Group A: Czech Republic, Poland, Greece, Russia
While Andrey Arshavin is the known star of the squad, Russia has a brilliant goalie in Igor Akinfeev, a pacy winger in ex-Chelsea man, Zhirkov, and great forwards in Spurs striker Roman Pavlyuchenko and Fulham striker Pavel Pogrebnyak. I believe Russia will qualify for the next round, but do they really have the belief that they can win this tournament? I don't think so. Euro 2008 was their best shot at international honors and this group's "win tournament" tag has expired. Russia is clever with their movement in the final third but they just don't have that extra magic that Spain has to compensate for their lack of true team speed. I predict a quarterfinal berth at best for Russia as they have to play the runner up from Group B in the next round, which will likely be Portugal or the Netherlands.
Key player: Andrey Arshavin.
Breakout star: Alan Dzagoev.
Poland counts on Robert Lewandowski up front, his Borussia Dortmund compatriot Jakub Blaszczykowski in the middle and Wojciech Szczesny in goal. That is the spine of the team. Playing at home should inspire Poland to a more productive showing of their past successes when they finished third the 1974 and 1982 World Cups. This team can make it to the quarterfinals but that's when it runs out for them against Germany or the Netherlands. Look for more from this team in World Cup 2014.
Key player: Robert Lewandowski.
Breakout star: Wojciech Szczesny.
The Greeks are very good defensively and rode that defense to the 2004 Euro title against Portugal. They were very good on set plays and retained that strategy throughout Otto Rehhagel's, the prior manager, tenure from 2001 to 2010. While the current coach, Fernando Santos, may have installed some tweaks to the system, the squad is largely the same and the way out of the group is going to be based on defending as a team and sneaking the odd goal. The veteran captain Giorgos Karagounis will ably marshal the midfield, but, while defense is fine, they have to score as well to advance and that's where Gekas has to play well up front to help Greece advance. They can make the next round but that's it for them.
Key player: Fanis Gekas.
Breakout star: Kyriakos Papadopoulos.
This isn't the Czech team of the last three major tournaments. Their veteran leaders, such as striker Jan Koller and defender Marek Jankulovski, have retired and left Tomas Rosicky and Petr Cech as the only true stars on this team. Scoring goals is the problem for this team as their leading scorer in the qualifiers was defender Kadlec. Though this group is the easiest of the four at the tournament, it's going to be three and out, summer holidays please, for coach Michal Bilek's team.
Key player: Milan Baros.
Breakout star: Vaclav Pilar
Group Prediction: Russia will qualify from this group, while the Czech Republic will not. The Russians benefit from the winter break they get as a result of the timing of the Russian league and are in good shape physically while the Czechs are too dependant on Milan Baros up front and just don't have the firepower to get through. The opening match of the tournament pits Greece against Poland and, while most opening matches end in a draw, the winner of this game will qualify along with Russia.
Though Greece was undefeated during qualifying and are very hard to breakdown, I just feel that Poland has enough players in form, a trio of Bundesliga-triumphant Borussia Dortmund players, and a great young goalie in Szczesny to ride the home support to qualifying for the knockout stage. Russia and Poland to the quarters.
Group B: Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Portugal
When you are ranked tenth in the world, and then are ranked last in your group of four since the other teams are ranked #2, #4 and #5 respectively, you know you are in good shape because you have low expectations. That's the position the Danes find themselves in and it's not a hope and a prayer that Denmark gets through. Denmark has beaten Portugal in qualifying and has hungry young players in Eriksen, Bendtner, Kjaer and Lindegaard.
They can beat the Dutch and Portugal but will struggle against Germany. Can they get three points against Holland ? If they can get out of this group, the semifinals are a possibility.
Key player: Nicklas Bendtner.
Breakout star: Christian Eriksen.
Everyone picked Germany to win Euro 2012 once the 2010 World Cup concluded. The squad is young, fast, dynamic, deep but also has the traditional German mentality of machine-like relentlessness. Their coach, Joachim Low, has been with the team for the last three tournaments (starting in 2004 as an assistant to current US national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann). Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mesut Ozil are each among the top three players in the world at their position as goalkeeper, left back, holding midfielder and playmaker, respectively. Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski are proven goal scorers at the international tournament level and will be playing in their parents' native Poland, while Gomez has been in great form for Bayern Munich and Germany.
The problem for Germany is at center back, where it's a scary thought that Per Mertesacker is considered a solution after coming back from a dreadful first season and bad injury at Arsenal. Add to that the controversy surrounding Boateng, whose pre-tournament partying may result in his being replaced at right back by Lars Bender. But Germany has more than enough depth and quality for them to win this tournament. They lost to Spain in the finals of Euro 2008 (to a Fernando Torres winner) and the semifinals of World Cup 2010 (to a Carles Puyol header). They will reverse that in Euro 2012, in what is tantamount to home field for them in Poland, and should win the tournament.
Key player: Mesut Ozil.
Breakout star: Mario Gotze.
The fortunes of the Dutch are tied to the form of Wesley Sneijder. Period. If Sneijder is on, they can get to the final much like in World Cup 2010, where only Iker Casillas' right foot saved Spain on an Arjen Robben breakaway. If not, they could lose in the first round. As much as Robin van Persie has had a great season, he needs the ball delivered to him in the final third of the pitch to do his damage. The same goes for Robben, who might not be recovered from missing a crucial penalty in extra time of the recent Champions League Final against Chelsea. The Netherlands have very good holding midfielders in Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel, a very good right back in
Gregory van der Wiel and a solid keeper in Maarten Stekelenburg. However, the key weakness for the Dutch is the lack of pace in the defensive middle of the field with the center backs and the holding midfielders struggling against quick strikers. Adding to the Dutch defensive worries is veteran Joris Mathijsen's hamstring problem. That said, the Dutch could win this tournament.
