by Susan Jardine
It happens once every four years and from an English point of view the outcome is generally the same as the Eurovision Song Contest.
Of course it is the European Football Championships, and I am fairly certain that those competing will be considerably happier that their fate is decided on the football pitch by way of goals rather by a posse of random people who cast votes as to what song they like.
This year the competition is held in Poland and the Ukraine and while there are no Russian grannies, ageing crooners or Jedward competing I am sure there will be the same desperation to avoid what is the equivalent of the dreaded nul points.
Let’s start with England’s group and they find themselves with Ukraine, France and Sweden. And as soon as the name Sweden came out of the draw came the grinding of teeth among fans. The Scandinavians have repeatedly proved to be England’s Waterloo. In fact you have to go way back before Abba surfaced in Brighton in 1974 with that song to find the last time England beat Sweden in a major competition finals. Injuries to Frank Lampard and Gary Cahill have seen Roy Hodgson take a chance on Jordan Henderson and Martin Kelly. OK I will call time on the Abba jokes now as they will only get progressively worse; the jokes that is. In all seriousness you cannot underestimate the Swedes who are strong defensively and do possess genuine attacking flair. It has all the indications of being un points to both teams.
France though have seen the spine of their team struggling for form and fitness. M’Vila has an ankle injury while Mexes and Ribery are both labouring for consistency. And a couple of Toon Army alumni find themselves in Laurent Blanc’s squad. They being Yohan Cabaye and Hatam Ben Arfa. Certainly there are goals in the French side and given Blanc’s career as a defender it seems inconceivable that they will not be strong defensively. The Ukraine meanwhile are a shadow of themselves. Some ten years ago they boasted Sergei Rebrov and Andrei Shevchenko and represented tough opposition. These days they will have to rely on the support of a fanatical home crowd if they are to find the inspiration to navigate a way out of the group.
Co-hosts Poland’s received a draw that gives them a sporting chance of getting through to the quarter finals. Grouped with three teams they have a chance of beating Russia and the Czech Republic despite last night’s disappointing draw with Greece. This is mainly thanks to a formidable three pronged attack in Piszczek, Błaszczykowski and Lewandowski who have played a major role in bagging 51/80 goals for Borussia Dortmund. While I am sure the Russians (who are kicking off in their opening fixture at the time of going to press) will enter the group phase as favourites and in a confident mood following a comfortable qualifying campaign, they also possess much of the team who made the last four in Austria and Switzerland. The Czech Republic, however are the most dangerous in the quartet after storming through qualifying. So strong are they as an attacking force that I think they will progress comfortably. But should either Russia and the Czechs slip up one of Poland and Greece will be ready to pounce.
Greece of course shocked everyone when they won the European title 2004. Can they fight their way to another final again? Cynics will say the only Greek you may find in any final these days is the tennis umpire Eva Asderaki. But to dismiss the Greeks would be folly as their qualifying campaign was solid if unspectacular with the foundations being a very strong defence that alas was not on display yesterday. Complete outsiders in 2004 when confounded the experts to win they will no doubt relish their opportunity of spoiling the hopes of their Polish hosts.
If Spain could have picked their group through choice I doubt very much they would have selected the Italians or Croatians. Neither would they have chosen Ireland. Three dangerous opponents for the reigning champions could result in an early exit. No country has retained the European title in the history of the event. While the Spanish still have the nucleus of the team that took them to world cup glory in 2010 they are also a few years older. I am not suggesting that they are past it physically but maybe mentally they have lost a bit of sharpness and hunger. So much will rest on Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas. While Fabregas looks as good as always in La Liga Torres has struggled with converting innumerable chances away since his move to Chelsea. And the last thing any manager would went going into a major championship is a striker who seems to be running low on confidence.
Twenty four years ago Ireland qualified for the finals in Germany, and under the leadership of Jack Charlton promptly embarrassed England by beating their neighbours 1-0; a result which triggered England’s early exit from the tournament. Certainly the Irish remain notoriously difficult to beat in finals and they will be delighted to face Italy once again. The Azzuri will no doubt remember their defeat by the Irish in New York in the World Cup in 1994 and with Italy now a team unable to score in the last three games, more pressure will be placed on the midfield to support the attack and also protect the defence. Certainly Cesare Prandelli could do without the group they have been placed in. Don’t be surprised to see the Italians saying arrivaderci after the first round.
All of which bodes well for Croatia. After negotiating a play off match they seem to have found the right balance between attacking and defence. It has been a few years since the genius of Davor Suker propelled Croatia to third place in the 1998 world cup finals, but now with Modric providing the ammunition for Jelavic, Kalinic and Eduardo to feed off they have the ability to win the tournament- but do they have the mental approach required to win?
All of which leaves us with the group that brings together Germany, Holland, Portugal and Denmark. Germany look the team to beat after their performance in reaching the last four of the World Cup. Two years on their young squad have matured and let’s not forget how important a settled squad is. But they face a nightmare of a group to negotiate as they face their fierce rivals, the Dutch. The Netherlands who were runners up in the World Cup qualified with ease and have the services of Robin van Persie. A formidable team, and if you are looking for a team to back the Dutch may well be the team to put your money on. A question mark for me is with their temperament. Two years ago they should have been world champions only to lose their discipline in the final against the Spanish. If they can address that they stand a great chance of lifting the trophy last lifted in Germany in 1988.
Of course Holland’s successors as European Champions also find themselves in the same group as their predecessors. Denmark, who answered a last minute call up to the finals in Sweden in 1992 shocked everyone by going all the way to the title in Gothenburg. Can they do it again? I don’t think so, as I don’t think they have the firepower to score the goals to win matches against Germany and Holland.
Which brings me neatly to the Portuguese. They still have Cristiano Ronaldo but struggled in qualifying. Finishing second to the Danes left them needing to win a play off to get through to the finals. Do I see them as winners? No. Do I see them as potential qualifiers? Yes. Which means one of the other big guns from this group are in danger of missing the boat for the quarter finals.
So with that it is now making your mind up time as to who you think will win it. Who will it be congratulations to, and for whom will the thought be what’s another year. Nineteen days in Poland and the Ukraine will decide.
Let battle commence.