Favorites, long shots of Euro 2012
The field of 16 participants for Euro 2012, to be held in Poland and Ukraine next summer, is set. The groups are drawn, with talent spread unevenly across four groups -- too much of it having been cast into Group B and not enough of it into Group A. Now all that's left to do is wait for the tournament to kick off on June 8. Oh, and to speculate prematurely on who will and won't be a contender, of course.
Germany (Group B with the Netherlands, Portugal and Denmark)
Die Mannschaft delivered a most strongly worded statement of intent by destroying 2010 World Cup finalists Netherlands 3-0 in a friendly Nov. 15. Not that anybody needed reminding of their quality after the second-seeded Germans tore through the qualifiers with a plus-27 goal difference, becoming just the fourth team of all time to post a perfect Euro qualifying record. While Spain was also perfect, becoming the fifth, it did it in a group of just five teams, having to play only eight games compared to Germany's 10.
Germany is the world's most mobile and free-flowing outfit on the counterattack and, given the youth of key players like Mesut Ozil, Thomas Mueller, Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira, not yet near its peak. German tabloid Bild boldly stated the obvious after the destruction of the Dutch, whom they will face again in the group stage: "The big countries are getting to be too small for us. We only have one to go: Spain." Not even the hardest group of the tournament will slow down Germany.
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Spain (Group C with Ireland, Croatia and Italy)
If the Spanish national team were a company, it would likely be in trouble with government regulators for unfairly monopolizing the industry. The title-defending Spanish, beneficiaries of wave after wave of improbably talented prospects, have several world-class players at every position and a uniform playing philosophy that binds it all together nicely. As mentioned, Spain went a perfect 8-0-0 in qualifying.
Imperfect, however, is Spain's recent record in friendly matches. After losing to Italy 2-1 on Aug. 10, Spain let an England side it dominated sneak away with a 1-0 win Nov. 12 and was down 2-0 until the 80th minute against Costa Rica on Nov. 15 before eking out a 2-2 draw. Manager Vicente del Bosque's hand, as steady as his formidable mustache, will see Spain through this blip and have it ready come June, though, when it finds itself in a pretty straightforward group.
Netherlands (Group B)
Mark van Bommel says the usually bickering Dutch don't fight among themselves anymore. Trouble is, this attitude-rich generation of Oranje denizens hasn't always looked bothered to fight other teams anymore either. Since snapping up qualification with an away win over Finland on Sept. 6, the Dutch have managed no more than a meager 1-0 win over Moldova, a bad 3-2 loss against Sweden, a tepid 0-0 draw against Switzerland and the 3-0 walloping at the hands of Germany.
"It's better to lose to Germany now than at the Euro," star playmaker Wesley Sneijder told media after the game. Yet as one German paper pointed out, this Dutch side looks nothing like the team that battled all the way to the World Cup final. The necessary talent is still there -- the back line excepted -- but Oranje has some things to figure out before it tries to scrape its way out of the Group of Death.
France (Group D with Ukraine, Sweden and England)
Ever since France stopped winning Euros and World Cups in 2000 and started crashing out of tournaments prematurely instead -- save for that weird 2006 World Cup when Zinedine Zidane got one last burr in his behind and dragged his side to the final -- Les Bleus have drowned in their own talent and dysfunction. They truly have more good players than they know what to do with -- and are undoubtedly deeper than during their 1998-2000 World Cup-Euro double run -- but are saddled with plenty of negative energy, too. (See: 2010 World Cup, player strike).
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Laurent Blanc seems to have righted the ship after the rudderless years under Raymond Domenech. France hasn't lost since Sept. 3, 2010, but inconsistency made qualification a struggle. France isn't yet fully rebuilt, but it got a lucky break in the draw. Coming out of the dreaded Pot 4, courtesy of its plummeted UEFA coefficient, France landed a manageable group. Blanc is optimistic. "Qualifying was extremely troublesome," he told reporters. "Now we have to stop looking back and build a new future. If we can do that in the next year a lot is possible in Poland and the Ukraine."
Italy (Group C)
"Eureka!" Cesare Prandelli (probably) said to himself after being hired as Italy's new manager in late 2010. In order to go back to winning soccer games, and avoid another shaming like at the 2010 World Cup, Italy had to stop clinging to the players that won it the 2006 World Cup -- already veterans at the time -- the way the previous manager, Marcello Lippi, had. "Instead," we imagine Prandelli concluded, "we must bring in new, younger, fresher, hungrier players to take their place."
Innovation paid off handsomely for Italy. While not as talented as in recent years, the Azzurri were clinical in qualifying, going undefeated (8-0-2) and allowing fewer goals than any other team with two in 10 games. Yet Prandelli warned of overestimation. "We could jump to the conclusion that Italy is back to the top of European and world football, but first we should see how this team performs at a major tournament against one of the teams that are great at the moment," he told Italian media after wrapping up qualification. "We have a lot to improve on." Another issue: The team's better forwards, Antonio Cassano and Giuseppe Rossi, are both out with long-term injuries and might not recover in time for the Euro.
