Milan Baros has ploughed a solitary furrow up front for the Czechs during the qualifiers.

by Richard Brook

With Euro 2012 less than a fortnight away, there is little doubt that if you asked any of Europe’s footballing elite which group they would prefer to have been drawn in, the answer would be Group A.

This is no way a slight against the teams that will contest the group; indeed it includes the runners up of 1996, the Czech Republic and the surprise package of 2004, Greece who won that particular tournament. It is simply that, by being drawn in Group A, Germany, Spain, Holland, Italy, Portugal, France and – dare I say it – England have all been circumnavigated, until the quarter finals. That said there is no such thing as an easy group in the European Championships, a tournament noted for its quality.

It would seem then that Group A is likely to be a tight group with not much to separate the teams. Arguably, more so than in the other three first round groups, the managers could make the real difference between progressing further in the competition and the ignominy of being dumped out at the first hurdle.

For the Czech Republic, the man in the dug out will be Michal Bilek, who less than a year ago was facing calls for his head due to failure to command the dressing room and a lack of fan popularity. The Czechs won the race to finish in second, behind Spain, to secure a play-off place. 13 points from eight games proved enough to cement the runners-up position. This uninspiring total was the second worst record amongst the second placed teams. The Czechs were, however, drawn against the only play-off side with a worse qualifying record, Montenegro.

Bilek was faced with something of a rebuilding job from the moment he took over the team. Following a poor qualification campaign for the last World Cup, the Czech Republic were hit with a number of retirements, crucially all-time leading goal scorer Jan Koller. Bilek has trickle-fed new talent into the team during his tenure, notably including left midfielder Petr Jiracek.

Bilek has somewhat diplomatically described Group A as “balanced” in the run up to the tournament, and says that his side’s objective is get to the quarter finals and see where they go from there. The national media have expressed an opinion that Bilek faces a thankless task, where qualification from this group will hold no glory for him because it is the public expectation, and failure to qualify will be seen as a total failure.

The concern of the pundits is a misfiring forward line. In qualification, left-back, Kadlec finished as top scorer and to their consternation Bilek persists with a lone striker, in the shape of ex-Liverpool man Milan Baros, who scored just once in qualification. Bilek extols the advantages of the strong midfield this creates and the support provided to Baros from the wings.

With Petr Cech between the posts and Tomas Rosicky pulling the strings in midfield, Bilek’s men have the players to mount a challenge in Group A, providing they can find the goals.

Ferando Santos has lost just one of the 19 matches Greece have played since he took over from the coach that led the Greeks to victory in the final of Euro 2004, Otto Rehhagel . Building on the defensive stability instilled by his predecessor Santos has imbued his side with the freedom and vigour to express themselves going forward.

Santos. Available for children's parties and stand up. Any takers?

Santos led them through a successful qualifying campaign that saw them pip favourites Croatia to the top spot, in the last game, as they won 2-1 in Georgia. The coach has proven himself prepared to show that no player is too big to be dropped, and has encouraged young talent, bringing through a number of players during his tenure. One such youngster, Sotiris Ninis, became the youngest player to score for Greece, aged 18. Santos has imposed his particular brand of fluid, offensive football on all levels of the national team to ensure continuity when it comes to making the step up to the senior side.

Santos has expressed that he wants players that have strong personalities to deal with the pressure of a major international tournament, and has indicated a preference for versatile players able to play in a number of positions. Santos also rates a good grasp of the tactical side of the game up their with technique when it comes to making his selections, so his tournament training camp can focus on maintaining fitness and build team spirit.

There seems to be a sense of hope rather than expectation in Greece, when it comes to making the quarter finals. The emphasis is placed on the importance of Greece’s presence at the finals rather than progression. There is also an acknowledgment of the parity of the Group A sides that is shared by the media and the coach alike, that could see Greece finish fourth or first.

