (cautious, organized and defense-minded) than Italy’s current possession-oriented tactics, as LA Galaxy’s Robbie Keane carries the hopes and burden of a team and a nation desperate for success, and their opening match against Croatia will go a long way in determining their Group C fate.  Interesting to note that Ireland’s Trapattoni is also a mentor and former coach of Italy’s current Manager Cesare Prandelli …

Player to Watch: Xavi, Spain. Euro 2012 could be the international curtain call for La Furia Roja’s midfield maestro, and he may have just enough in the tank to propel “The Invincibles” to a third major title.  A special nod to Croatia’s pint-sized veteran virtuoso Modric, who is also worth your attention.

Most Intriguing Game: Most would probably target Span vs. Italy on June 10, but I will single out Spain vs. Ireland, June 14, 11:45AM PST. Not only for the aforementioned personal reasons, but it is a rematch of their thrilling World Cup 2002 Second Round match that broke Irish hearts on penalty kicks.

Game to Skip If You Have To:  None; maybe that Ireland vs. Croatia match on June 10 does not have the sparkle that the rest of the matches will have, but even that one promises to be entertaining.

Predicted to Advance:   Spain (1st) and Italy (2nd), as Italy does better against Ireland than Croatia does.

 

Group D – If Group A is the most mysterious, then Group D is the most unpredictable group as no other group of teams has more questions waiting to be answered … Bouncing back from a disastrous 2010 World Cup to win their qualification group with only one loss is France, who enter the Euros as one of the hottest and most talented sides in Europe, unbeaten since losing their first Euro 2012 qualifying match to Belarus in September of 2010.  While this squad has much to prove after their 2010 flameout, one thing that’s never in question is their talent, with goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris backing up a staunch defense and the likes of club stalwarts Hatem Ben Arfa, Marvin Martin and Olivier Giroud coming off the bench … What can be said about the England squad that hasn’t already been exhausted by the London tabloids? (Look them up if you must). Prevailing wisdom is that the two-game red card suspension of talisman and goal scoring savant Wayne Rooney, along with recent injuries ruling out Frank Lampard, Gary Cahill and Gareth Barry, collectively spells doom for the Three Lions’ chances of advancement, but I rather think that the remaining squad rallies around that disrespect and plays with a chip on their shoulder, making Rooney’s return in their last Group stage match a dress rehearsal for the quarterfinals … In recent tournaments  Sweden seems to find itself in the same group as England, as it did in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and does yet again here.  A 1-1-3 head to head record the last 11 years belies a rivalry in which the less heralded Swedes often outplay their more vaunted English foils, losing to England last November 15 for the first time since May 22, 1968. Volatile goalsocrer Zlatan Ibrahimovic leads a enterprising Swedish squad looking to spring the trap once again … Ukraine appears to have more questions than answers entering their turn as co-host. Is the roster, led by fading Andriy Shevchenko, too old? Will players from the country’s two biggest club teams, Shakhtar Donestsk and Dynamo Kiev, be able to get along? Will they be hurt by a lack of meaningful matches the last two years? Have they settled on a consistent tactical approach, or will they keep experimenting with lineups and formations during the Group stage? Will the home team advantage galvanize or distract the squad? Stay tuned, as they do have enough starting talent to compete with the rest of the group …

Player to Watch:  Yann M’Vila, France.  Several observers say the distributing midfielder could be the breakout star of Euro 2012, and who am I to argue?

Most Intriguing Game: Sweden vs. England, June 15, 11:45AM PST.  Maybe it’s just a coincidence that I’ve preferred the lunch-time games to the morning tilts, maybe nit, but another chapter in this fascinating rivalry awaits.

Game to Skip If You Have To:  Ukraine vs. Sweden on June 11 doesn’t inspire much for most but the hardcore, will-watch-anything fans. The only intrigue may be how the nations with both blue and yellow differentiate themselves.

Predicted to Advance: France (1st) and England (2nd), in what could be considered a slight upset of sorts.

 

Finally here are my predictions for the knockout stages, based on the above-predicted results of the Group Stage, with the bracket and my predictions available here.

Quarterfinals: Finishing second in their group and with a boulder on their shoulder Germany makes quick work of a game but overmatched Russia.  For all their effort and guile to advance out of group play, England gets as their reward Spain, who flashes their class, avenges their 1-0 loss to England last November in a friendly and easily sends the Three Lions home in the quarterfinals of a major tournament, again (the 4th time in their last six appearances in the Euros and World Cups).  Netherlands outlasts the Czechs in a high-scoring, back and forth tilt, while France outlasts a beleaguered Italy (who did well to survive the group stage) in a rematch of the 2006 World Cup Final (hopefully no headbutting this time).

Semifinals: The match many believe will occur in the Final occurs in the Semis, with Germany turning the tables on Spain’s tiki-taka brand of football, getting an early lead and unraveling the design of the Titleholders possession-oriented scheme.  In the other semi, a plucky French side fails to halt the surging Netherlands attack, as Clockwork Orange claims another victim in its march to history.

Final:  In a rematch of the famous 1974 World Cup final, the Netherlands finally exact a revenge 38 years (some might say 70-plus years considering World War II) in the making over a favored Germany in a rematch from Group B play 18 days prior.  Looking at the flags of the co-hosts, with Poland’s bold red and the Ukraine’s prominent yellow, it only makes sense that together they produce an oranje result.

 

 

 

* – I’m not an ESPN shill, but I figure their site is the easiest one to reference for games being broadcast on the ESPN networks.  UEFA (the governing body for European soccer), Fox Soccer, Yahoo!, EuroCup (the tournament’s fan site) and The Guardian all have lovely sites and good coverage as well, to name a few.

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