Euro 2012 group-by-group breakdown
After Friday's draw for the group stage, Euro 2012 in Poland and the Ukraine has taken shape. Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal will battle in the first round, Spain confronts Italy, and England renews hostilities with France. One of the two host nations, Poland, didn't get the worst draw, either. Here's a breakdown of each of the four groups, with a prediction on which two teams will advance.
Group A: Poland, Czech Republic, Greece, Russia
All of a sudden things are looking rosy for Russian soccer. Russia will host the 2018 World Cup -- and now it gets this group, by far the easiest of the four.
The Russians are aging, but in Premier League duo Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko, they possess two players who play better for their country than in England. Under Dutchman Dick Advocaat, the Russians have stopped leaking goals.
The co-hosts are looking good, too. The young Poles have a wonderful -- but inexperienced -- keeper in Arshavin's Arsenal teammate Wojciech Szczesny, and get their oomph going forward from Borussia Dortmund pair Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Blaszczykowski. Yes, Poland is inconsistent, but it did beat Argentina and tie Germany this year.
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Poland's game against Greece will be pivotal. Greece, the surprise 2004 champ, is solid but unspectacular under Portuguese manager Fernando Santos: Of its seven wins in qualifying, five came by a single goal. Can it keep grinding out those type of results?
The Czechs are outsiders.
To advance: Russia, Poland.
Group B: Netherlands, Denmark, Portugal, Germany
Hello, group of death.
Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness called Germany the pre-tournament favorite on current form, and not many should argue with him. Germany was perfect in qualifying and plays the sort of attacking soccer neutrals like to see, armed with, among others, Mesut Ozil, Bastian Schweinsteiger and goal machines Mario Gomez and the ageless Miroslav Klose. The Germans, perhaps, have already inflicted psychological damage on the similarly pleasing Dutch, crushing the Netherlands 3-0 in a friendly in November.
Meanwhile, should the Dutch worry? In a recent spell, the World Cup runner-up lost to Germany and Sweden and failed to beat Switzerland -- at home. Speaking of goal machines, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar led qualifying in scoring.
Poor Cristiano Ronaldo. How he would have loved to end up in Group A so he could steal the spotlight. Ronaldo will be vital to Portugal, even if he tends to perform better at club level for Real Madrid. He'll be flanked by Nani and Joao Moutinho, giving Group B loads of talent. Portugal has a history of advancing to knockout stages at tournaments -- but this one is tricky.
As for resilient Denmark, it won't be overawed facing at least one team in the group, given that it finished ahead of Portugal in qualifying. Confident striker Nicklas Bendtner is no doubt looking forward to rubbing shoulders with some of the game's best.
To advance: Germany, Netherlands.
Group C: Spain, Ireland, Croatia, Italy
Like Germany, Spain was perfect in qualifying. However, unlike the Germans, a slight swoon has followed. It's probably nothing, but the reigning World Cup and European championship winners fell to England and had to rally late for a 2-2 draw against Costa Rica in recent friendlies.
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Hey, it's likely hard to keep the interest level up for matches that don't mean much. Come tournament time, expect Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas in midfield to shine. Striker David Villa scored seven goals in qualifying, picking up the slack for the out-of-form Fernando Torres. If he doesn't get going, Torres' spot surely has to be up for grabs.
Italy, a loser on penalties to Spain in the Euro 2008 quarterfinals, was on a high. After it was disgraced as the reigning champion in South Africa, in came manager Cesare Prandelli and the Italians conceded two goals in qualifying. Surprising, eh? Unfortunately, Italy has been dealt a blow with Antonio Cassano's heart scare -- he scored six goals in qualifying -- and Giuseppe Rossi's knee injury.
Will the Italians have enough to edge Croatia and Ireland for second? Croatia's world ranking, eight, may be inflated, but with Luka Modric and rising star Milan Badelj it shouldn't be underestimated.
Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni will be relishing an encounter against Italy given his Italian roots, and Ireland won't be pushovers. The Irish know how to defend, if nothing else, going eight games without conceding in a spell under Trapattoni.
To advance: Spain, Croatia.
Group D: Ukraine, France, Sweden, England
Should Fabio Capello bring Wayne Rooney to the European championships? He has to, despite the striker's three-game ban (which could be reduced -- or increased -- later this month after his appeal is heard by UEFA). Without Rooney for friendlies against Spain and Sweden, England did fine, so there's no reason to think his absence will lead to elimination in the group stage.
There are no penalties in the first round, right? But Three Lions fans will be shuddering at the thought when Frank Lampard & Co. have to stand on the spot to see their country through.
Perennially talented France flopped badly at Euro 2008 and was disgraced at the 2010 World Cup when some of the squad revolted against the coaching staff. Replacing Raymond Domenech with Laurent Blanc was unquestionably the right move, and Blanc immediately pushed out some disgruntled players and put his faith in striker Karim Benzema, who has flourished. If only Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery could become consistent, France could be a force.
Landing in major tournaments isn't a problem for Sweden. Advancing past the first round is. Zlatan Ibrahimovic will need to excel if the Swedes hope to buck the trend.
Then there is the other co-host. It'd be nice to see Andriy Shevchenko, on his last legs at 35, score a goal playing at home for Ukraine -- and yes, he'll be picked -- yet fellow forward Andriy Yarmolenko is the danger man for Ukraine. What are the odds of Ukraine progressing? It sports an 0-4-4 record since the end of the 2010 World Cup against sides that have made it to next year's tournament.
To advance: England, France.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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