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Thursday, 7 June 2012

Euro 2012 Pre-Tournament Preview and Outright Picks

It feels like just yesterday we were putting the final touches on the domestic season, yet the Euro 2012 tournament has sneaked up on us and is just days away. There are plenty of previews of the event out there, but one more won't hurt too much.

The tournament hasn't really gripped in the same manner as previous tournaments of this nature and I am not sure why? It looks like a decent event with plenty of good teams and the format means the 'less competitive' games you can sometimes see at the World Cup are not really here.

Which other tournament would see the matches of the calibre of Germany-Portugal, Spain-Italy and France-England in the first four days? I am looking forward to the football to begin and am very pleased that the times are almost perfectly for when we come out of work.


Group A

Poland

Poland are one of the co-hosts for the event and were one of the top seeded teams in the draw along with Germany, Spain and the Ukraine. They will be pleased with the way things worked out as they were placed alongside Russia, Czech Republic and Greece and the expectation is surely to get to the Quarter Finals at the very least.

Being a co-host will bring its own pressures and there are no guarantees that that will ensure their path through to the next stage. Four years ago, both Austria and Switzerland were dumped in the group stage, but the opposition in this group should not hold too many fears for Poland.

There are some decent players in the squad that they call upon, although the first game against the Greeks looks the key to their chances as they surely can't get away with anything less than the three points in that one.

Results in their friendly matches have not been that inspiring if I am honest and it does look like goals will be a real problem for them.

Player to Watch: Robert Lewandowski- Scored plenty of goals for Borussia Dortmund to help them win the Bundesliga and you have to think he will need to do the same to fire the hosts into the Quarter Finals.

Predicted Finish: 3rd in Group

Russia

The Russians were the surprise package of Euro 2008 when they reached the Semi Finals and who can forget their awesome destruction of the Dutch in the Quarter Finals that year? The team has the same feel from the one that impressed so many with their style of football in Austra/Switzerland and they couldn't really ask for a better group from which to progress, perhaps to another Quarter Final with Holland.

Russia finished top of their qualifying defeat and recovered from an early home loss to go unbeaten in their final 8 games in that section. They have also recorded some decent friendly results with the most eye-catching coming just days ago as they beat Italy 0-3 away from home.

Dick Advocaat has got the team playing good football and he has a few decent options in the attacking department which will make Russia a threat. They are also solid right through the team and will be a tough test for whichever team they face in the Quarter Finals.

Player to Watch: Alan Dzagoev- He is only 21, but is considered the next big thing in Russian football and will be expected to provide the ammunition for the team as well as scoring key goals

Predicted Finish: 1st

Czech Republic

Long gone are the days when the Czech Republic were considered one of the dark horse to win a tournament of this magnitude as they were in the early part of the 21st Century. These days, qualifying for the event is seen as a success, but I won't go overboard in downplaying their chances in this group.

The Czechs also beat Montenegro twice in the Play Offs to advance to this tournament, and that is something that England failed to do when in the same group as the latter. However, they were fortunate to finish above Scotland in their own section when they earned a 2-2 draw at Hampden Park in a qualifier in a game they were given a soft penalty while Scotland were denied a stonewall one themselves. If Scotland had won that game, they would have finished above the Czechs and perhaps been here instead.

Friendly results have been mixed for a side that doesn't have the same type of talent as they did ten years ago and it is hard to see them getting enough points from the section, despite it not being the strongest here.

Player to Watch: Tomas Rosicky- Will have to be at his best to ensure the team create enough chances to progress.

Predicted Finish: 4th

Greece

Hands up if you are not Greek and looking forward to seeing them play at the event this Summer... Not too many hands showing I expect.

However, they are a much better team to watch these days compared to the mind-numbing side that actually went on and won the European Championships in 2004. While the side do open up a little more than they did eight years ago, they are still a very well organised and disciplined defensive side as shown by the five goals scored in their ten qualifying games to get to Poland.

I don't think they could have hand picked a better group to be in and I think they may be the surprise package from it, but all will depend on how they get on in their first group game against the hosts Poland. If they can avoid defeat in that game, they could really amp the pressure on the teams fighting for qualification with a win over the Czech Republic in their second game and may even have the benefit of playing an already qualified Russia in their final game.

