by Darren Beattie
Poland’s star men:
Poland have a strong goalkeeper in Wijiciech Szczesny but lack quality in defence with the exception of wing-back Lukasz Piszczek. The centre of defence is especially weak and the co-hosts look vulnerable in this area. The right hand side of midfield is Poland’s most dangerous area of attack as captain Jakub Blaszczykowski will look to link up with Dortmund team-mate Piszczek. The Poles will be in trouble if they lose danger man Robert Lewandowski who they are solely relying on to put the ball in the net.
Wijciech Szczesny –
The Arsenal goalkeeper played an important role in helping the Gunners claim 3rd place in the Premier League by starting in every game. The 22-year-old drew many plaudits over the course of the season and has established himself as the co-host’s number one in their bid to pull off a surprise at Euro 2012.
Despite only having seven caps for his country, Szczesny was the stand out performer in at least two of the games he has appeared in. A clean sheet against Portugal and a magnificent performance to keep Germany at bay in a 2-2 draw has seen Szczesny rise to the position of first choice for the Poles.
Some critics will point out that Szczesny has not participated in a competitive game for his country. However, some of his performances in the Champions League suggest that the Warsaw-born goalkeeper will be able to deal with anything that is thrown at him.
Lukasz Piszczek –
Club: Borussia Dortmund
The 26-year-old right-back loves to burst forward and always looks dangerous when doing so. Piszczek previously played up-front in his career and can be described as more of a wing-back than a right-back. He is certainly one of the more dangerous players the Poles can boast of and is a consistent performer, only missing out on three league games in two seasons for his club.
The Dortmund player helped his team achieve a domestic double this season and in many people’s opinion, he is one of the most under-rated fullbacks in Europe. Recent reports have linked the full back with La Liga Champions Real Madrid.
Club: Borussia Dortmund
Piszczek’s dangerous team-mate at Dortmund fired in an impressive 33 goals in all competitions this season for the German champions and will certainly be a threat in this year’s European Championships.
Lewandowski made his international debut for Poland at the age of 20 and has made a total of 41 caps for his country and scored 13 goals since.
Dubbed one of Europe’s top strikers, Poland have been criticised for depending too much on the 23-year-old. He recently scored a hat-trick against Champions League finalists Bayern Munich. If an injury happens to the co-host’s top man or he fails to find the form he has been showing at club level, then Poland are in for an embarrassing competition. Not too much pressure then.
Greece’s star men:
Greece has few options in the goalkeeping area. Michalis Sifakis, Alexander Tzorvas and the veteran Kostas Chalkias have all missed parts of their clubs season due to injury or loss of form. The Greeks will rely on the strength of their defence and their centre-backs are particularly strong – especially Kryriakos Papadopolous. The lack of options up-front mean that the Greeks will be relying on their midfielders to score the goals and tricky winger Sotiris Ninis is considered as the danger man for the Euro 2004 surprise winners. Experienced captain Giorgos Karagounis will be expected to break up play. Kostas Mitroglou is the most dangerous player up-front but his lack of discipline may cost him a place in the starting 11.
Club: Schalke 04
Position: Centre –back
Greece’s triumph in 2004 was largely built on having a solid defence and if they are to have any success in this year’s tournament, the defence will be heavily relied upon again. Therefore, it is no surprise that one of Greece’s star men is a centre-back. Although only 20 years of age, Papadopoulos has shown real signs of maturity when playing for his club Schalke this season.
The Schalke centre-back is a brilliant tackler of the ball, reads the game well, is impressive in the air and is quite pacey. Greece will be relying on the former under-21 captain to keep things tight at the back whilst they attempt to score a goal on the break.
The youngster is also a danger at set-pieces. He netted twice in qualifying as well as being the only scorer in the recent friendly against Armenia.
Position: Right winger
As Greece severely lack goals from their forwards, the pressure will be heaped on their midfielders to come up with the goods and the main man with the responsibility of supplying these goals is former Manchester United target Sotiris Ninis.
Voted Greece’s Young Footballer of the Year as a 17-year-old and as a 20-year-old, it is difficult to believe that the future Parma danger man is still only 22. He is described as the creative unit for Greece and the man they will rely on to make things happen. A cruciate knee injury caused Ninis to miss out six months of football this season but it is hoped that he can reach his early season form once more in order for Greece to make it out of the group.
The scorer of the opening goal in Euro 2004 in which Greece went on to lift the cup and shock Europe, Giorgos Karagounis is still the anchor man in the Greek’s centre midfield. The 35-year-old has clocked up more than 250 appearances for his club Panathinaikos and is the captain of his country.
He is the hardest worker in Greece’s team, running tirelessly to gain possession. Once in possession, Karagounis rarely gives the ball away. The midfielder is also a fine delivery of set-pieces and could link up well with Papadopoulos’s aerial ability from corners and free-kicks.
