by Richard Brook
By way of contrast to Group A, the draw for Euro 2012 could hardly have thrown together a more sumptuous mix of nations than those that face off in Group B. Even taking into account the fact that standards are generally recognised as higher at European Championships than at a World Cup, this is a formidable looking group.
Pitted together are three of the top five teams in the world, according to the FIFA rankings, and the tenth best team, and let’s just say they have form for springing a surprise at European Championship tournaments. To say this is a tough group would be an understatement of gargantuan proportions.
There certainly won’t be an easy game on offer here. A group of this quality looks a mouth watering prospect on the face of it, full of possibilities as an epic clash between some of the biggest names in world football. On the other hand it could have quite the opposite effect to see such fantastic, and evenly matched, teams pushed together in the group phase. It is quite possible that, without the urgent need to win of the knock out rounds, certainly the first two sets of group B fixtures might prove to be edgy encounters, as teams show each other that most confusing of football clichés, ‘too much respect’.
Whether we get a feast of flair, or the sides opt to shut up shop, it could well be that the coaches hold the keys to unlocking the hair’s breadth, that separates these countries’ national sides.
The man with the unenviable task of attempting to secure a quarter final spot for Denmark is Morten Olsen. As always the Danes will be saddled with the legacy of Euro 92. In this tournament 20 years ago, Denmark found themselves cast in a “plucky underdog” script that even the most sugar-coated Hollywood film company would baulk at, as they ended up winners of a tournament for which they had failed to qualify.
Olsen has, of course, led them to qualification this time out, beating Group B rivals Portugal into second place, in the qualification stage for the second major tournament in a row. This qualification, by three points was secured with a vital 2-1 win, against Portugal, in the last game of the qualifying stage.
Olsen is one of the longest serving national coaches in the world, having racked up 12 years in the post, and has already signed up for two further years after the Championships. This continuity and vast experience, provides an assured calmness to his style, and draws great respect from his players.
When asked if Denmark can replicate the success of two decades ago, Olsen has dodged the question, pointing out the differences between then and now. This realistic take on the nation’s chances seems to be reflective of the general attitude in Denmark since the draw. If the group does prove to be tight, a low points tally for qualification could play into Denmark’s hands, as in 1992 when a win and a draw secured qualification.
Olsen favours an attack oriented 4-3-3 formation. One of the front three places will see Dennis Rommedahl employed as a traditional winger, the other wide position will be a more elusive role between midfield and attack. Nicklas Bendtner will be the loan striker, with a record of 17 goals from 46 games. The full backs will also have an attacking role to play in Olsen’s system. Orchestrating the attacks will be Ajax’s highly sought after playmaker, Christian Eriksen.
Olsen was dealt a late blow in the shape of the back injury sustained by first choice goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen, in the weekend’s friendly. Stephan Andersen is expected to deputise and Kasper Schmeichel has been called in as third choice. In 1992 Schmeichel senior found out he was going to the tournament last minute. It couldn’t happen again, could it?
Portugal will be led, at Euro 2012, by Paulo Bento, who took over from Carlos Queiroz after just two games of the qualifying campaign. Set against a backdrop of a subdued 2010 World Cup that saw Portugal score in just one of their four matches, with his tactics a source of frustration for fans and players alike, a 4-4 draw with Cyprus and a defeat in Norway were enough to spell the end of Queiroz’s reign. The sheer passion of successor, Bento, bore immediate results and Portugal went on to win every game until, the first place decider with Denmark in the last qualifying match. Consigned to the play offs. Portugal eventually came through with an emphatic 6-2 demolition of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
It has not all been plain sailing under Bento though, as the coach has had a few high profile clashes with certain players. John Bosingwa was accused of exaggerating an injury to escape international duty ahead of a friendly game. In addition to this Ricardo Carvalho stormed out of a training camp after being informed that he would not be in the team to play in Cyprus. Despite a subsequent apology from the player it appears that Carvalho’s international career is at an end.
In the lead up to the tournament Bento has taken the time to praise the player’s attitude and adaptability regarding the change in coaching staff, and the togetherness of the squad. He displays a pragmatism to qualification through the play-offs, and at the team’s exit from the last two major tournaments, being as they were at the hands of Germany and Spain. Bento shares a belief, with the public and the Portuguese media that the first objective is to reach the knock out rounds, which is seen as achievable, and then anything can happen.