They haven't inspired anyone with their results in friendlies, but they do have a decent set piece package that may cause issues for their opponents. Goals can be a problem, but they may not need too many to get out of this group.

Player to Watch: Giorgios Karagounis- He might be in the twilight of his career at 35, but continues to pull the strings and is an expert dead ball striker... It will be his performances that will determine how far the Greeks go

Predicted Finish: 2nd


Group B

Germany

Undoubtedly one of the favourites to win the tournament after coming so close in the last three major international events. Germany reached the Final of this event four years ago and have twice been Semi Finalists in the World Cups that took place in 2006 and 2010, but they are now in the longest drought since winning their last international trophy in 1996.

The squad is packed full of talent with a few areas of concerns, but the biggest may be how the players from the Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund teams can play having been involved in long seasons already.

The Bayern players have also got to get their heads right after a crushing defeat in the Final of the Champions League that was played in their home stadium. However, on paper the Germans look like being one of the teams to beat with the strength available to them in the squad they are taking to Poland and the Ukraine.

They qualified for the tournament by winning all ten games in their section and, while friendly results have been up and down, I would be very surprised if they didn't get to the latter stages again and perhaps break their 16 years of hurt.

Player to Watch: Lukas Podolski- Some will consider this a strange choice, but Podolski always seems to come alive at the big events for his country and he has 8 goals in the last 3 major tournaments he has played. With Mario Gomez being hit or miss and Miroslav Klose coming towards the end of his career, Podolski may need to chip in with big goals.

Predicted Finish: 1st

Holland

Not too many people were impressed with the Dutch showing in the World Cup Final 2010 as they looked to kick lumps out of the Spain team they were facing rather than try to play football and that was a disappointment considering the talent available to them.

This group has been described as the 'group of death' and Holland do look a vulnerable side to going out a little earlier than their fans would be expecting. While they have a strong depth of attacking talent to call upon, the defensive side of the game looks susceptible in a group where they will face the talents of Cristiano Ronaldo and a combined strength of Germany.

Holland had no problems qualifying for the event with only one defeat from ten games, while they have some decent friendly wins to also fall back upon.

The opening game against Denmark looks a pivotal one for them... The Danes will be the team that the other three teams in the group will be targeting for a win and anything less will put a lot of pressure on Holland when they face Germany in their second group game.

Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben should provide plenty of goals for the Dutch if they are on their game, but pressure can do a funny thing to players (see Robben for his penalty miss against Chelsea in the Champions League Final) and they may be a surprise loser in the early stages of this tournament.

Player to Watch: Wesley Sneijder- While the two players I mentioned above are key to scoring the goals, Wesley Sneijder will need to bounce back from an average season to provide the bullets for the Van Persie and Robben calibre players.

Predicted Finish: 3rd

Portugal

Portugal are, like the Czech Republic, not quite the dark horses they were a few years ago when their 'golden generation' failed to pick up a big international prize that they crave so badly. However, any team that has a talent like Cristiano Ronaldo is sure to be a danger to the very best teams in the World.

Ronaldo's confidence should be high after helping Real Madrid lift the La Liga title this season, although he hasn't always been able to transfer that form to his international team as his opponents know he is by far and away the biggest threat in this side.

It would have been a different story if the likes of Rui Costa and Luis Figo were still around, but Portugal could be a surprise package if Nani can get on one of his hot streaks of form that he has displayed for Manchester United. Nani is capable of going on a run of 3-4 fantastic matches in a row and, if he can do that here, that could help Portugal get through a tough section and perhaps cause some surprises down the stretch.

The team also have a decent defensive discipline, although that wasn't always shown in their qualifying campaign when they were forced to win in the Play Offs having finished behind Denmark who are also in this group.

They face the Danes in their second game and that could be the key to their chances of progressing, especially if Portugal fail to get a result against Germany in their first game.

Player to Watch: Cristiano Ronaldo- So much of what Portugal can achieve will be down to Ronaldo... If he has a big tournament, Portugal could be a real surprise package in the whole tournament

Predicted Finish: 2nd

Denmark

Twenty years after surprising the whole of Europe by being crowned the winners of the European Championships, Denmark will try and surprise the viewers again and overcome the 'group of death' when they have been viewed as almost a non-factor.

