Group B one of the toughest in European Championship history
Group Of Death consists of Germany, Netherlands, Portugal and Denmark
Poland and Russia expected to advance from a relatively easy Group A
Ireland also faces a tough draw with Spain, Italy and Croatia in Group C
As ever, with thedraw for the European Championship, the first thought is how many exciting ties there are in prospect in the group stage. Holland vs. Germany, Spain vs. Italy, France vs. England, Portugal's games against the Dutch and the Germans ... this is how tournament soccer ought to be; big games at every turn. The World Cup, ludicrously bloated as it now is, doesn't offer that sense of immediacy, of giants clashing from the off, and the fear must be that as the euros expand to 24 teams from 2016, it too will be diminished by the grind of small sides packing their half and seeking to frustrate opponents.
Group B, of course, is the most eye-catching. The average world ranking of teams in that group is 5.75, placing it second in the list of all-time toughest groups behind the Russia-Germany-Italy-Czech Republic quartet from Euro 96. In fact, given the perpetual inability of Russia to travel, and the fact that it ranking was partly drawn from the USSR's coefficient, it's fair to say this might be the toughest group there has ever been.
If seeding was based on recent form, it would probably be Germany who would be the seeds. It won 10 out of 10 in qualifying and, although it was surprisingly held to a 3-3 draw by Ukraine in the last round of friendlies it followed that up by beating Holland 3-0 with a mesmerizingly incisive performance. Of that game's front four of Miroslav Klose, Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil and Lukas Podolski, only Ozil is truly exceptional (although Muller may become so, and Mario Gomez is ahead of Klose in the pecking order), but as a quartet they are awesome; Germany is one of the very few national teams built on the system rather than the individual. The development of Toni Kroos from high promising prospect to top-class player also means Germany has cover in midfield.
The Dutch, of course, reached the final of the World Cup. The coach, Bert van Marwijk, has made a conscious effort to replace the physicality and cynicism that characterized its approach in South Africa with something more rooted in the traditions of the Dutch game, and did so successfully enough that Holland won its first nine qualifiers, losing to Sweden only after its place in the finals had been secured. The defeat to Germany, though, did expose the vulnerability at the back that the pragmatism of the World Cup disguised.
The temptation is to pity poor Denmark, which was excellent in qualifying and topped its group. Only history offers any comfort, given that Denmark overcame both Holland and Germany on its way to winning Euro 92. It also finished above Portugal in qualifying, winning 2-1 at home and losing 3-1 in Lisbon.
The suspicion anyway is that this Portugal side, riven by internal discontent that has led to both Jose Bosingwa and Ricardo Carvalho quitting the national side, is rather less than the sum of its parts.
Without a top-class center forward (still -- it's an area in which Portugal has been deficient since Eusebio retired) the goal threat comes almost entirely from wingers Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo, neither of whom do much in the way of tracking back. That leaves the opposing fullbacks with a dilemma: sit tight and try to snuff them out of the game; or tear past them and try to become an extra man in midfield, risking being caught out by long balls out to the flank. The preference of so many modern fullbacks for the latter probably explains why Portugal has been involved in so many high-scoring games recently.
If Group B didn't exist, Group C would probably be the one that had everybody reaching for the "Death" cliché. Having lost four friendlies in the past year, Spain is perhaps not quite so intimidating as it once was, but it remains tournament favorite with good reason. The constant travel necessitated by the Spanish federation's desire to cash in on being world champions has perhaps diminished the squad's hunger but should return at a major tournament. There is such strength in depth that if complacency does set in, there are ready replacements. There is perhaps a slight issue in the absence of a forward in form, which has prompted Vicente Del Bosque's experiments with strikerlessness formations, but it's possible Fernando Torres will have rediscovered his touch by next summer, and there is always Fernando Llorente to provide a muscular option if needed.
Italy, though, is one of the sides to beat Spain and a team which, historically, has always seemed to have psychological hold over the Spanish. Manager Cesare Prandelli has made the side much more fluent that they were in the World Cup, although the two forwards who played so well in the defeat of Spain are unlikely to be in Ukraine, Antonio Cassano having suffered a stroke and Giuseppe Rossi a serious knee injury.
Croatia is much improved over the past six months, and was awesome in dispatching Turkey in its playoff. The Republic of Ireland, meanwhile, having conceded just twice in its last 12 games, can be trusted to be solid and well-organized and may be inspired by facing Italy on the 18th anniversary of beating it in New York in the World Cup.
England, for the third time, faces France in its opening game of a major tournament. In 1982 it won 3-1 in Bilbao; in 2004 it conceded two late goals to lose 2-1 in Lisbon, and the worse precedent is that France have own four and drawn one of their last five meetings.
Sweden, meanwhile are unbeaten in seven meetings with England in tournaments, although it was beaten far more comfortably than the 1-0 score line suggested in a friendly at Wembley last month. Ukraine, having looked poor for months, flickered into life in drawing 3-3 with Germany last month, but unless it is inspired by home advantage, it should be France and England to progress.
Group A, meanwhile, looks like an invitation for the hosts, Poland, and Russia. It is by far the weakest of the four groups -- good news for whoever does make it out of Group B -- and there could hardly be a less inspiring opening game than Poland against Greece. Still Greece were on an unbeaten run of 17 games until losing to Romania in a friendly last month, and Russia have, occasionally, shown glimmers of being a very good side.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor of The Blizzard.
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