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WORLD > X-factors to make difference in 'Group of Death'

THE HAGUE / COPENHAGEN / LISBON / BERLİN- Agence France-Presse

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Van Der Wiel . AP / REUTERS  photos.

Van Der Wiel . AP / REUTERS photos.

Group B holds the strongest line-up of teams in the  European Football Championship and eyes will be on big stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Özil or Robin Van Persie. However, sometimes X factors can be the decisive factors in games between the best of the best.

Van Der Wiel (Netherlands)

Ever-present during the Netherlands’ near-perfect Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, Gregory van der Wiel is establishing a reputation as one of the most exciting right-backs in football.

Very much a modern full-back, the athletic 24-year-old has been a first-team regular at Ajax for the past four seasons. He missed three months of the current campaign with a groin injury but returned in the spring and scored the winning goal in a 2-1 success at FC Twente in April that effectively secured the club’s second Dutch title in a row.

Euro 2012 gives him another opportunity to advertise his services and with his contract due to expire in 2013, he has been linked with clubs including Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Roma.

Given the paucity of superstar right-backs in the game at the moment, van der Wiel will be mindful that his performances at Euro 2012 could open the door to a move to one of the biggest clubs in the game.

He has previously described the English Premier League as a “perfect” destination, and says he bases his game on that of the archetypal 21st-century right-back, Barcelona’s Dani Alves.

“We do have the same style, we both play the whole right flank -- creating combinations, taking a man on, crossing the ball and scoring,” he says.

With star players like Germany’s Lukas Podolski and Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo among the left-sided forwards he can expect to come up against in Group B, he will certainly have his work cut out.

Mario Goetze (Germany) HDN

Rising star Mario Götze has been dubbed Germany’s Lionel Messi and despite an injury-hit year, coach Joachim Löw plans to give him a key role at Euro 2012.

Götze only turns 20 on June 3, six days before the Germans begin their Group B campaign against Portugal in Lviv, Ukraine.

Having joined his hometown club as an eight-year-old, he made his Bundesliga debut in November 2009 and was part of the Borussia Dortmund squad crowned German champions for the last two seasons.

Great vision and the ability to put team-mates into goal-scoring positions with an array of passes, the attacking midfielder announced his arrival last August with two stand-out performances.

Dazzling in Dortmund’s opening game of the season as Hamburg was hammered 3-1, Götze scored one goal and created another as German daily Bild ran the headline “Götzlich”, a play on words meaning “Divine” in German. Five days after Hamburg, Götze scored his first international goal during a 3-2 friendly win over Brazil.

“He’s impossible to stop. You don’t get any better than him,” Germany legend Franz Beckenbauer enthused. “His ability is like Lionel Messi’s, as well as his understanding of the game and technique.”

Beckenbauer was not alone: Matthias Sammer, technical director of the German football federation (DFB), went as far as to say Götze is one of the best talents football-mad Germany has produced.

But Götze comes into Euro 2012 lacking match fitness. A muscle tear and groin problems forced him out of action for four months at the start of 2012. He was involved in Dortmund’s last three league games and Löw has said he will play a key part in his plans to take a trophy back to Germany after a 16-year absence and will be more than just a replacement.

Nani (Portugal) HDN

Coming off the frustration of a trophyless season, Portugal star Nani will be looking to make amends at Euro 2012, where his silky skills will be sorely needed to get his compatriots out of a tough group.

Drawn with three previous winners in Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, the 2004 runners-up will have to click from the outset if they are to reach the knockout phase but in Nani they have a man who certainly knows how to unlock the door.

Coach Paulo Bento will be hoping for the real Nani to stand up after a mixed season at Old Trafford, which started with a brace in the Community Shield at Wembley against rivals Manchester City.

Had he turned in that kind of showing in either league game against the blue half of the city to prevent either one of two painful defeats then the Premier League title may have stayed on the other side of Manchester.

But having been sidelined for the last World Cup with a shoulder injury, he is looking to prove himself in Portuguese scarlet rather than Mancunian red.

If he can pin down his best form, he could prove to be a key figure for Bento’s men.

“We will be out to beat the best teams at the event -- we have been drawn in a tough but not impossible group,” Nani told A Bola magazine after the draw. “We have to believe in ourselves and work hard. I think we can win it.”

Nani has pinpointed the need to make a flying start against Germany on June 9 in Lviv.

“I really hope we can win that first match as that would give us a big injection of confidence for the remainder of the tournament,” he indicated.

Christian Eriksen (Denmark) HDN

Christian Eriksen is regarded as one of the brightest young stars in football and he will hope that he can justify the tag of being Denmark’s successor to Michael Laudrup at Euro 2012.

At just 20 years of age, the playmaker will be appearing at his second major championships, after being part of the side that bowed out in the group stage of the 2010 World Cup.

A lot will revolve around the Ajax star, as the Danes look to progress beyond the so-called “Group of Death”.

Eriksen, who already has two Dutch league title winners medals, will be a marked man when Denmark step out to meet Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal, who the Danes edged in their qualifying group.

Unlike Michael Laudrup and his brother Brian, Eriksen, scorer of two goals in 21 international appearances, does not have other top class creative players around him in a side that relies on hard work and team spirit to beat classier opponents.

But the youngster has shown in qualifying and in a friendly against England that he is an exceptional talent, with a maturity also reflected in his decision to choose Ajax as his first step on the professional ladder.

While European giants such as Chelsea and AC Milan came knocking on his door in 2008 when he was just 16 and playing for Odense, Eriksen opted for Ajax, a side that has a tradition in allowing young talent to flourish. His choice has paid off for both him and the club and earned him praise from as harsh a critic as Dutch legend Johan Cruyff.

“He’s a player I really like with all my heart,” said Cruyff when Eriksen was awarded the talent of the year in 2011. “This prize is just the beginning, a stimulus to get the maximum out of his career.” Euro 2012 will test whether Eriksen has it in him to go on and become one of Europe’s finest talents, as the Laudrups did in the 1980s and 1990s.


May/24/2012

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