It seems such a long time ago since Kun Aguero shimmied his way around the QPR penalty area and slotted home the most dramatic winning goal in Premier League history. We’ve been eagerly champing at the bit for some meaningful football action and this weekend our call has been answered. Poland and Ukraine, or Polkraine as witty media types would have you know it, are hosting this year’s Euro 2012 tournament. Most of Europe’s star players will strut their stuff under the floodlights of the old Eastern Bloc: Mesut Ozil, Cristiano Ronaldo, Andreas Iniesta and Sean St Ledger.
Being naturally optimistic types here at 25/7 Sports, we are hoping, nay dreaming, of spectacular, free-flowing football and seven goal thrillers. Invariably we’ll probably be extremely disappointed with two highly likely outcomes: a team of cloggers like Greece succeeding with a series of stultifying defensive one-nil victories or Spain; hypnotising us with a succession of mind-numbingly tedious session of ball-hogging, stealing their third major tournament title in a row whilst the opposition and spectators have fallen asleep. Dare we dream for a little more drama and mystery this time around?
Mind you, if Ireland progress to the knockout stages, inevitably (under Trappatoni) playing a style of football similar to Greece in 2004, then we’re not going to complain too much about the methods of achieving that success over in this western European outpost. It’s a well-worn cliché by this stage but at least the Boys in Green will be bringing one hell of a party with them to Poland. An estimated 40,000 pasty-faced Yahoos will be departing Dublin Airport this weekend for the shindig of a lifetime in Poland, presumably causing raised eyebrows in Berlin who were under the impression that our country was destitute and that we only ever bought our clothes now in Penneys. Whatever the results or style of football which the national team adopts, our Irish supporters are guaranteed to add a touch of colour and magic to the whole affair.
So as we gather around the huge screens erected in city and town squares across the continent, or in the local pubs and in our living rooms, what can we really expect to happen over the next four weeks? Which players will set the tournament alight with their footballing wizardry or with their insane acts of lunacy or thuggery? How far will England get? What could be the standout match in the group stages? And finally, who will be standing triumphant by the time the whole thing is over? Here’s a few suggestions and predictions of our own.
Players To Watch.
Expect the English tabloids to go into a transfer speculation frenzy during and after the tournament as a number of players exceed expectations or just simply confirm their already-known magnificence. Of those that are better known to the average football fan, I expect Karim Benzema and Mesut Ozil to have barnstorming performances in Polkraine. Both have had an outstanding season with Real Madrid and in the case of Ozil, who shone brightly at the World Cup in South Africa, it’s hard not to imagine him excelling as the creative lynchpin of an exciting, young German squad. It’s taken him a few years more than anticipated but Benzema can reasonably expect to the the focal point of a rejuvenated French team under Laurent Blanc. Benzema’s a powerful force up front when on form and if the French can retain their concentration on and off the pitch, then Benzema may well be a dark horse for leading scorer.
Christian Eriksen of Ajax and Denmark is another who is mentioned frequently in the rumour mills of the English media. Having forsworn moving to a marquee club in current European football, Eriksen opted instead to continue at Ajax and develop his skills. A good showing might change this state of affairs. Others to look out for are Robert Lewandowski of Poland and Jordi Alba of Spain. Lewandowski scored goals for fun this season with the Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund and at only 23, could well be attracting admiring glances from some of the more monied clubs in Europe if he continues his rich vein of form. Alba has already been the subject of rumours that Manchester United are interested in capturing his signature although it seems more likely that he will end up at one of the Spanish big two. A marauding left-back who can actually defend, Alba’s influence could have a sway on how penetrative Spain’s attacks will be from the wings. Not to be confused with the manufacturers of cheap music stereos in the 1980′s though.
Of course there are many other players who could have a significant impact at the Euros. Ibrahim Afellay of Holland has been touted as a possible star. If Portugal are to even progress from their Group of Death with Germany and Holland, they’ll need Cristiano Ronaldo firing on all cylinders. Even Mario Ballotelli could be the player that gets everyone talking throughout the competition although there are many possibilities as to why that might be. No matter who I mention here, there’ll always be one players who sneaks out from under the radar and brightens up the tournament. Last time round it was Arshavin. Who will it be on this occasion?
