Euro 2012 Preview: Group Stage

The Euro 2012 will be the most talked about event in Europe—until the World Cup.

The Euro 2012 will be the most talked about event in Europe—until the World Cup.

Matt Brownsword

The Euro 2012 will be the most talked about event in Europe—until the World Cup.

 

Inside the United States, every year has its significance in sports. With the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup, and the NBA finals dominating sports networks for weeks on end, a sports fan can be excited year round.

But what if I told you that somewhere in the East, those championships were dwarfed? What if I told you that every four years, a whole continent, sixteen countries at a time, united behind one singular sport?

It is true: the European Championship—better known as the Euro—makes the sports of the United States look like amusing sideshows. The European Championship is a sixteen team soccer tournament, exclusively in Europe, with only European nations participating. After grueling qualifications for two years—directly after the World Cup, which is the only sporting event larger than the Euro—the sixteen qualified teams stand face to face, squaring off. The teams’ fans deal with unprecedented agony, heartbreak, and, for the victor, a feeling of extreme jubilation.

In Europe, soccer is our American football, baseball, basketball, and hockey combined.

England fans celebrate after a goal.

The soccer season—for clubs—starts in August and ends in May, a grueling process, whose schedule is unrivaled in its tenacity. During this season are international friendlies, qualifying games, and, every four years, big tournaments like the Euro and the World Cup. To Europe, soccer is it; thus, fans live and die by the sword and shield bestowed upon their country.

Poland and Ukraine are co-hosting the Euro 2012.

This year, this amazing tournament is being hosted by Poland and Ukraine as a joint-operation, giving those two teams an automatic qualification. The other fourteen spots were delegated to the teams that finished first—or second, with a playoff win—in their qualification groups.

The qualification proccess split the fifty-one eligible teams in nine groups, with the top team acheiving an automatic berth. The second-place teams in each group were placed into another nine team group and the team that had the most points from its previous group advanced. There were four matches to make up the final four spots, and most of the teams that were ranked higher by FIFA advanced. Bosnia and Herzegovina almost led an upset against fourth-ranked Portugal, but fell short in Portugal in the second leg. One of the storylines for the qualification round was the Republic of Ireland, which had not qualified for the European Championships since 1988. Also, Wayne Rooney, Manchester United and England star, was sent off in a qualifier against Montenegro, drawing a two-match ban for the Euro. Rooney will not play until the third match of the group stage, a game that could be pivotal for England’s chances for advancement.

There have also been a lot of storylines leading up to the tournament. Italy’s camp was rocked by the news of the arrest of Domenico Criscito in a match-fixing scandal involving the Serie A and Serie B—Italy’s two biggest soccer leagues—ending in his withdrawl from the tournament team. Italy’s coach—Cesare Prandelli—recently hinted at withdrawing from the tournament: “[He] would have no problem” if the team was withdrawn after the scandal.

Injuries have also rocked the onset of the tournament: Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard of England—a defending midfielder and an attacking midfielder—were injured in a friendly versus Norway and practice, respectively. The decimation of injuries to England continued in a friendly against Belgium, as Gary Cahill, the staunch Chelsea central defender, fractured his jaw. Matin Kelly, and not the experienced Rio Ferdinand, of Liverpool was brought up to replace Cahill. Yann M’vila, a midfielder from Rennes in the Ligue 1 in France, was injured in a pre-Euro friendly against Serbia, leaving a gaping hole in France’s midfield.

Enigmatic Italy star Mario Balotelli has spoken vehemently against racism against him.

Unfortunately, the biggest storyline are the events off the pitch but still in the stadium: Racism of fans. Poland and Ukraine fans, home of Auschwitz and other German Nazi death camps, have been seen to be sporting Nazi symbols. Other experts have advised against black families attending the event, for fear that the hometown fans would become too racist. Mario Balotelli, the enigmatic Manchester City superstar—who is known more for his off-field actions—said that he “will kill” anyone who throws a banana at him. Hopefully, it will not come to that, but, being the only African-American player on the Italian squad, Prandelli said “[he and his team] would do something for Mario” if he experiences racism in the stadiums.

