Euro 2012: GROUP A PREVIEW
Every international football tournament has its so-called GROUP OF DEATH, a gathering of four teams so alike in stature and potential that any one of them might go on to win the group or miss qualification for the knock out stages. These groups usually feature perennial powerhouses, each a favorite, each impossible to look beyond. The GROUP OF DEATH means thrills, uncertainty, triumph and heartbreak. You can’t look away, each match having the potential to be a classic.
At this year’s Euro 2012, Group A is not that group. On paper.
Instead, Group A features four teams of relatively equal quality but none of whom seem prepared to light it up. In fact, if anything, each of the teams, save one (Russia), are generally unsung, and none are tipped heavily to win it all. If you didn’t know any better, you might call Group A the GROUP OF MEH; looking up and down the group, looking at the player names and team expectations, you have all of the makings of a competitive group with none of the big time fireworks on the pitch.
It should be a different story in the stands, however. If you take geopolitical history into account, and it is hard not to with a tournament like Euros, you can expect the supporters to have another opinion altogether. Russia vs Poland? Russia vs Czech Republic? Russia vs Greece? Czech Republic vs Poland? Hello! Could you have drawn a group with more history? Add Poland’s hosting of the tournament (the atmosphere should be absolutely teeming with hostility during their matches) and suddenly, Group A becomes a must-see, even if the teams are not favorites.
That said, these are the Euros, the one tournament where underdogs have shown they can win it all. Think of Denmark in 1992 or Greece in 2004, teams that came from nowhere to put together a month of miracles and take home the most competitive trophy in international football*.
For me, Czech Republic are simply a high quality team without a focal point. Always organized and featuring recent Champions League Final hero Petr Cech in goal, the Czechs will always field a competitive team. But as the older generation of players (striker Milan Baroš, midfielders Jaroslav Plašil and Tomáš Rosický all in their 30’s) starts to make way, there is a sense that the side are missing a cutting edge creator. They will be bolstered by Rosický’s return to full fitness and left back Michal Kadlec is a star in the making**, but after squeaking their way into the Euros through a playoff with Montenegro, the Czechs are a team walking the line between surprise and disappointment. This Group helps them, no question; they will be looking at each match as one in which they can compete, but they are a longshot for me to make it out of the Group stage.
Envying goalie Petr Cech’s helmet, Czech defender Michal Kadlek gets fitted for a protective mask ahead of the Euro 2012
Greece won the 2004 Euros… let me type that again, because I still can’t believe it. Greece won the 2004 Euros with a style dependent on tough, organized defense and set piece driven, counter attacking football. They are the football equivalent of the rope-a-dope fighter, absorbing blow after blow, before delivering a knockout punch of their own. They are not pretty. They are not fun to watch (especially, I assume, if you are a Greek supporter), yet somehow, some way, they seem to grind out results. They won their qualifying Group with a series of gutsy performances, the most important of which was a 2-0 win over rival Croatia that featured fans throwing molotov cocktails, smoke bombs and flares at one another. Fun times. Their recent 1-0 win in a friendly against Armenia saw them miss two penalties; even when it should be easy, it’s not. Defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos has scored 3 goals in eight matches, with stalwarts Fanis Gekas, Giorgos Karagounis and Giorgos Samaras typically inconsistent in recent months. Expect grinding football. Rise and repeat.
Greek and Croatian supporters clash during Euro 2012 Qualifying
The hosts. Never discount the hosts. The hosts always do well, generally qualify for the knock out stages and, since every one of their matches is literally a home match, with swirling crowds and pure intimidation, they stand a better chance than most of qualifying from the Group. And yet… even without the automatic bid as hosts, Poland are a serious threat in the group. Most importantly, they feature of a trio of players who have worked wonders together at the club level; Robert Lewandowski, Jakub “Kuba” Blaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek all play together for German woinder club Borussia Dortmund, the back-to-back Bundesliga Champions and they, like their club, are having the time of their lives on the pitch. Lewandowski is on fire, scoring 22 for his club and banging them in for his country as well, with Blaszczykowski a constant threat in the midfield and Piszczek leading the defense. If the rest of the team can play at the level of Lewandowski and company, this seems to me to be Poland’s best chance to make a dent at the Euros in a long, long time and, with the support of the nation behind them, they have a real chance.
Lewandowski is on fire, but the soundtrack is not.
Russia are, for me, one of the dark horse teams of the tournament. They come into Euro 2012 looking sharp; having pounded Italy 3-0 in recent days and featuring a group of in-form players who are clicking under Dutch manager Dick Advocaat, Russia is certainly poised for a breakout. It may not be a surprise, since they were semi-finalists in Euro 2008, but there is something about them right now that has me thinking big. Still, if anything, the team are once again missing a dominant #10 as the disappointing Andrey Arshavin, whose performances at Arsenal have been lacking when they’ve happened at all, can often go missing; he scored no goals and only had two assists in qualifying. Still, football remains a team game and Advocaat has Russia ticking right now; if they can sustain their performance against Italy into the tournament, look for them to make some waves.
Russian manager Dick Advocaat. Clinical.
Must See Match
For me, it must be Russia vs Poland on Tuesday, June 12th. This match has all the making of a barnstormer, with lots of attacking play and plenty of historic vitriol to fuel the passions of supporters. It is, of all the games in the Group, the one match where I expect sparks to fly.
Players To Watch
Poland’s Robert Lewandowski is everything you want in an in-form striker; he has been scoring goals in bundles and with the chemistry he shares with his club mate “Kuba” Blaszczykowski, I am expecting him to lead the Group in goals. The other contender is Russian striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov who has followed a simple plan in the run-up to the Euros; when he’s on the pitch, he scores goals and sets them up. Simple as. The Zenit striker was not invited to Euro 2008, so my guess is that he is poised to do some damage this time around.
No shirt, but service: Russia’s Aleksandr Kerzhakov
I like Russia to win the Group with Poland to qualify on a final day must-win against the Czechs.
*Sorry World Cup, but 32 teams makes for a diluted field. Team for team, group for group, the Euros are a tighter, tougher tournament.
** Kadlec likes to party; rival fans broke his nose in a nightclub last month. No, really.