At least this time, neither the English press or public have many expectations in advance of this footballing jamboree. A combination of many things has precipitated this uncommon lack of vainglorious pride in their national team, mainly issues surrounding managerial farces, last-minute injuries and jilted players left at the squad altar spouting conspiracies about racism. In truth, I believe much of the hyperbolic “Three Lions on the Shirt” mania died in South Africa 2 years ago. Having barely survived the group stages and with performances that Liechtenstein would have been ashamed of, the subsequent 1-4 mauling the Germans gave them made many realise that England were really not at the top tier of International football any more. England personify the sheer lunacy of the ranking system when it comes to a major tournament: 6th in the world is just an illusion.
There are a few ways this can turn out. With no fear and a pragmatic playing style under Hodgson, England could wriggle out their group and maybe do a number on an unsuspecting Spanish side in the quarter finals; a hungry Wayne Rooney eager to avenge his Champions League finals appearances against Barcelona. Or the Spanish could just do a Thomas Muller to them in the quarters ala South Africa. Either way, I would rationally view this to be a considerably successful tournament for the Three Lions brigade. My last prediction is more likely to happen. In reality, this English team are distinctly average and not much different from that which failed at WC2010. There’s little or no creativity in the middle of the park, half the preferred defensive options are injured or busy tweeting their mock-disgust at being left behind in Blighty and their most dangerous attacker has a two game ban. Not very promising really. Don’t be surprised if a rejuvenated France teach them a footballing lesson in the first game before the Ukrainians pick-pocket them in the second. They always draw with Sweden so no surprises there. Home after ten days I reckon and cue the inevitable Hodgson slaughterfest.
Game of the Tournament
Typically there’ll be a few games which take us by surprise, either for their ferocity and thuggery or the bewildering array of skills and goals on display. Spain and Yugoslavia from Euro 2000 is my favourite example of the latter, an absorbing, seven goal rollercoaster of a match. However I’m plumping for a group stage encounter between the Germans and the Dutch. Rudi Voller and Frank Rikjaard trading insults and spittle aside, both teams have an acrimonious history and have often brought an intensity to games which rarely fails to disappoint a neutral spectator. Throw in the fact that Portugal are also in their group and that both have justifiable hopes of winning the competition, we should have a cracking game to look forward to. Which leads onto….
We Are The Champions… Who’s We?
Time to put the money where the mouth is. In 1992 and 2004 both Denmark and Greece respectively confounded all reason and knowledge and emerged victorious. Whilst the Greek victory was greeted with dismay by footballing purists for its pragmatic obduracy, the Danish success surprised many with the vim and vigour of their attacking play. This was especially surprising as the Denmark team of the 1980′s with Michael Laudrup, Jesper Olsen and the magnificent Preben Elkjaer as its marauding attack force was considerably more talented. If there is a dark horse in this years tournament it could very well be Russia who, after offering so much attacking football in Euro 2008, might finally take that final step forward to achieving glory.
However, I can only see one of either Spain, Holland or Germany winning this one and I’m punting on the Germans. They’re a young side and yet ooze experience with the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philip Lahm and Miroslav Klose. Add Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Mario Gotze, Tony Kroos and Mario Gomez into the mix and you have a fearsomely formidable squad ready to return the Germans to the top of European football once more. Their defence might be a little suspect but I believe they have enough about them this year to do the business. Plus, as Chelsea and Real Madrid both showed this year, the yawn-inducing snore-fest that is Spanish tiki-taka can be beaten. I only hope that the Jogi Low does it by not parking the bus if he meets them in the final. Something tells me though that Spain won’t make the final, which might make it a more interesting final than the last two major ones have been.
Right! I’m off to stick a tenner on the Germans to win. Hopefully Angela Merkel will not demand it back in some sort of new European tax. Wherever you are watching the football, wave your flags with pride and most of all, have fun. And best of all? There are no vuvuzelas. Wunderbar.