Best of the best set to clash at Euro 2012

Best of the best set to clash at Euro 2012

WROCLAW - Reuters
Best of the best set to clash at Euro 2012

AFP photo

European football’s biggest festival starts tonight as Euro 2012 gets underway with co-hosts Poland welcoming 2004 champion Greece.

The Poles will host Greece before Russia takes on Czech Republic in two Group A games that launch the long-awaited European Football Championship.

The other co-host, Ukraine, will start its campaign early next week with a game against Sweden in Group D, which also includes France and England.

Defending champion Spain is pitted alongside Italy, Ireland and Croatia in Group C in a tough group. However, the “group of death” will be Group B, which has Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and Denmark.

Remaining largely unchanged from the 2008 and 2010 championship teams, Spain will again be the team to beat. However, the Barcelona backbone of the team was hurt, with Carles Puyol and David Villa missing the cup due to injury. If Spain makes any mistake, lurking Germany will be there to take full advantage. Joachim Löw’s intricate-passing multicultural team made their breakthrough two years ago, and this could be their coming-of-age tournament.

The Dutch may run riot with the technical prowess that they always have – but their defense is questionable.

France, hoping to erase their woeful 2008 and 2010 memories, is coming with a rejuvenated side and will be a dark horse. But the expectations will be low in the England camp, which will be hoping to shake off its injury crisis. Italy will be hoping its forward gamble of using the temperamental Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano pay off, while Portugal will be searching for other players to keep up with the pace of the stellar Cristiano Ronaldo.

Poland and Ukraine, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden, the highly skilled Croatians and hard-battling Ireland will also hope to punch above their weight.

Russia, Czech have points to prove

The Czech Republic will draw on memories of impressive runs at past tournaments while Russia is looking to show its semifinal appearance in 2008 was no fluke when the two teams clash in their Euro 2012 Group A opener in Wroclaw tonight.

The Czechs, who lost to Germany in the Euro 1996 final and reached the semifinals in 2004, are determined to re-establish themselves as a force in European football after slipping to 26 in the FIFA world rankings.

With a mix of experienced players led by Arsenal’s Tomas Rosicky and Chelsea’s Petr Cech, along with a raft of newcomers, the Czechs are optimistic of at least progressing from what should be a tightly-contested group also featuring co-hosts Poland and Greece.

Wide open group

“All the teams will think they have a chance to qualify for the quarterfinals,” Czech national team manager Vladimir Smicer said. “The really important match for us will be the first game against Russia. They are the favorites in our group.”

The Russians are unbeaten in 14 matches and thrashed Italy 3-0 in a Euro warm-up last week.
Russia rarely produced the attacking flair that made the team look so attractive in Austria and Switzerland in 2008 but it was defensively sound, conceding only four goals in 10 matches.

That will prove a challenge for the Czechs who have found it tough to score goals lately and have worries over the fitness of Milan Baros. While Baros has only scored three times for the Czech team in the past two years, coach Michal Bilek has few experienced attacking options at his disposal beyond the Golden Boot winner at the 1994 Euro tournament.

“I hope he is in good form and can perform because he is our most experienced striker,” the former Liverpool player Smicer said. “If he is playing well then everything is much easier for us.”

Russia and the Czech Republic last met in 1996, when they drew 3-3 at the Euro 1996 tournament.

Polish foreign legion takes aim at Greece

If Poland can upset former champion Greece in the opening game of Euro 2012 tonight it will be a victory made in Germany.

Two of the hosts’ likely starting lineup were born or brought up in Germany and German-speaking coach Franciszek Smuda has built his side around a trio from the Borussia Dortmund team that dominated last season’s Bundesliga campaign.

The reliance on foreign-based talent has prompted some unrest in Poland shown by a row this week over French-born midfielder Ludovic Obraniak’s inability to speak Polish and relations with the rest of the squad.

Center half Damien Perquis, who also hails from france, jumped to Obraniak’s defense at a news conference this week.

Greeks are hard to beat

All will be forgiven if the hosts, the lowest ranked team at this year’s finals, can beat a Greece side, who was shock winner of Euro 2004 and has lost once in the past 20 games.

“You can see that from the start Smuda set out to build this team on the basis of players from Germany,” said leading Polish football columnist Michal Pol. “That may mean that they are better prepared for this tournament than in the past.”

The Poles’ hopes hang on striker Robert Lewandowski, third top scorer in Germany last season with 22 goals. Service for him comes from Dortmund colleagues Lukasz Piszczek and Jakub Blaszczykowski as well as emerging talents like winger Maciej Rybus and Obraniak.

They will face a Greece side that gave away just five goals in qualifying, led by the central defensive partnership of Avraam Papadopoulos and Sokratis Papastathopoulos.

The Greeks have creative talent in right midfielder Sotiris Ninis. His attributes include an impressive change of pace and powerful shot.

“What we know about the Greeks is they are a collective. They defend as a unit and have proven they are very good at taking their chances,” Polish chief scout and assistant coach Hubert Malowiejski said this week. “They are a very difficult prospect.”