Morten Olsen will look to inspire his team by reminding them that they beat Portugal, one of their rivals in this group, back in the qualifiers and finished above them to automatically book their ticket to Poland and the Ukraine. The Danes suffered just one loss in eight games in the qualifiers, that coming in a trip to Lisbon, but they were impressive for the most part. However, friendly performances leading up to this event have not been so impressive.

The problem for Denmark is that they won't be able to slowly make their way into the tournament as they did in 1992 when they went on to win it. That is because they likely face their closest rivals, Holland and Portugal, in their first two games and will not want to go into their final match with Germany needing points to qualify.

That kind of pressure can be telling on what is a fairly young and inexperienced group and despite their talents, it could be too much for them to overcome in this group.

Player to Watch: Christian Eriksen- The young Ajax midfielder has been attracting the attention of the biggest clubs in Europe and he could really show what he is about in a tough group against talented opposition.

Predicted Finish: 4th




Group C

Spain

The reigning European and World Champions will be going for an unprecedented third straight major international title. Spain remain the favourites to win this competition after that period of dominance, but they do look a little vulnerable with the likes of Carlos Puyol and David Villa not travelling to Poland and the Ukraine, while the members of the squad have all been involved in long domestic seasons.


Spain qualified with eight straight wins from eight games in their qualifying section, but there is a question mark to be answered as to who will provide the goals in the absence of Villa. Fernando Torres and Fernando Llorente are the main strikers likely to lead the line, but the absence of Roberto Soldado from the squad is a little head-scratching.

We know what we are going to get from Spain with the sharp passing, but Xavi is older and has had a long season and the absence of their main striker is hard to ignore. Add to that the issues at centre half without Puyol and they definitely look vulnerable.

Player to Watch: Fernando Torres- This sounds crazy in a squad full of talent, but you have to think Torres will need to fire if Spain are going to find enough goals for them to go all the way. I expect it will be Torres that starts ahead of Fernando Llorente, but the latter can be substituted into this spot if he does get the call.


Predicted Finish: Likely too strong for group, 1st


Italy


Memories of 2006 came flooding back as Italian football has once again been rocked by a match-fixing scandal, although it is to a lesser extent (at the moment at least) than back in 2006 when they went on to win the World Cup.


The Italians are not the power house of former years as coach Cesare Prandelli changes their method of playing the game and they are now a lot more exciting to watch than when I was growing up. However, I feel they lack the stars of the old days as they no longer have the Franco Baresis, Paolo Maldinis, Alessandro Del Pieros or Roberto Baggios to call upon.


Italy got through a tough looking qualification section with eight wins from ten games and they were unbeaten in those games. They also only conceded two goals in those games and I am not going to put too much into their recent disappointing results in friendlies which have seen them lose to the likes of the USA and Russia.


The key to their entire tournament may just rest on how they cope with all the scandal that has hit home- in 1982 and 2006 they went on to win the World Cup, but I find it tough to think they can do the same here.


Player to Watch: Mario Balotelli- This enigmatic player has all the talent in the World and there is no reason why he can't get hot for six games to help the Italians go far in this competition. This could be the perfect setting for Balotelli to really make a statement on the World stage, although he will need Andrea Pirlo's supply line to be working.


Predicted Finish: I wanted to oppose the Italians, but I think they sneak 2nd


Croatia


This will be seen as a chance for redemption for a Croatia team that failed to qualify for the World Cup in South Africa after a truly heartbreaking loss to Turkey in the Quarter Final of the 2008 European Championship.

It could be said that the national team has never got back to the heights that saw them knock out England before the Euro 2008 tournament and also finish above the eventual Runner Up, Germany, in the group stages of that event. In the Quarter Final, Croatia scored in the 119th minute, but conceded in the 123rd minute before being beaten on penalties.

They actually finished behind Greece to qualify for this event and had to earn revenge over Turkey in the Play Offs to reach this stage, but there hasn't been enough to suggest they are ready to beat one of the big nations like Spain or Italy in this group.

There are plenty of talented players in the Croatian team, but defensively they look suspect and I am not sure how their midfield will hold up against the Spanish or Italians and I don't know if they have enough about them to break down Ireland.

Croatia have to get off to a good start in their first game against Ireland if they are to have a real chance of getting through to the next stage, but it looks a tough ask.

Player to Watch: Luka Modric- Can Modric pull the strings and help create the chances needed against the tough midfields the Italians and Spanish will send out against them.


