Monday, June 4, 2012

Ten questions to be answered at Euro 2012

All eyes in the soccer world will be focused on Poland and Ukraine for the month of June as 16 teams battle it out to be crowned champion of Europe.
Spain enters the competition as holders of the trophy, while there is no shortage of challengers. Both Poland and Ukraine will be eager to show that they are gracious hosts, but not just taking part in the tournament to make up the numbers.
England is breaking in a new manager in Roy Hodgson, Germany and the Netherlands are both members of the "Group of Death" and Italy will try to set aside another scandal to focus its efforts on adding to the trophy case.
With Euro 2012 set to start in less than a week, here are 10 questions to ponder before the battle for continental supremacy begins:
1. Will Spain make history?
This is indeed a golden era in Spanish football, but the question surrounding Spain ahead of Euro 2012 is whether or not the window is closing. Spain has the chance to make history at this summer's tournament as the team is bidding to become the first international side to win three successive major competitions following wins at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup. Vicente del Bosque's side has to be considered one of the favorites, but the gap between Spain and everyone else suddenly doesn't appear to be so large. Injuries to leading scorer David Villa and veteran defender Carles Puyol have robbed the team of two key pieces. Also, there is the question of overall team fitness with many players enduring long campaigns over the past few seasons with Barcelona and Real Madrid, making it fair to question how much gas is left in the tank. And then there is Germany and the Netherlands, two teams who appear to be well equipped to bring an end to this era of Spanish dominance.
2. Which team is most likely to surprise us?
Eight years ago it was Greece that pulled off a stunner by winning Euro 2004 against host nation Portugal in the final. Russia and Turkey both wore the label of surprise package at Euro 2008 as both teams advanced to the semifinals before bowing out to Spain and Germany, respectively. This year the team to watch is Croatia. Manager Slaven Bilic saw his team lose on penalty kicks to Turkey in the quarterfinals of Euro 2008, and although Croatia failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, this is a veteran group blessed with playmaking talent. Midfielders Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar will attempt to set up a trio of gifted attackers in Nikica Jelavic, Ivica Olic and Eduardo. Group C will be no picnic with Spain, Italy and Ireland, but Croatia should handle the Irish in its opening match before a crucial showdown with a potentially distracted Italy side. Spain should win the group, but even a second-place finish would likely serve up a quarterfinal match with England, Sweden or Ukraine, all of which are beatable teams.
3. Will either co-host reach the knockout round?
It's fair to question whether Poland or the Ukraine would have qualified for the European Championship had they not received an automatic place as co- hosts. But although neither side is blessed with an overabundance of talent, each team can realistically hope for a place in the last eight. Poland was drawn into the weakest group in the competition, Group A, along with Russia, Greece and the Czech Republic. The Russians will be favored to win the group, but with offensively-challenged sides like Greece and the Czechs, second place is very much up for grabs, with Poland getting a slight edge based on having the advantage of playing at home. Ukraine faces a tougher road to the next round having to navigate Group D with France, England and Sweden. There are reports of dissension within the team which could threaten to derail any plans of advancing. But if manager Oleh Blokhin is able to pull his group together, second place is not beyond them. France will be tough to beat, but England is a bit unsettled at the moment with a new manager and striker Wayne Rooney set to miss the first two games through suspension, while Sweden is certainly not considered a world power.
4. Which player is most in need of a strong tournament?
Portugal is a team that appears to be headed in the wrong direction having lost in the Euro 2004 final, been bounced in the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup, been defeated in the quarterfinals of Euro 2008 and finally out in the round of 16 at World Cup 2010. And chances are, Portugal will be headed home after the group stage this summer having been drawn into a group with Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. But even if Portugal's stay is brief, star man Cristiano Ronaldo needs to step up on the big stage and prove himself as a true international star. Despite standout club seasons with Manchester United and Real Madrid in recent years, including this past campaign when Ronaldo netted 46 La Liga goals for the champions, he has never really been able to translate that sort of dominance to the international level. There is no denying that Ronaldo is one of the most gifted players on the planet, but even if he gets little help, he needs to show up this summer and give Portugal a reason to believe its trend of early exits will be stopped in the near future.
5. Is France ready to return to prominence?
France failed to advance past the group stage at Euro 2008 just two years after reaching the World Cup final against Italy. It was a disappointing showing for sure, but also the first major tournament the French were playing without the legendary Zinedine Zidane patrolling the midfield. But if Euro 2008 was a step back, the 2010 World Cup was a downright embarrassment as the team imploded amid a mutiny against coach Raymond Domenech by the players and earned just one point from three games, finishing in last place. However, new manager Laurent Blanc has appeared to be a breath of fresh air for the French, who enter the tournament as favorites to win Group D. A talented attack led by striker Karim Benzema also contains a handful of playmakers in midfield with Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri and Hatem Ben Arfa. There are a few question marks defensively, but this is a team that could find itself in the semifinals if everything breaks the right way, placing it back into the conversation of elite European teams.