Overall, the Euro 2012 is one of the biggest tournaments in the world, and the games on the pitch should be extremely interesting for any soccer fan. Hopefully the games off the pitch will be nonexistent, and the players will entertain the masses with great soccer and some amazing goals.

Group A

Nick Fuller:

The Polish Borussia Dortmund star will have to be pivotal if Poland is to advance.

Player(s) to watch:  Robert Lewandowski (Poland)

Poland’s superstar striker, Robert Lewandowski, has a knack for consistently scoring goals for German side Borussia Dortmund.  Lewandowski scored 22 goals, good for 3rd in the Bundesliga, this season. Lewandowski also was first in the Bundesliga in shots on net (59) and shots overall (117). Considering his youth, speed, and game changing ability, he has the potential to play extraordinary along with his youthful Poland team.

Team to watch:  Greece

It is believed by most people that Russia will win this group, but who will be the second team to advance?  That team could very easily potentially be Greece.  Greece, ranked 14th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola world rankings, shocked the world in 2004 by beating the host nation, Portugal, in the final and winning the tournament.  Going unbeaten in qualifying, Greece earned its way into this tournament and has one of the strongest defensive sides in the world.  Led by defensive star Avraam Papadopoulos, this team has the experience and toughness to advance past the group stage.

Projected Winner:  Russia and Greece

Russia will win this group.  Having an experienced coach in Dick Advocaat and a strong squad, this might be Russia’s year to be a dark horse in the tournament.  Greece will be the second team to advance from the group.  They have been playing impressively as of late, and should edge out Poland for the second spot in the group.

Pete Hoegler:

Game to Watch: Greece vs. Russia 6/16 4:45 Poland Time

Since winning Euro 2004, Greece has qualified for the Euro Cup in 2008 and the World Cup in 2010; however, failed to emerge from the group stages of both competitions. Now, after rising from the qualification stages unbeaten in 2012—two points ahead of Croatia—Manager Fernando Santos expects to advance further into the tournament. Led by 19 year old center back, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Greece takes on Russia in their final matchup of the group stage. Russia reached the semifinal of the Euro Cup in 2008 tournament, but lost 3-0 to Spain in their greatest performance since the fall of the Soviet Union. They failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, but Russia finished top of their group in the qualification stage of Euro 2012 after losing only one of their games.

Player to Watch: Tomas Rosicky, Czech Republic

Rosicky, the Czech midfielder, will be important if the Czech Republic are to be successful.

An energetic, attacking midfielder with a proclivity for the spectacular and an impressive range of passing, Tomas Rosicky hopes to lead Czech Republic out of the group stage this Euro Cup. Rosicky is very much a typical Czech player in that he excels with the ball at his feet and revels in a passing game. In possession he is an effective distributor of the ball and has the vision to find his team-mates.

Projected Winners: Greece and Russia

Greece and Russia are, without doubt, the most elite teams Group A. They face off in their final matchup of group stage on June 16 to ultimately determine who achieves the higher seed in the subsequent round.

Group B

Mike Greulich:

Game to Watch: Germany vs. Netherlands on June 13 at 2:45

Group B has been nicknamed the group of death, and for good reason too.  It is one of the highest skilled groups in tournament history and, with the one and two ranked teams in Germany and Netherlands, respectively, the game between the two is sure to be one of the most entertaining games of the entire tournament.  Germany is one of the best teams in the tournament simply because they have no weakness.  Every part of their game is at a championship level, giving them a chance to not only win the game, but also the tournament.  Netherlands, however, has, by far, the best offense in the tournament.  With a starting lineup consisting of super stars Wesely Sneijder, Rafeal van der Vaart, and Robin van Persie, only the best teams will be able to contest Netherlands amazing offense.  It is rare that two teams of this caliber face each other in the preliminary round, and the winner of this game is surely the one who will win the group.

Mesut Ozil of Germany will be pivotal if Germany is to advance.

Player to Watch: Mesut Ozil, Germany

The former Werder Bremen youngster starred at the last World Cup before linking up with Real Madrid after the tournament. Under the watchful eyes of Jose Mourinho, Ozil has developed his game further and is now considered one of the best playmakers in the world. Ozil can dribble, play deft defense-splitting passes and scores his fair share of goals.  If the game comes down to the wire, Ozil is sure to give Germany the edge they need to go deep into the tournament.