Predicted Finish: 4th


Ireland


It has been ten years since the Irish last graced a major international tournament and a lot of their fans will feel it has been a long time coming after the way they were put of the World Cup thanks to a Thierry Henry handball.


It is already an achievement for them to make it into the final 16 teams in Europe, but the draw has not been kind to them and while they are going to be tough and determined, I don't believe they have enough attacking options to cause either Spain or Italy too many problems.


Giovanni Trapattoni's experience will stand them in good stead and they have not lost to the Italians under his guidance, but they will need more than 3 draws if they have a real belief they can qualify for the Quarter Finals (and a potential match against England).


Ireland qualified by beating Estonia in the Play Offs, but they were only beaten once in a tough group along with Russia and Slovakia, while they were unbeaten in their games away from home. They will be well drilled as I said, but it looks too much for them to finish higher than third in this group.


Player to Watch: James McClean- The youngster has only 2 caps to his name but looked a real livewire for Sunderland in the Premier League and Ireland may need his goals from the wide areas to cause a surprise.


Predicted Finish: 3rd




Group D

Ukraine

As I said in my brief comments about Poland, the co-hosts are not guaranteed of making it through the group stages and I think the Ukraine look very vulnerable to falling victim to this stage.

Both France and England will provide tough tests for the hosts, while Sweden are no pushovers, so it looks like being a really tough ask for the Ukraine to find the four points that will likely be needed to get through to a Quarter Final.

Injuries had already taken their toll on the squad before the tournament began, while those in the squad have had to deal with a food poisoning crisis which should not affect them in their first match on Monday 11th June.

Friendly results have improved for the team in recent games, but there is no making up for competitive football and their first game against Sweden looks huge to dictate their chances of qualifying for the next stage. If the Ukraine are beaten in that game, I think they will already have one foot out of the door.

Player to Watch: Anatolli Tymoschuk- The Bayern Munich midfielder will need to lead by example from the midfield areas and protect the back four effectively if Ukraine are to qualify for the next stage.

Predicted Finish: 4th

England

This has been one of the worst build ups to an international tournament for England as long as I can remember and that has led to the least expectation for them at home. England didn't have a set captain or manager until a month ago and they will also be without their best player in Wayne Rooney for the first two games of the tournament.

Roy Hodgson is the man at the helm and he is sure to set his England team out to be hard to beat. The draw looks tough with Sweden having never lost a competitive game against them and France being one of the favourites for the tournament, while injuries to the likes of Frank Lampard and Gary Cahill will have troubled the fans... And that is not even talking about the controversy they courted by leaving out Rio Ferdinand for 'footballing reasons'.

Being solid won't be enough for England as far as I am concerned and they will have to find a win from somewhere. The hope for them will be they can get through the first two games with a chance to bring back Rooney and qualify for the Quarter Finals in their last game with the Ukraine.

However, I can't be excited by a squad that contains players like Jordan Henderson, Martin Kelly and Andy Carroll and I think they will have exceeded my expectations by getting out of the group.

England qualified comfortably enough for the tournament, but they had a number of inconsistent performances in a group that contained Montenegro, Switzerland, Wales and Bulgaria, while the friendlies haven't really excited anyone for their chances.

Player to Watch: Ashley Young- Can he provide and score enough goals to help England in the absence of Wayne Rooney in the floating role behind Andy Carroll in the first two games? If he can, England may just get into the Quarter Finals.

Predicted Finish: 3rd

France

It was an absolute shambles for the French team at the World Cup in South Africa with the low point being the strike organised by Patrice Evra as they made their way out of the tournament at the first hurdle. How things have changed since then!

Laurent Blanc came in as manager and has immediately stamped his authority on the team and they have been in very good form over the last 18 months which makes them one of the leading contenders to win the tournament as far as I am concerned.

However, there are some vulnerabilities in the side and it has to be remembered that it took a late penalty for them to finish above Bosnia in their qualifying group (Bosnia were subsequently thumped by Portugal). It is the friendly wins over the likes of Germany, England and both co-hosts of this event that would have excited their supporters and given them extra belief.

There are plenty of attacking talent in the side and they have very good young players in the squad and Les Bleus could be a serious threat to the likes of Germany and Spain in this tournament.

