Euro 2012 should hook Arsenal supporters from the off.
Barring mishap, Wojciech Szczesny will line up for co-hosts Poland in the competition’s opening game; hours later, the in-form Tomas Rosicky will be facing on-loan Andrey Arshavin in a clash of two more eastern European powers. The following day, Robin van Persie and Nicklas Bendtner will be carrying the main goal threats for Holland and Denmark, before all eyes fall upon new boy Lukas Podolski and Per Mertesacker as Germany play Denmark. Twenty-four hours, seven Gunners – with more to come.
If any or all of them gather some momentum in those early days, then this could be one of the most Arsenal-influenced tournaments in years. The European Championship has always had a close relationship with this side of north London, and has even created a Gunners star or two.
Who can forget John Jensen’s heroics for Denmark 20 years ago, just prior to arriving at Highbury, and likewise Sylvain Wiltord’s dramatic equaliser for France in the Euro 2000 final only weeks before his transfer from Bordeaux? Then there was Cesc Fabregas’ role in the Spain side that sparkled en route to claiming the trophy last time around, in 2008 – the then-Arsenal star scoring the decisive penalty in a quarter-final win over Italy.
Will one of the Gunners’ current brood be behind the biggest storyline in this, the 14th edition of the tournament? The German contingent look the most likely to come up with the goods. Many people’s favourites, their claim looks all the more convincing in the light of some crucial absentees for holders Spain. David Villa and Carles Puyol will miss the tournament, which could pile plenty of pressure on what is admittedly the world’s most vaunted midfield.
The door could be opened for Van Persie and Holland, too. The World Cup runners-up were stung by criticism of their final performance in South Africa two years ago and have as much firepower as anyone – also boasting the likes of Arjen Robben and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. They face an intriguing Group B challenge against the Germans and perennial dark horses Portugal, not to mention Bendtner’s Danes.
A revitalised France, and Laurent Koscielny, perhaps hold Arsenal’s next-best chance of tasting European success, although Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and England will have something to say about that as early as June 11. Both sides can be termed interesting outsiders if they string a decent run of early performances together – as, perhaps, can a Poland squad that has Szczesny and three members of an all-conquering Borussia Dortmund side to call upon, as well as fervent home support.
That at least one Arsenal player will make it to the last four is a near-certainty – and for two or more to be facing one another in Kyiv on July 1 would be special. Our tip? It’ll be a good month for one of our left-footed forwards…
On paper, this is the least glamorous of the four groups – but it’s arguably the tightest, too. While Russia’s name will stand out for some, Dick Advocaat’s team has flattered to deceive since sparkling four years ago – and might find that it has been caught up by Poland, whose rise has been notable over the past two years. With Szczesny between the posts and Borussia Dortmund trio Lukasz Piszczek, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Robert Lewandowski in top form there’s a genuine spring in the long-suffering co-hosts’ step – and they are good bets for a place in the last eight. The Czech Republic will stake a claim, too – back at the top table after a fallow few years, they boast some star names in the form of Rosicky and Petr Cech but will struggle for goals if tournament specialist Milan Baros is out of form. Euro 2004 winners Greece complete the quartet and won’t be turned over easily by anyone but, despite possessing a more attacking outlook than in recent years, lack obvious quality and look likely to fall short this year.
UEFA EURO 2012 - Group A
Group of Death? This is probably the nearest thing to it, because Portugal – and 59-goal Cristiano Ronaldo, who is due a strong tournament – are more than capable of giving highly-fancied Germany and Holland a run for their money. The Germans may look the slickest all-round outfit in the group, with options across midfield and attack that barely anyone can rival, but the Dutch arguably pack the biggest punch – with Van Persie, Robben and Rafel van der Vaart all able to turn games on their head. And this is before Denmark, 20 years since their remarkable triumph in this competiton, are mentioned. The wily Morten Olsen’s side qualified for Euro 2012 ahead of the Portuguese – they are well organised at the back and boast genuine threats in Arsenal’s own Nicklas Bendtner and Ajax’s outstanding Christian Eriksen, and may benefit from being viewed as relative makeweights. The match between Denmark and Portugal on June 13, could be pivotal – if either side wins, then they might just pile genuine pressure on the two favourites ahead of the final matchday. As outsiders go, few can be more deadly on their day than the Danes and the Portuguese.
UEFA EURO 2012 - Group B
Even without Villa and Puyol, and despite a friendly defeat to the Italians last year, Spain look a decent bet to top Group C without too much trouble. Vicente del Bosque could be forgiven for fielding a strikerless formation given his surfeit of attacking midfielders and the toils of Fernando Torres, but in reality this might be the tournament in which Athletic Bilbao’s excellent Fernando Llorente gains the prolonged international exposure he deserves. The early clash with an Italian side that qualified well but lacks the knowhow of old should be intriguing. Lose that one and Italy, who are unfortunate to miss Giuseppe Rossi, will be firmly on the back foot – with Slaven Bilic’s Croatia smelling blood four days later. In Darijo Srna, Luka Modric and Nikica Jelavic, the Croats have enough star quality a genuine shot at second place. That leaves Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland, who beat the Italians last year. Meticulously drilled and rich in experience if not individual quality, they might pull off at least one result but look unlikely to make the final cut.
UEFA EURO 2012 - Group C
This is perhaps the most perplexing of the four groups – with decent arguments possible for and against each competitor. Under Laurent Blanc, France have made a fine recovery from their World Cup debacle – a 20-match unbeaten run, including a win at Wembley, signaling a more youthful and cohesive mould that will include Laurent Koscielny. Bacary Sagna is a big miss, but France have matchwinners in Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema, and should be group favourites. Under Roy Hodgson England should be well organised, but with Wayne Rooney missing the start of the tournament and Darren Bent ruled out due to injury there are worries about their attacking thrust. In Hodgson’s likely 4-4-2, Theo Walcott may be confined to the bench. Co-hosts Ukraine, almost entirely domestic-based, will be backed fanatically, play on the front foot and are led by the talismanic Andriy Shevchenko. Lack of prolonged top-level experience may hinder his team-mates, who were well beaten by France a year ago, but their clash with England on June 19 could be decisive. And who can rule out the Swedes? Even if England recently broke their jinx against them, and with the likely absence of Johan Elmander, there’s always the danger that Zlatan Ibrahimovic – backed up ably by the likes of Ola Toivonen and Kim Kallstrom - could have the tournament of his life.
UEFA EURO 2012 - Group D