Czech Republic’s star men:
Petr Cechis considered as the key man for Czech Republic – and it says a lot when a goalkeeper is thought of as the most important player. Cech will lead a make-shift defence as goal-scoring left-back Michal Kadlec is expected to fill in at centre-back. The Czech’s will be relying on old-boys Tomas Rosicky and Milan Baros to create a threat from an offensive point of view.
The Champions League winner is a worldwide name, known as a truly world-class goalkeeper. The Czech’s will be relying on the Chelsea man to perform his usual heroics if they are to progress any further in the competition.
Cech has achieved a total of 89 caps for his country and the 29-year-old should break Karel Poborsky’s record of 118 appearances if he can stay injury-free.
His form has been criticised in recent years but he well and truly bounced back to his best in 11/12 as he made a number of crucial saves as Chelsea lifted an FA Cup and Champions League double.
Cech will be hard to get by if he continues his brilliant form for his country and will be keen to make up for his mistake against Turkey in Euro 2008 which cost his team a place in the quarter-finals.
Position: Centre Midfielder
Tomas Rosicky is another well-known name in the Czech Republic squad having enjoyed six impressive seasons at Arsenal.
The Czech’s will be reliant on the energetic, attacking midfielder to pull the strings in the centre of midfield. Despite picking up a calf muscle injury in the Gunners’ last game of the season, the 32-year-old has returned to full training and Michal Bilek will be hoping that his captain will not lose the form he produced in the latter part of the season for his club.
The Czech’s looked a different team when they were defeated by Hungary 2-1 in their final warm-up and therefore, it is vital that Rosicky stays injury-free. The Arsenal player missed Euro 2008 and the Czech’s were subsequently dumped out in the group stages.
It may be a controversial decision to label a striker who has only scored nine goals in his last 32 appearances as a key player but if Czech Republic are to return to their best, they need their best players returning to form. Top goal-scorer in Euro 2004, Baros bows out of international football after this tournament and what are the chances he says his good-byes in style? It would be brave to bet against him.
The Czech’s like to start with a lone striker and Baros will have to battle it out against fellow forward Pekhart to win his place. The Galatasaray striker’s record this season suggests that he can be deadly in-front of goal banging in 10 goals in 33 appearances for the Turkish side this season. He won a penalty for Czech Republic in their defeat to Hungary.
Russia’s key men:
Russia has a problem in goal as Igor Akinfeev tries to recover from a torn cruciate ligament but is expected to make the tournament. A solid defence will include centre-backs Sergei Ignashevic and Vasily Berezutsky. Dick Advocaat has plenty of options in midfield and will look to expose the threat of Alan Dzagoev and Roman Shirokov. Andrey Arshavin is expected to lead the attack.
Club: CSKA Moscow
Named the Best Young Player in Russia this season, Alan Dzagoev is set to light the European Championships up this summer. At only 21, the CSKA Moscow youngster scored four goals in eight qualifying games for Russia. He is the youngest outfield player to earn a cap for his country as he faced Germany in a 2010 World Cup qualifier at the age of 18.
Dzagoev has been watched by teams such as Arsenal and Manchester United this season and all eyes will be on the highly-rated attacking midfielder as Russia look to top Group A. His killer passes and eye for goal has saw him being described as the “future of Russian football”.
Europe, watch out.
Club: Zenit St Petersburg
Andrey Arshavin will be hoping for a good European Championship as he looks to prove his doubters wrong. Since being dumped by Arsenal in February, the controversial Russian captain joined Zenit Petersburg on loan and has shown glimpses of the qualities which he produced early in his Arsenal career.
Many Russian’s have questioned the 31-year-old’s inclusion in the squad never mind his captaincy role. His work ethic and attitude have been questioned but there is no questioning his ability when the tricky dribbler is on top form and manager Dick Advocaat will be praying his captain repays the faith his boss has shown in him.
Certainly, the former Arsenal man has the potential and ability to light up Euro 2012. It’s just a matter of getting it out him.
Club: Zenit St Petersbrug
Even more controversial than the Russian captain Arshavin is wonderfully gifted but loud mouthed Roman Shirokov. A player that once pretended he had broken his own leg, Shirokov has been described as the Russian Joey Barton with his Twitter rants.
But it is on the pitch that the Russian’s will want him to be focussing on this summer if they are to repeat their heroic Euro 2008 performance. He scored Russia’s second goal as they cruised past Italy in a recent warm-up for the Euros.
There is no questioning Shirokov’s heart and his tireless running and energetic displays will hugely benefit his country in Group A. The 29-year-old is also dangerous in-front of goal. He netted five times in the Champions League this season which certainly underlines his big-game mentality.
The Russian fans will be hoping Shirokov keeps his head screwed on and can continue his impressive season by being a key player for his country.
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