Projected Winners: Germany and Netherlands

It seems almost unfair to the other teams that have been stuck in group B that two of the top three teams would be placed in the same group.  Denmark and Portugal are both very strong teams and in any other group, Portugal would have the chance to move on.  But not even world class captain Cristiano Ronaldo will be able to lead his team to victory when facing teams like Germany and Netherlands.

 

Group C

Jack Stedman:

Spain and Italy, the two previous winners of the World Cup, face off in a group match.

Game to Watch: Italy vs. Spain: Sunday, June 10th, 12:00 ET

For the true soccer fans out there, the game to watch would be Croatia vs Italy, as the winner of that game would most likely be the one to advance out of the group stage with Spain. However, the big star-studded match-up in this group is a battle of the giants, Spain and Italy. Soccer, or any sport for that matter, does not get much better than when two of the best teams in the world face off, and the reasons to watch this game are endless. The last two World Cup champions, Italy and Spain are two of the best teams in the world. The game features two world-class goalkeepers, Iker Casillas and Gianluigi Buffon; however, the likes of Xavi, Fernando Torres, Andres Iniesta for Spain, and Mario Balotelli, Andrea Pirlo, and Daniele De Rossi for Italy should provide a highlight reel of goals. How will Italy play amid the match-fixing scandal, and Balotelli facing possible racism? Will Spain continue their dominance with their third major tournament win in four years? Whatever you do, don’t miss this game.

Player to Watch: Mario Balotelli, Italy

Why always me? “Super Mario” lifted his jersey to reveal this saying on his shirt after scoring a goal for Manchester City this year. Well, there are a lot of reasons why it is “always” him. When asked about  racism at this years Euros, he replied, “If someone throws a banana at me…I will go to jail, because I will kill him.” After wrecking his sports car and police asked why he had 5000 euros in cash on him, he said, “Because I’m rich.” He has driven into a Italian women’s prison, just because he “fancied a look,” given 1000 euros to a homeless man, and has lit his house on fire after attempting to light fireworks in his bathroom. That’s really all you need to know. The self proclaimed “misunderstood genius” is by far the most interesting man at the Euros, and the 21-year-old will have to prove his soccer talent is as great as his stupidity, or should I say entertainment, to prove critics wrong. He will also need to be at his best for Italy to make a deep run.

Projected Winners: Spain and Italy

Without a doubt, Spain moves on. They are too good, too well coached, and too good, wait I already said that. The next question is Italy or Croatia – the soccer dynasty or the team on the rise. The veteran presence, coupled with its wave of young talent led by Balotelli, will push the  “Azzuri” past Luka Modric and unproven Croatia, and into the knockout stage. Of course, there is always the infinitesimal chance of Ireland shocking both of them, and with my great-aunt visiting from Ireland, we will be rooting heavily for the “Boys in Green.”

Group D

Bobby Rabaioli:

Game to watch: England vs. France 6/11 12:00 pm, Espn

The best game without a doubt in Group D is the battle between England against France.  Two years ago, both teams met in a friendly with France getting the better of the England with a score of 2-1.  This game will be featuring some of the fastest guys in the game of soccer, who also have ball skills and agility.  Both teams have a historic past with each other that will only get better with this matchup.

Player(s) to Watch: Theo Walcott and Wayne Rooney, England

The only way I can see England winning this group is with the support of  the young  midfielder Theo Walcott and with  forward Wayne Rooney, making them the players to watch.  With England’s aging  midfield, it will be hard to carry the momentum on counter attacks with the older players.  If Walcott uses his speed, then England should end up with multiple chances per game.  In order to win you must score goals, obviously.  So with one of the better strikers in the world, Rooney will need to carry the scoring load for England.  Wayne Rooney has struggled with disappearing in big stages so far in his career, but this tournament could be his time to shine.

Projected Winners: France and England

The best overall team in Group D is France, but with the talent and potential on England, they will win the group without a doubt.  If England uses their own strengths and unleash the beast that is Wayne Rooney, then England should win this group with ease.  Even with other teams like Sweden, who has one of the best players in the world in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Ukraine, it will be hard to stop all phases of England’s game.  The only team that has a chance to beat them is of course France, but will ultimately fail.