Greece are expected to line up in Santos’ favoured 4-3-3 formation, and make use of attacking full backs. The experience of Giorgos Karagounis in midfield, and Gekas up front, may provide vital tournament know-how. Santos big question mark going into the championships is who will be the first choice goalkeeper, with Michalis Sifakis struggling to recover from injury.

The pressure has been on coach of joint hosts Poland, Franciszek Smuda, despite not having to go through the process of qualification for the tournament, following a calamitous 2010 run of eight months without a win. Smuda harbours ambitions of an attacking Polish side that plays the beautiful game the purists speak of. Poland have been found wanting, when trying to fulfil their coach’s grand ideals, most notably when annihilated 6-0 by Spain in June 2010.

Smuda. Has harboured ambitions of forging an attacking Polish side.

Smuda has controversially moved to patch his side, particularly his defence, by convincing players of Polish birth, such as Werder Bremen full back Sebastian Boenish, but who have moved away to represent the country. Injuries, however, have thrown a spanner in the works and Boenish’s appearance against Portugal, in February, marked a welcome return after a year on the sidelines. First choice striker, in a side that play with just one up front, Robert Lewandowski missed the same match with an injury of his own.

Smuda faces unenviable pressure to lead the joint host nation into the quarter finals, from a group widely regarded as the easiest possible, despite being the lowest FIFA-ranked side at the finals. The feeling in Poland appears to be that Russia are likely to win the group, and Poland’s opening fixture against Greece will set the tone for their tournament, and have a big say in whether they are able to qualify or not. The chairman of the Polish FA did nothing to relieve the weight of expectation by commenting upon being chosen as joint hosts; “The dream is coming true. It is the most important day in Polish football ever”.

Smuda certainly seems to be a man who stands by what he feels is right, as in spite of the pressure he has come under, in mere friendlies, in the build up to the competition he has stood by the idea of bringing on younger players with a view to their readiness for the 2014 World Cup. On the topic of the group itself, the coach describes it as “treacherous”. Smuda rates Russia and Greece as favourites, without ruling out the Czech Republic. The Poland boss still states their own aim as to reach the knockout stage.

Smuda prefers, the international formation of choice, 4-2-3-1, however Poland are lacking a creative playmaker to run the attack, and are likely to concentrate their offensive play down the flanks. Much is likely to depend on the form and fitness of striker Lewandowski.

Russia will be led to Euro 2012 by Dick Advocaat, with hopes elevated by having finished top of a qualifying group, a rare event in recent times. The first-round draw, combined with finishing semi-finalists last time out, has created a situation where anything short of the quarter finals would be a massive disappointment.

Advocaat attempts to level expectation.

Advocaat will however be concerned about the defensive capabilities of the players available to him. While Russia conceded a meagre four goals in ten qualifying round matches, there is a major question mark over the fitness of first choice goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. In addition to this there is a lack of depth in central defence, with no real cover available for first choice pairing Ignashevich and Berezutsky. Both of these defenders boast considerable experience and aerial prowess, but there exists a nagging doubt about their ability to cope with genuine pace.

The coach will have less cause for concern going forward with Zenit’s Roman Shirokov, scorer of five Champions League goals this term, co-ordinating matters from midfield. In attack names known to fans of Arsenal, Spurs and Fulham respectively, such as Arshavin, Pavlyuchenko and Pogrebnyak, together with youngster Dzagoev, ought to be sufficient to fire Russia out of a group the coach says “could have been a lot worse”.

Advocaat favours a 4-3-3 with the wide forwards interchanging, and is more interested in players that fit the system, than size of reputation. The full backs can expected to go forward and join in the attack. The weighting of attack and defence in the midfield three is dependent on the opposition faced.

One would expect that Group A will finish up with Russia and any one from three advancing to the quarter finals. There are convincing arguments for and against all four sides, and whilst it is the least glamorous group for the neutral, it could well be the hardest fought and one of the most interesting to follow.