Portugal (Group B)
After an epic playoff series against Bosnia -- a stiff 0-0 away and a romping 6-2 win at home -- the world's best team never to have won either a continental championship or a World Cup will get another crack at it. Portugal is as mercurial as it is talented, and prone to long-lasting slumps, but a consistency has reigned since Paulo Bento took over for the fired Carlos Queiroz, who was suspended for obstructing doping controllers in September 2010. Portugal has also rediscovered its scoring touch -- which went missing during the last World Cup, in which it was shut out in three of its four games, wedged around a 7-0 win over North Korea -- by scoring an average of 2.77 goals in 13 games under Bento.
Superstar forward Cristiano Ronaldo -- he who is so rich, famous, good-looking and talented that it's only natural everybody envies him, according to himself -- gathers that Portugal is now a contender. "I think we have a chance for the European title if we can replicate tonight's form," he said after the second Bosnia game. Hubris aside, they just might be.
Russia (Group A with Poland, the Czech Republic and Greece)
A dark horse, perhaps, but Russia boasts a talented and experienced side, headlined by English Premier League forwards Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and former Chelsea back Yuri Zhirkov. During Euro 2008, Russia played sparkling soccer and knocked out heavy favorites the Netherlands in the quarterfinals. Head coach Guus Hiddink has since moved on and made way for Dick Advocaat, who is ideologically similar, making another deep run a possibility. Especially when you consider that Russia's laughably weak group makes passage to the quarterfinals almost a given.
The long shots:
England (Group D)
England's pattern in recent major tournaments is cyclical: qualification, encouraging friendly win, hype, friendly draw, overhype, disappointment. Yes, England beat Spain 1-0 in a friendly on Nov. 12. And yes, it beat Sweden on an own goal on Nov. 15. And yes, its qualification was fairly simple this time. But none of it was hugely convincing. There were good wins along the way, and England is stacked in midfield, but this side has never appeared very cohesive. Throw in star forward Wayne Rooney's likely suspension for England's first three games and there are plenty of reasons to assume the English will get worked up over nothing again this summer. England may have drawn a nice group, but if it fails to top its group it will then face a very tough road through the knockout rounds.
Croatia (Group C)
There are a few things you can count on Croatia coach Slaven Bilic for. His side will always be spirited, disciplined and well-deployed tactically. In its playoff against Turkey, Croatia first won 3-0 on the road, soundly outplaying the talented Turks, and then rode out the series with a 0-0 at home. Between its classical playmaker Luka Modric, wingers Darijo Srna and Ivan Rakitic and a good helping of experience throughout the squad, Croatia has the ingredients to make a dent.
Greece (Group A)
After saying goodbye to Euro 2004-winning manager Otto Rehhagel after the 2010 World Cup, Greece went through qualification undefeated with a 7-0-3 record under Fernando Santos. Even if it's still low on talent, three 1-0 wins and five shutouts show that this squad -- with only three major holdovers from the 2004 team -- is still capable of lockdown defense and grinding out results. And Greece, too, could be the beneficiary of the weakest group imaginable.
Denmark (Group B)
Aside from a solid spine consisting of central defenders Daniel Agger (Liverpool) and Simon Kjaer (AS Roma), wunderkind playmaker Christian Eriksen (Ajax) and striker Nicklas Bendtner (Sunderland), Denmark isn't exactly stocked with world-beaters. That said, it is always well organized by veteran coach Morten Olsen, who is in his 12th year in charge. And it has a tendency to punch above its weight, pipping Portugal to the first place in its qualifying group with a last-day win, for example. "Our team plays well and can beat anybody," Olsen declared to the Danish press.
Ukraine (Group D)
Never underestimate the home team. Tournament hosts perennially overachieve. Short on household names -- now that Andriy Shevchenko is past his prime -- but long on spirit, Ukraine has started amassing good results. On Nov. 11, the Ukrainians took 2-0 and 3-1 leads over mighty Germany before settling for a 3-3 tie, and on Nov. 15 they beat Austria 2-1.
Poland (Group A)
If it weren't drawn in such a weak group, Poland might have been in real trouble. But it wasn't, and the Poles aren't without talent: Striker Robert Lewandowski, defender Lukasz Piszczek and midfielder Jakub Blaszczykowski are starters for Borussia Dortmund, while Wojciech Szczesny is Arsenal's No. 1 goalkeeper and Ludovic Obraniak plays often for Lille. Poland has posted some decent results in friendlies, too, highlighted by a 2-1 win over Argentina on June 5.
Sweden (Group D)
Very much a one-man team, centered around eccentric striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden will be a nonfactor. At club level, Zlatan might sometimes get results for AC Milan on his own, but this model is unsustainable at a tournament of this magnitude.
Ireland (Group C)
With no Thierry Henry around to hand the Irish a playoff elimination, the Boys in Green have made it to their first Euro since 1988 and a major tournament for the first time since the 2002 World Cup. That should be its own reward.
Czech Republic (Group A)
The Czechs ended up qualifying for the Euro for the fifth straight time through a 3-0 aggregate playoff win over Montenegro. With just 13 points from eight qualifiers, the Czech Republic took fewer points than any other entrant, and that reflects its chances at the big dance, even if it is in a lousy group.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.
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