Welcome back France… we missed you in South Africa. This is an Advanced Preview of Euro 2012.
-Who are the most important players on this tournament’s most important teams?
-Who is going to advance to the final four?
World soccer is currently in a period of aristocracy and that looks to continue here at the European Championships. Strongly separated from the rest of the peasants and even a few nobles are the top three ranked teams in the world. I’d like to coin a phrase here… The Big 3:
Spain: With their team chemistry reaching remarkable levels, Spain controls possession for a maddeningly high percentage of every game. They waltzed through qualifying not just undefeated, but without a single tie. Having won the last World & Euro Cups, there is no denying Spain’s place as the current boss of world soccer.
Despite David Villa’s gruesome injury, goal scoring should be no problem for Spain. Striker Fernando Torres looks to be in form while Fernando Llorente plans to announce his presence to the world now that he finally gets a shot at the main stage in Villa’s absence.
As always with Spain, the midfield is the area to watch… Barcelona teammates Xavi and Iniesta spend 367 days a year training together and are without a doubt the world’s two best midfielders; so frankly it doesn’t matter who is playing up front for Spain. Cesc Fabregas would be the best midfielder on nearly every other team, yet he can barely get playing time on this powerhouse.
IF Spain has any worry it’s with their aging back line. Carles Puyol is 34… but that’s really reaching for a weakness. Look for Spain to easily cruise to the final four.
Germany: The Germans are also among soccer’s societal elite having finished 2nd in the last Euro Cup, and 3rd in each of the last two World Cups. Finding a weakness on this team is hard as they possess an advantage at almost every position (Per Mertesacker not withstanding).
With his traditional German name, look for Mario Gomez to take over for Miraslav Klose as the team’s main option up top. Gomez may even end up with more goals than anyone in this tournament. Lefty Lukas Podolski typically makes a strong impact on the attacking end during international play as well.
Of course, you can’t discuss Germany’s chances without mentioning their rock at midfield Bastian Schwiensteiger. With his poise and power at the defensive midfield position, transitioning from defense to offense against Germany is a difficult task. Led by Bastian and his Bayern Munich teammate Philipp Lahm, Germany also won 10 out of 10 games in qualifying. Look for that to continue in this tournament. Their first game is against Cristiano Ronaldo and his unfortunate Portugese teammates. Ronaldo will have a spectacular game to be sure, but Germany will march right past them (and whoever else gets in their way) to the final four alongside Spain.
The Netherlands: To round out the Big 3 we have a Dutch team who hasn’t had too much success as of late. Sure they lost in extra time of the World Cup final thanks to a nifty combination between Fabregas and Iniesta for Spain… but with the talent Holland possesses there is no reason they can’t win this tournament. Perhaps the most enjoyable team to watch, the Dutch have a front line that includes the Premiere League’s Player of the Year and leading scorer Robin Van Persie, the Bundesliga’s leading scorer Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, as well as my pick to score the most attractive goal of the tournament… lefty speedster Arjen Robben.
The three of them up top make this an easy job for the diminutive Wesley Sneijder. A world class midfielder in his own right; expect #10 to lead this tournament in assists as well as bury a free-kick or two along the way. Beyond this front four, however, The Netherlands have less to be confident about than Spain and Germany. If the Oranje are going to compete for the title, goal keeper Maarten Stekelenburg needs to do more bending than breaking. Expect the average Dutch final score to be around 4-3, but that should be good enough to allow them to advance a few rounds. Book The Netherlands a spot in the final four with Spain and Germany.
That leaves us with one unclaimed final four spot for the other 13 teams to fight over. Right off the bat, I can rule out about eight of them. Ireland, Croatia, Ukraine, and Poland are easy to rule out of the final four because they won’t make it out of the group stage. Also let’s remove the Czech Republic, Greece, Russia, and Sweden. They all have a good shot to advance through the 1st round, but stand no realistic shot of competing after that.
That leaves us with another five teams I’ll break down below… I have to make this quick though as this is already too long of a soccer article for the American public to consume.
Italy: They will advance and ultimately lose for the same reason… Mario Balotelli. He’s as unpredictable of a wildcard player as you’ll see in sports and tournaments like these tend to bring out the best & worst of people (see: Zinedine). Italy will finish 2nd in Group C, but will be bounced soon thereafter.
England: If everyone was healthy this year, 3 Lions could put out a starting 11 to compete with even the best teams… problem is everyone is not healthy, and the other problem is they want to do more than just “compete.” Currently England has too few superstars to be a world power, especially with Wayne Rooney suspended for the first two games.
Portugal: People like to talk about Nani like he’s worth mentioning, but in reality the Portugese team has only one player. Luckily for Portugal that player is Cristiano Ronaldo and he has the tools to win any game he plays, pretty much single-handedly. Given their Group Of Death draw, however, it seems to be asking too much of this attractive goalscorer, so don’t expect to see Portugal reach Round 2.
Denmark: Miserable draw for this up-and-coming squad. You know you got screwed when you are ranked in the top 10, but are stil the worst team in your group. Look for Christian Eriksen (born in 1992!) to be a force in the next few tournaments… but for now Denmark is still the OKC Thunder of a few years ago.
France: Not to say France has fully overcome their disastrous South Africa World Cup trip that included more practices ending in a protest (1) than it did games won (0), but they’ve come a long way. A new coach, and a whole slew of young phenoms have the French in a better position to advance than anyone but the Big 3. Samir Nasri was not even on the World Cup roster, and now he’s a Premiere League champion and a leader of this title hopeful. I’m saying Karim (Mercedes) Benzema finds his scoring form as the one and only scoring option on Les Blues and they join Spain, Germany and The Netherlands in the final four.
Stay tuned to Halftime Hennessy and look for a final four preview in the weeks to come.