[quote]“With the greatest respect to women, football is the most beautiful thing in the world.” – Slaven Bilic, Croatia manager[/quote] .
The beautiful game will once again take centre stage this summer, this time in its more-demanding, European Championship avatar. The Euros are a quadrennial event pitting sixteen of the best footballing nations across Europe against each other. Poland and Ukraine will co-host the spectacle, from June 8th – July 1st, with the historic Olympic Stadium in Kyiv (Kiev) holding the final. Spain are defending champions, a 1-0 win over an ageing German side marking their ascent to the summit. They followed that up with winning the World Cup two years ago.
The Euro Cup is often thought to be a higher-standard tournament than the World Cup, with just sixteen teams in the competition. However, the fact that every few years the Euros have an upset winner tells us otherwise. The route to the title consists of six games, compared to the seven that the World Cup winner plays. With the World Cup it seems that extra game is all that it takes to weed out the pretenders from the consistently-good teams. Feasibly in the Euros, a team can muddle through the group stage to make it into the quarters in second place in the group (top two in each group make it to the knockout rounds), then for the next two games ride a combination of good fortune, a ref’s contentious decision or a penalty shootout and voila, they’re in the final at which point anything is possible.
Group stage play can be unforgiving in the Euros, more often than not at least one of the groups earn the ‘Group of Death’ moniker where multiple heavyweights land up together, and with a weaker nation progressing at their expense:
- ’04 Group A (#1 Portugal, #2 Greece, #3 Spain, #4 Russia);
- ’00 Group A (#1 Portugal, #2 Romania, #3 England, #4 Germany);
- ’96 Group C (#1 Germany, #2 Czech Rep, #3 Italy, #4 Russia).
Group A: Poland (#65), Greece (#14), Russia (#11), Czech Republic (#26)
On paper the easiest group in the tournament, hosts Poland could find themselves in the knockout stages thanks to the partisan support and prolific striker Robert Lewandoski’s goals. Greece have not changed their resolute defending style while the Czechs are a structured and quick unit but lack the tournament experience. Russia should be battling the Polish for top spot in this group.
Group B: Netherlands (#4), Denmark (#10), Germany (#2), Portugal (#5)
Easily the ‘Group of Death’ to surpass any in recent memory. Germany are a better squad now than they were in the World Cup, leaving Netherlands and Portugal to duke it out for second. Denmark are an opportunistic side and with a couple of favorable results could leave both the Dutch and the Portuguese on the outside looking in.
Group C: Spain (#1), Italy (#12), Ireland (#18), Croatia (#8)
Spain are once again favorites, and should cruise through comfortably. Italy are notoriously slow starters in tournaments, and start their schedule against Spain, which could go from bad to worse very quickly. Croatia are a plucky side playing with a physical edge, and Republic of Ireland, under the wily Giovanni Trappatoni, should be a handful as well.
Group D: Ukraine (#50), Sweden (#17), France (#16), England (#7)
France and England are the marquee names in this group and should progress with little trouble. Sweden had a good qualifying campaign but are still amidst a long-term rebuilding program. Ukraine will have plenty of home support, but will the ageless Andriy Shevchenko get enough support from the youth brigade on the squad?
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