The 2012 European Championships kick off on Friday, and we start our coverage with a look at Group A.
Co-host Poland is expecting to benefit from home comforts and advance out of this weak group. It contains none of the traditional powers, so Russia, Greece and the Czech Republic all believe they can make it to the knockout stages as well. Something has to give, right?
The Czechs made it to Euro 2012 thanks to a playoff victory over Montenegro. Manger Michal Bilek made his team take a ceremonial voyage from the homeland to its base in Poland by train. Most are expecting the Czech Republic to book an early return trip. The young and inexperienced team struggled to score goals throughout qualifying and continued that trend in its warm-up games. The combination of youth and a lack of cutting-edge has often met disastrous results in tournament play.
Chelsea’s outstanding goalkeeper Petr Cech and Arsenal midfielder Tomas Rosicky headline the group. Defender and leading goal scorer Michal Kadlec is one of the only other players in the squad with experience playing in the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League. The Czechs will look to Milan Baros to provide the goals, but it seems like the last time the 30-year-old scored a flurry of goals was … Euro 2004.
Greece earned its place in the tournament as winners of qualifying group F. Although manager Fernando Santos is walking in the footsteps of the Greek God of Soccer — Otto Rehhagel, the German coach who led Greece to an upset victory at Euro 2004 — he is determined make his own mark on the national team.
Unfortunately, the magic formula that worked so well for that group eight years ago has an expiration date. Keeping a water-tight defense and exploiting oponnents’ mistakes with a quick counter-attack will only get this unheralded group so far. Although Greece has a few players with experience at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the team will be too dependant on good luck to escape the group. If youngsters Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Sotiris Ninis are breakout stars of the tournament, Greece could prove doubters wrong. But don’t bet on it.
There’s nothing like home-field advantage, and Poland hopes to ride a wave of good feeling deep into the tournament. A familiar setting can be a gift to the host team, but it comes with a trip-wire. Poland has not played a competitive game since 2009, and there are questions about the group’s readiness to compete at the highest level.
Arsenal’s talented and self-assured goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny believes this is the best Poland team in a generation. Although he is only a 21-year-old, the sure-handed stopper could be right. Lukasz Piszczek, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Robert Lewandowski form part of the core of the Borrusia Dortmund team that has overrun German soccer for the last two seasons. If other role players step up, Poland should make it out of this group.
Euro 2012 will be the last-chance saloon for a group of talented, but mercurial Russian players. Their performace was the cinderella story of Euro 2008, as they brushed aside all competition before falling to eventual winners Spain in the semifinals. Manager Dick Advocaat guided Russia through this qualification cycle, but he’s stepping down after the tournament.
The Russians are strong in the attack, as veteran trio Pavel Pogrebnyak, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Andrey Arshavin have a lot of international experience. They also have points to prove, after switching clubs in the winter transfer window in order to reach peak fitness in time for the tournament. Advocaat’s biggest headaches are at the back, as starting goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev is battling a knee injury. Regardless, Russia should have enough firepower to see its way into the knockout rounds of the competition.
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