6. Will Italy once again rise in the face of scandal?
Match-fixing has become an all-too familiar topic in Italian football lately, but with fresh allegations and investigations being conducted just prior to the start of Euro 2012, maybe it's a good sign for Italy. Back in 2006, the Italians entered the World Cup under a similar cloud and went on to win the tournament. And although manager Cesare Prandelli has already said he wouldn't be opposed to Italy withdrawing from the competition because of the match- fixing issues, don't expect any drastic measures like that to be taken. Instead, expect Prandelli to bring a more entertaining brand of soccer to Euro 2012 and make Italy a dangerous team, if it can remain focused on what takes place on the field. The Italians have a stout enough defense and strong play in the midfield, with one of the few question marks coming in the final third, where Prandelli will rely on Antonio Cassano, Antonio Di Natale and Mario Balotelli. The latest match-fixing problems can be a major distraction, or as we saw in 2006, they can serve as a rallying cry.
7. Is this the year the Netherlands break through?
Much like Spain prior to Euro 2008, the Netherlands has long been a team blessed with plenty of talent, but lacking the ability to put it all together at a major competition. The Dutch nearly pulled it off at the 2010 World Cup before losing to Spain in the final in extra time. And this summer, Bert van Marwijk's side figures to be in the mix again with a talented roster that is among the best in Europe. The 1988 European Championship remains the lone major title for the Oranje, who were also defeated at the 1974 and 1978 World Cup finals. But this summer offers up as good a chance as any to add another trophy to the cabinet. Attacking players like Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Rafael van der Vaart and Dirk Kuyt give Van Marwijk plenty of options up top, while the biggest loss from the 2010 World Cup team is defender Giovanni van Bronckhorst, who retired. Group B will be tough to navigate with Germany, Portugal and Denmark, but assuming the Dutch survive, whether or not they can reach the promised land will likely depend on how they fair in a rematch with Spain, or against an equally- talented Germany side.
8. How will England cope with key absences?
England has made a habit of failing to reach expectations at major tournaments, so maybe it is a good thing that the bar is being set low this summer. The Three Lions will be breaking in a new manager in Roy Hodgson, but expectations have been tempered because of a few big absences. Striker Wayne Rooney is out for the first two games of the group stage because of suspension, leaving Hodgson to likely replace him with either Andy Carroll or his Manchester United teammate, Danny Welbeck, who netted the lone goal in England's 1-0 friendly win over Belgium on Saturday. But in addition to Rooney, injuries have claimed a pair of key midfielders in Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard. Barry was expected to sit in front of the back line and provide cover while Lampard was one of the few players who showed up for England at the 2010 World Cup and was no doubt hoping to build on a summer that already saw him lift the Champions League title with Chelsea. Even at full strength, England didn't figure to be a major threat this summer. But now the usually high expectations that seem to burden the team no longer exist.
9. What is the best match of the group stage?
If you are only able to watch one game in the entire group stage this summer, make sure you tune in June 13 for the Group B clash between Germany and the Netherlands. The game features two of the world's best teams and will likely decide the winner of the "Group of Death." The incentive to winning the group is a likely avoidance of Spain until the final, while the team that finishes in second place will have a tougher road to reaching Kyiv on July 1. The tactical battle is very intriguing with the Dutch possessing a handful of gifted attacking players, while Germany is one of the most dangerous sides in the world on the counter. Both have lost to Spain in major finals recently with Germany falling 1-0 at Euro 2008 while the Dutch came up short at the 2010 World Cup. It's not a stretch to believe that these two sides will meet again in the final a few weeks later, but it will be interesting to see who draws first blood.
10. Who will lift the trophy on July 1?
There are three teams who all seem to be a step above the rest of the field, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany. Spain has won the last two major tournaments, and despite missing both Villa and Puyol, still has more than enough talent to capture the title again this summer. The Dutch showed in 2010 that they are a force to be reckoned with as they very easily could have edged Spain in the final to win their first World Cup. And then there is Germany, a team that consistently performs well at almost every major tournament and one whose core group of players has hit its prime. Spain has played in so many big games over the past four years that you have to wonder how much they have left. The talent is there, but it may simply come down to fatigue. The Netherlands can be one of the more stylish teams at any tournament, but often there is not enough substance to go with that style when the stakes are highest. That leaves Germany, a team that maybe doesn't have the panache of Spain or the Netherlands, but is incredibly consistent. At both Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup the Germans were still just a bit too young and inexperienced to complete the task. But things appear to be coming together this summer at just the right time. The German roster contains eight Bayern Munich players who may still be trying to come to grips with what happened against Chelsea in the Champions League final last month. That night, Bayern let one get away. Germany won't do the same this summer.

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