Under Bento, Portugal are expected to line up with four across the back, a bank of three midfielders, featuring a holding central player, and three attackers, including a lone striker. There is a big question mark over who will be the striker due to Helder Postiga’s indifferent club form, despite his good international record. Hugo Almeida might well be his replacement if necessary. The optimism of Bento and Portugal really stems from the wide attacking positions, and the understandable belief, that if Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo both hit form, then anything might be possible.
The question that Holland, who are widely regarded as one of the top three sides in the competition, must answer is whether they come to the finals at the top of their game, or on the slide following their 2010 World Cup Final appearance. Coach Bert Van Marwijk, picked up his side quickly following their brush with glory in South Africa, and performances, as well as results were deeply impressive. Indeed but for missing out by the odd goal in five in the final qualifying match with runners-up Sweden, Holland would have qualified with a 100% record. It is also worth noting that six of the eight goals the Dutch side conceded, in qualification, came in just two games.
Van Marwijk’s major concern must be a lack of strength in depth. Holland principally rely on the starting line-up from the World Cup Final, in spite of the fact that a number of these players, Liverpool’s Kuyt included, are not automatic picks for their respective club sides. Van Marwijk is known for creating a happy atmosphere at training camps, so Holland will hope that team spirit will fill in some of the gaps that lack of first team action creates. The lack of alternatives available to Van Marwijk could be exposed if it transpires that the tournament is a bridge too far for experienced centre back pairing, Heitinga and Mathijsen, or if Robben’s injury woes return haunt him once again.
The Dutch coach concurs that Group B is the toughest of the lot, and refuses to be drawn on who might or might not win the tournament, or to dwell on the successes of 2010, concentrating solely on the first game of the upcoming tournament. Like it or not Van Marwijk will have to deal with the pressure of the Dutch press agreeing with the world view that Holland are one of the three major contenders for the European crown.
It is expected that the Dutch line up will be exactly as in the last World Cup Final, but for left back slot, left vacant by the retirement of Giovanni Van Bronckhost. Van Marwijk prefers a 4-2-3-1. The wide players, Robben and Kuyt can be expected to continually switch flanks, either side of Van Persie, who will have an able deputy in Huntelaar, who boasts the better international record.
Joachim Low goes into Euro 2012 knowing that his German side are many experts’ pick to win the competition. It is true that Spain are recognised as the best team in the world and have won the last two major tournaments, but no side has won three on the bounce. History tells us that the European Championships have a more even field of competitors than World Cups and therefore the tiniest of advantages can become important. One such factor is that countries neighbouring the hosts have a history of success.
The German public is expectant, and after near misses at the last three major tournaments there is a feeling that the time is now for their first title since Euro 96. This expectation has been fuelled by Low’s exemplary qualifying record. Albeit the German’s qualifying group was not the most taxing, but as the old maxim says “You can only beat what is in front of you”. The Germans duly beat what was in front of them in each of their ten fixtures. The German squad is the youngest it has been in decades and Low’s faith in bringing through young talent is regarded as one reason for the drastic diversion from the classic German style of old. Entertaining football, with players taking one or two touches is the recipe that has elevated Germany to their lofty perch amongst international football’s elite.
Low is clearly seeking to take the pressure off his charges when he states that every side in Group B has a “reasonable” chance of qualifying. It would clearly be regarded as a major shock if Germany did not make the quarter finals. The coach recognises there maybe an advantage in being in a tough group as the players will be aware that playing to their fullest potential, from the outset, will be imperative. Unsurprisingly Low counts Spain and Holland amongst the team’s rivals to win the tournament, but in almost the same breath he mentions Portugal, France and, it might surprise some to learn, England.
Like so many top coaches, Low favours the 4-2-3-1 system, which he uses quite flexibly to easily become a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-4 if required. The four forward players; Klose, Muller, Podolski and Ozil are clearly enough to strike fear into the most composed of defences. The overall system will be based on pressing the ball hard, while out of possession, and moving it about quickly whilst in possession. Snap changes in attacking tempo will also be employed to attempt to catch opponents off guard.
The principal questions for Low ahead of the tournament are; does he know his best back four, and how fit will Schweinsteiger, Klose and Mertesacker be after their respective spells on the sidelines?
So, in summary, will Group B light up the first round with the natural ability that resides in these four squads, or will all the teams be so concerned about neutralising each other’s key threats that it all becomes rather turgid? Either way, with the greatest respect to the other teams involved, it would be a major shock if we did not see both Holland and more particularly Germany advancing to the quarter finals.