Euro 2012 is around the corner, with 16 national teams heading to bases in Poland and Ukraine ready for the big kick on Friday. And while we’re firmly Manchester United focused here at Rant, we’ll be covering the tournament in full: current and former Reds on show, with luck some outstanding football, and a big old trophy to be won! Spain defend the tournament won in Austria and Switzerland – Fernando Torres scoring the only goal of the game as La Roja beat Germany in the Vienna final. Indeed, Spain remain the bookies favourites four years on, although Germany, Holland, Italy and France will each harbour some hope. England – not so much.
In Rant’s team-by-team preview we assess each side’s chances, pick out the key players and recall some favourite moments.
Group A – Czech Republic, Greece, Poland, Russia
Gone are the days of Pavel Nedved and Patrick Berger, and by the looks of the current squad, the Czech’s have made little progress replacing them. Coming second in qualifying to world champions Spain, Czech Republic had to rely on a playoff win against Montenegro to cement a place at Euro 2012. With preparations for the competition culminating in a home loss to Hungary, it’s difficult to foresee the Czech’s doing anything extraordinary in Poland and Ukraine. Frequently a pundit’s ‘dark horse’ bet in previous international tournaments, the Czech’s know how to get to the latter stages of tournaments, but a lack of match winners this time round points to a group stage exit.
Last 5 Matches: (L) Hungary 2-1, (W) Israel 2-1, (D) Republic Of Ireland 1-1, (W) Montenegro 1-0, (W) Montenegro 2-0
Fifa Ranking: 26
Nickname: Narod’ak (The National Team)
Manager: Michal Bilek – no, not a badly typed Michael Ballack – took control of the Czech’s before qualifying, but was faced with the problem of replacing four of his best players who had retired – all time leading scorer Jan Koller, Marek Jankulovski, Tomas Galasek and Tomas Ujfalusi. Not exactly minor players. Bilek has been on the end of some harsh criticism in Czech Republic of late, but considering the resources available he hasn’t done too badly at all. Deploying a 4-2-3-1 formation, with a blend of youth and experience, Bilek has gone some way to plugging the gaps in his team.
- Petr Cech, Chelsea, goalkeeper – first name on the team sheet, and Champions League winning goalkeeper, Petr Cech is vital if the Czech Republic is to make it out of the group stages. Perhaps less of a ‘keeper than before an awful skull injury in 2006, but experienced, level-headed and a phenomenal shot stopper. Cech is likely to be very busy this summer.
- Tomas Rosicky, Arsenal, midfielder – despite going off the boil in the past 18 months, Rosicky ended the Premier League season with a string of strong performances for Arsenal. Yet to prove he is the same player Arsenal brought to the Emirates, but in a Czech side lacking that bit of creativity, Rosicky may just be the one to provide it. Surely his last big chance to shine on the international stage.
- Daniel Kolář, FC Viktoria Plzeň, midfielder – gained admirers after some strong performances in the Champions League with Plzen. A very quick, attacking, midfielder with an eye for goal, Kolar could be that spark that the Czech Republic need so badly this summer. A strong bet to be the Czech’s top scorer.
United Interest: Tomas Pekhart was rumoured to be a target for the Reds following an impressive showing at the U20 World Cup five years ago. The most notable link between United and Czech Republic is the one, and only, Karel Poborsky, who scored a ridiculous chip in Euro 96 against Portugal.
Random Fact: Czech people drink more beer than anyone else in the world. That may go some way to explaining the genetic make-up of the aforementioned Poborsky.
Defining Euro Moment: Finishing runners-up to Germany at Euro 96. (Czechoslovakia won the tournament in 1976, beating Germany on penalties…)
The surprise Euro 2004 winners have qualified for the last three major international tournaments. Trips to Euro 2008, WC 2010 and now Euro 2012 have eclipsed the nation’s pre-2004 record of one finals in over twenty years. The ageing side, which is captained by 2004 hero, 117 cap Giorgos Karagounis, is lucky to be placed in the easiest group in the finals. Greece will be hoping for a spirited display in three games against Poland, Czech Republic and Russia. A passage into the quarter-finals is not out of the realm of possibility, but a group exit is the more likely scenario.
Last five matches: (D) 1-1 Russia | (L) 1-3 Romania | (D) 1-1 Belgium | (D) 1-1 Slovenia | (W) 0-1 Armenia
FIFA Ranking: 15
Nickname: Galanolefki (Blue-White)
Manager: Replacing the legend, “King Otto” Rehhagel, as manager is Portuguese boss Fernando Santos, who has done a solid job to date. Previously Santos had managed the Athens giants AEK and Panathinaikos, as well as Benfica. Santos’ last managerial assignment was at another Greek club PAOK. The coach has only suffered just one defeat in his reign as Greek manager, with a record of 10 wins, seven draws, and the one loss against Romania late in 2011.
- Giorgos Samaras, Celtic, striker – 27-year-old, 6ft 4in, former Manchester City striker Samaras has scored just seven in 54 international appearances, but can be a threat from set-pieces
- Giorgos Karagounis, Panathinaikos, midfielder – in his second spell at the Athens club, and now 35, Karagounis remains an instrumental member of the Greek side. Karagounis will need all his experience and skill to help his troubled homeland out of the group stages
- Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Schalke, defender – the 20-year-old defender has taken advantage of injuries in the Blue and White’s back-four to stake a claim for a starting berth. Papadopoulos played in the Schalke side that reached the Champions League semi-final in 2011. Euro 2012 finals will be another welcome addition to a blossoming CV
- Theofanis Gekas, unattached, forward – the much-travelled striker is playing to earn a contract going into Euro 2012. The former Eintract Frankfurt, Hertha Berlin, Panathinaikos, VfL Bochum and Bayer Leverkusen man was released by Samsunspor recently after a short-term deal with the Turkish side. A record of 58 caps and 21 goals is solid, and Gekas has scored goals wherever he’s played.