Key player: Wesley Sneijder.
Breakout star: Kevin Strootman.
Bruno Alves and Pepe. Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles. The spine is solid. Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani. Those wingers are the best in the world. However, the team's over reliance on Ronaldo and its poor set of strikers make this group too much for Portugal. I was thinking of picking Portugal to advance from this group, but their recent loss to Turkey at home showed why this is fool's gold. This is as talented a squad as there is, but they don't have depth and their strikers are not world class. If they were in Group D, they would win the group, but in this group it's going to be hard to qualify. They can get to the semifinals if they get out of the group but it will require Ronaldo playing like he plays for Real Madrid for them to win this tournament.
Key player: Cristiano Ronaldo.
Breakout star: Joao Moutinho.
Group Prediction: How can you not love, and hate, a tournament that has four of the top ten teams in the world in the same group? It would be similar to having a group with Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Milan in the qualifying stage. Germany will qualify from this group. The other three all have a chance but I'm going to pick Netherlands based solely on Sneijder's last game against Northern Ireland. With Sneijder playing well in the slot, the Netherlands will always have a chance with Robin van Persie and Robben up front. Start strong or go home - this is truly the group of no second chances. It won't be a shock if Germany or the Dutch go home early. However, the Oranje and the Meinschaft will go through.
Group C: Croatia, Ireland, Italy, Spain
There's more to Croatia than Luka Modric as the team is sprinkled with top European club squad members. Keep an eye on Nikica Jelavic, who had a great second half spell at Everton and scored a critical brace against Manchester United in the title-deciding run in to the Premier League season. However, as the midfield maestro Modric goes, so does Croatia. This squad has experienced and talented players, but they are missing that extra team-wide spark that is going to be required to go far in this tournament. Their opening match against Ireland is key - if they win that, they will go through to the next round, with the quarterfinals as far as they will go.
Key player: Luka Modric.
Breakout star: Luka Modric.
This is a tough squad who is due some of that Irish luck. Ireland is my dark horse to qualify from this group. The middle of the park is where they have a lot more quality that in past teams - Aiden McGeady is very creative and well backed by pace on the wings from Duff and Sunderland star James McClean. And finally, up front, Ireland have Robbie Keane and Jonathan Walters to provide different options for the incredibly savvy Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni. This Irish team doesn't quite have quality depth but they have a solid starting team and enough tactical nous in their coach. No one wants to play this team at this stage. This squad can get to the quarterfinals.
Key player: Aiden McGeady.
Breakout young star: James McClean
As usual, Italy is impossible to rate. They always seem to get through qualifying and the group stages with the only question being how far they go in the tournament. Much like the Germans. However, this Italian team seems a bit more in disarray than most. Yes, the World Cup winning team in 2006 had similar distractions going into the tournament, but this time the scandal seems a lot wider and more embedded. It's not often that the President of a country suggests the sport be suspended for a season. Going against Trapattoni is not going to be an easy task for Italy given Trap's familiarity with their system and players (Italy coach Prandelli played for Trap), and Croatia has a good record against Italy. It doesn't help that Italy's first match is a "can't lose" against Spain. It is going to be the quarterfinals at best for Italy.
Key player: Andrea Pirlo.
Breakout young star: Mario Balotelli.
It is ridiculous that Spain can start a replacement midfield of David Silva, Juan Mata, Cesc Fabregas and Santi Cazorla to back up starters Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. Even if you put Brazil and Argentina together, you wouldn't be able to put together a better midfield squad. The biggest question mark for Spain is in central defense where Carles Puyol is out for the tournament leaving Pique and Sergio Ramos in the middle. Apart from missing Puyol's quality and experience, Vicente del Bosque has admitted there is residual tension between Pique and Ramos from this past season's encounters in La Liga. Also, while Jordi Alba is a rising star, he is 22 and has to replace the seasoned Capdevila at left back.
Finally, the absence of an injured David Villa means Spain has to trust a hopefully reinvigorated Torres to replace the critical goals that Villa consistently provided. However it's hard to see how Torres can lead the line after the season he has had. A better bet is that Llorente and Torres together provide around 7 goals with Pedro, Iniesta, Xabi and Xavi providing another 3 or 4 between them. I wouldn't be surprised if Llorente takes over the starting role - and delivers. It's a tall order, but back to back to back (did Pat Riley say three-peat?) is a definite possibility for the latest version of the world's best team.
Key player: Fernando Torres.
Breakout young star: Jordi Alba.
Group Prediction: Spain will qualify from this group. The other three all have a chance but I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that Ireland gets through. I just feel that Trapattoni will get them there. If Ireland can get a point against Croatia in the first match, and Italy loses to Spain, it will set them up very well to get through. The graft will be there in the Irish squad, but Aiden McGeady has to create for them to get through. I think Kevin Doyle, one of my favorite small players, will get a key goal during this tournament. Croatia just doesn't inspire me and I think sooner or later the Italians have to pay the price for starting slowly. This group is easier than the group of death, but it will still be tough for Italy to recover if Spain beats them in the opening match. Pirlo and Buffon will keep Italy in every game but I just don't think they get out of the group stage.