Player to Watch: Karim Benzema- France have a lot of talent in their squad, but I don't feel they have much behind Benzema so they will hope he can replicate the form shown for Real Madrid this season and fire France all the way.

Predicted Finish: 1st

Sweden

If any of the teams are going to help knock England out of the tournament at the group stage, Sweden are the ones alongside the French that should benefit. They qualified for the tournament without having the need for a Play Off despite finishing behind Holland and their win at home over the Dutch is impressive.

Sweden also have a fabulous record in competitive football against England and they look the kind of team that will cause the French and Ukraine problems with their brand of attacking football.

The biggest concern seems to be a defence that conceded 6 goals in two games against Holland in the qualifiers and they still have the ageing Olof Mellberg in the backline which is likely to cause some issues.

They do have goals in the side and that bodes well, but I have a feeling they will have to get a result against Ukraine to put themselves in good stead in the group, while they face England without Wayne Rooney and I think they have a chance to cause a surprise.

Player to Watch: Zlatan Ibrahimovic- He plays in his favoured deeper position for the Swedes and he may finally get the chance to impress the English people who have criticised him heavily for Champions League performances against English clubs.

Predicted Finish: 2nd




Outright Picks

With the way that I believe the tournament is going to pan out, I think the most likely Semi Finals are going to be France v Germany and Spain v Portugal.

I know a lot of people will be expecting to see the Germany-Spain rematch from four years ago, but both of those sides look vulnerable and instead I am going to put my interest in the two underdogs of those Semi Finals knowing one of them reaching the Final would bring in the profit.

I really like the France team and they could take a Germany side who have players that have played a lot of football this season. If France get to this stage, they will be confident and will draw on the knowledge that they have beaten the Germans albeit in a friendly recently.

Portugal look a stunning price despite not being the force of old. I think their price will come tumbling in if they do manage to get through a tough group and they have a special player in Cristiano Ronaldo that could win tight matches with a moment of magic. It will also likely be necessary for Nani to have a big tournament to complement the talent of Ronaldo and to ensure that defences are not cheating one way.

Spain beat Portugal 1-0 at the World Cup a couple of years ago, but they are missing enough important players for me to think Portugal could reverse that if they manage to get into that position.


The top scorer is always tough to pick and there is an element of looking at the team that you favour to go all the way- I am no different and I think Karim Benzema could be someone that goes very close to achieving this goal (pardon the pun).

As I said above, I don't think France have too much depth at this position so I would guess Benzema is going to start all of their games as the lone striker. He has had a brilliant season with Real Madrid and is looking the player that everyone in Europe expected him to be as he made his way through the ranks at Lyon.

Both Sweden and Ukraine have had defensive vulnerabilities that he could exploit, and he could be well on his way to this award before the Quarter Finals begin. It has needed 4 or 5 goals to win this prize in the last four tournaments, so he looks worth a chance considering I can see him having perhaps 3 in the bag by the end of the groups.

Another player I like at a bigger price is Lukas Podolski of Germany- he is a player that has regularly performed for the Germans at these big events since making his way into the team and he will be playing far enough forward to think he can be on the end of the chances that the team is likely to create.

Group B also looks like being a high scoring group so he may have plenty of chances to add to goals before the Semi Final, while Germany should face a pretty average opponent in the Quarter Finals if they get that far and he may have more chances to add to his goal tally.


Other options I will take are Russia to win Group A as they look to me to be by far and away the best team in the group and I figure they will get 7 points from their games which will be enough in my opinion to top the section and most likely avoid Germany in the next stage.

I will also take France to win Group D and Germany to win Group B and two of those coming off will produce a profit immediately.


MY OUTRIGHT PICKS: France to win Euro 2012 @ 11.00 Paddy Power (1 Unit E/W) E/W is 1/2 odds
Portugal to win Euro 2012 @ 21.00 Bet Fred (0.5 Units E/W) E/W is 1/2 odds
Karim Benzema Top Goalscorer @ 13.00 Paddy Power (1 Unit E/W) E/W is 1/4 odds
Lukas Podolski Top Goalscorer @ 34.00 Bet365 (1 Unit E/W) E/W is 1/4 odds
Russia to Win Group A @ 2.50 Pinnacle (2 Units)
Germany to Win Group B @ 2.30 Pinnacle (2 Units)
France to Win Group D @ 2.60 Pinnacle (2 Units)

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