United interest: flying winger Soritis Ninis was linked with United in 2010-2011, and he fit the bill – young, skilful and versatile. However it looks like Ninis will join Italians Parma following the expiration of his contract. United’s loss could well be Parma’s gain.
Random fact: prior to winning the tournament in 2004 Greece had never won a match in the tournament
Defining Euro moment: Angelos Charisteas’ headed goal to win Euro 2004 in Portugal. Rival Denmark as the most unlikely major tournament winners in international football history.
Words by Lewis Taylor, whom can be found on Twitter!
Poland failed to qualify for any Euro tournament between 1960 and 2004, before reaching Euro 2008 only to go out at the group state. As co-hosts with neighboring country Ukraine, Poland will hope for better fortunes this time around. But with little competitive football, and one of the weakest looking squads in the competition few hold out hope for the hosts’ progress.
Last five matches: (W) Bosnia-Herzegovina | (D) 0-0 Portugal , (W) 1-0 Latvia, (W) 1-0 Slovakia,(W) 4-0 Andorra.
FIFA Ranking: 65
Nickname: Biało-czerwoni (The white and reds)
Manager: Franciszek Smuda – incredibly veteran coach Smuda is in to his 20th job as a manager, although most have come in his native country. Most recently Smuda was sacked by Lech Poznań before taking on the national job. Won the Polish League in 1996 and 1997, and as a German passport holders, ranks of one of very few Poles not to have switched nationality in recent years.
- Wojciech Szczesny, Arsenal, goalkeeper – Highly rated young ‘keeper who has claimed a place between the sticks for both Arsenal and the national team over the past 18 months. Safe hands, and comfortable under the high ball, Szczesny is set for a very busy summer. Essential if Poland is to progress in the tournament
- Łukasz Piszczek, Borussia Dortmund, defender – outstanding right back who has been a part of the German champions’ team since a 2010 move from Hertha Berlin. Most pundits’ choice as the leading right-back in the Bundesliga
- Jakub Błaszczykowski (c), Borussia Dortmund, midfielder – another player from the German champions and a key cog in midfield at both club and national level. Perhaps only second to Szczesny in importance to the hosts’ chances this summer
- Robert Lewandowski, Borussia Dortmund, forward – the man who fired BVB to the title last season, scoring 2 Bundesliga goals in the process. Fox in the box, and one to watch if Poland is to make it past the group stages for the first time!
United interest: in addition to securing Shinji Kagawa, the Reds have been ‘linked’ with a move for Lewandowski in the press.
Random fact: Poland won the third placed play-off in the 1982 World Cup, beating Brazil 1-0.
Defining Euro moment: Qualifying ahead of Portugal in qualification for Euro 2008.
Russia has only been a national side in its own right for the past 20 years, playing its first international match on 16 August 1992, beating Mexico 2-0. Euro 2012 will be the sixth time Russia has competed in a major tournament, including two World Cup’s (1994 and 2002) and four Euros (1996, 2004, 2008 and 2012). Russia’s best performance came in 2008 when the country reached the semi-final.
Last five matches: (D) Greece 1-1 | (W) Denmark 2-0 | (D) Uruguay 1-1 | (D) Lithuania 0-0 | (W) Italy 3-0
FIFA Ranking: 13
Nickname: Sbornaya (Team or Selection)
Manager: Dick Advocaat – was a moderately successful player, but is far better known as a coach, which has included two stints with the Dutch national team. Advocaat has coached a number of clubs in the Netherlands and abroad, including Russian club Zenit Saint Petersburg, with whom he won the 2008 UEFA Cup Final, as well as the national teams of a number of other countries, including South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and Belgium. Advocaat is also well-remembered in Britain for his time at Rangers, where he secured treble in his first year in charge.
- Andrei Arshavin, Arsenal, forward – the talented attacking player has frustrated Arsenal fans for years. Sometimes a match winner – he once scored four goals at Anfield – yet too often considered lazy and disinterested. Excelled in 2008, could this be the Russian’s last big stage?
- Roman Pavlyuchenko, Lokomotiv Moscow, forward – the big blonde striker that shot to fame by scoring goals against England in Euro 2008 qualification, which contributed towards England failing to make it to the tournament. Pavlyuchenko scored a decent share of goals at Spurs, but spent much of his time on the bench. Strong-as-an-ox, with an eye for goal, and an outside bet for the tournament’s top goal scorer
- Pavel Pogrebnyak, Fulham, forward – burst onto the scene during 2011/12 Premier League season at Fulham, scoring freely from January onwards. Will form a potent trio of goalscorers in Russia’s armory.
United interest: Who can forget the Reds’ Champions League triumph in Moscow, 2008, which is etched into most fans’ memories!
Random fact: 20 of 23 playing squad members earn a living in Russia.
Defining Euro moment: Beating Holland, who were tournament favourites, 3-1 in Euro 2008 quarter-final.