Sepp Blatter may have dominated events off the pitch this week, but the biggest story of was the completion of the line-up for next year’s Euro 2012 finals in Poland and Ukraine. With two weeks to go before the finals draw in Kiev, it’s worth a quick recap of the runners and riders.
Three teams stand out as being a cut above the other finalists: Spain, Holland and Germany.
Both Spain and Holland have essentially the same squads that contested the 2010 World Cup Final in Johannesburg – with a few new additions. Spain have a new left-back in Jordi Alba and an impressive bunch of youngsters knocking on the door from the Under-21 squad, notably Thiago Alcantara and Javi Martinez. Santi Cazorla, who missed the 2010 World Cup with injury, is back in contention.
Holland also have a new left-back in Erik Pieters, while Twente striker Luuk De Jong has emerged as a genuine contender for a first-team place. Essentially, though, they have the same team as two years ago in South Africa.
While Spain and Holland are playing at or around the same level as two years ago, Germany are an even better side than the one that reached the World Cup semi-finals in South Africa.
The additions of Mario Gotze and Mats Hummels have given a vibrant side options. Confidence is high – typified by the form of Bayern Munich striker Mario Gomez.
If the draw is kind to Joachim Low’s side, they will also be playing close to home.
One caveat on Spain. Even though they showed at the World Cup that they can cope with the pressure of being favourites, no team has ever won three consecutive international tournaments. France were tipped to do so in 2002 but crashed out of the World Cup in South Korea. The nature of successful teams is they play more games. With so many players also enjoying success, and extra games, at club level – Barcelona travel to Japan next month for the Club World Cup – there is a genuine risk of burnout.
Last week at Wembley Spain played within themselves, although they were unlucky to lose to England. Next summer, they will be under pressure to raise the tempo of their game, while many opponents will have noted the success of England’s negative defence-minded tactics in stifling their short-passing game.
After the three favourites, I would put Italy, England, France, Russia and Portugal in a chasing pack.
Italy were not really tested in a comfortable qualifying campaign but everything is falling into place for coach Cesare Prandelli. Striker Giuseppe Rossi faces a race to be fit for the finals, after injury knee ligaments playing for Villarreal, but Mario Balotelli and Giampaolo Pazzini are developing into key figures
England’s prospects will dominated by Wayne Rooney’s absence from the group games – for all three games, or less if next month’s appeal is successful. Without Rooney, England lack creative ideas – a problem that haunted so many England sides in the past. The performance against Spain demonstrated that England can adopt a more defensive formation to stifle more creative sides. It will not be pretty but it may be effective.
The challenge manager Fabio Capello remains that of inspiring his players to overcome their fear of failure on the international stage. The recent impressive debuts of Under-21 youngsters Jack Rodwell and Kyle Walker has given Capello food for thought. The confidence exuded by Germany’s youthful team at the 2010 World Cup may be an example to follow.
Under Laurent Blanc, France are regaining their form and confidence after the spectacular implosion at the World Cup in South Africa while Portugal roared back into contention with their win over Bosnia in the play-offs
They have outstanding talent in Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo but coach Paulo Bento has had his clashes with players, notably Ricardo Carvalho and Jose Bosingwa, who he says will not play in Poland and Ukraine.
Russia could be dark horses. Dick Advocaat’s side will surely feel at home playing in the first European Championships on eastern Europe soil. Andrey Arshavin may not be a regular starter at Arsenal, but he will at least be fresh for the tournament.
Of the remaining finalists, it’s hard to pick out any teams that will struggle next summer.
The lowly rankings of co-hosts Poland and Ukraine will lead some to suggest that they will be the weak links in their respective groups.
However, hosts tend to punch above their weight and fans in both countries have been enthusiastic with their ticket applications. Although both Poland and Ukraine have struggled with the lack of competitive matches, they are beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel.
Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin, who is back in charge after the resignation of Myron Markevych and the struggles of caretaker Yuri Kalitvintsev, has used 41 different players in the team’s last nine matches, including four different goalkeepers. However, they recorded good results last week, drawing 3-3 with Germany and beating Austria, and look to have finally turned the corner.
Poland, too, have yet to find a settled squad. In a bid to inject some quality into the Poland squad, coach Frantisek Smuda has turned to foreign players with Polish roots, such as Ludovic Obraniak of Lille, but time is running out.
Of the others, Denmark and Sweden will be typically modest in their ambitions, but equally they are capably of surprising people. Similarly, the fortunes of Russia, Croatia and the Czech Republic will be dependent on a favourable draw.
Greece are playing a more expansive game under Portuguese coach Fernando Santos and were unbeaten in qualifying, but the Republic of Ireland have retreated into a defensive shell under Giovanni Trapattoni. Defensive solidity is likely to be the Republic’s biggest strength nest summer. If an outsider is going to repeat Greece’s feat of 2004, it could be the Irish.
More on that, another time.
By Gavin Hamilton