Three group matches and three knockout games must be negotiated before one team can be crowned European champions ... which side have the gilded path?
By Peter Staunton
The strength of the European Championship field is irrefutable. The top 15 ranked teams on the continent are joined by co-hosts Poland at the 2012 games in a tournament that is traditionally tougher to win than the World Cup. Even if the group stage draw has produced pools at varying ends of the attractiveness spectrum there will be no hiding place once the quarter-finals begin. Sifting through the reactions from various competing players and coaches in the wake of the Kiev draw, the prevailing sentiment that emerges is in order to win the tournament you must beat the best teams. Some sides will face the first phase of that process a little more fortuitously than others, but not by much. What you gain the group stages, you lose in the knockouts.
Below is a ranking, from 1 to 16, of how happy each team should be with the luck of the draw for the task that awaits them in the group phase.
International tournaments display a pattern of manufacturing a group which lacks the lustre of the other sections. Group A is such a section this time around. Russia will be the favourites to progress from the pool containing Poland, Greece and Czech Republic. Dick Advocaat's side did not impress wholly through the qualification phase but they ground out results. Should they do the expected and win the section, they will face the runners-up of the Group of Death.
On first inspection it would seem the defending champions have been placed in a tough group, owing to the presence of Italy, Croatia and the Republic of Ireland. But the current World Cup holders must countenance the Group C draw as overwhelming favourites. Both Croatia and Ireland failed to qualify automatically and had to come through the play-offs while Italy, despite their admitted promise, remain an unknown quantity at tournament level under Cesare Prandelli. Spain's tournament pedigree is unquestionable; they will seek nine points from nine.
Logistically speaking, the English have not covered themselves in glory ahead of the tournament proper. Fabio Capello has decreed that the side will be based in Poland and they now face trips up to 1000km to complete their group stage obligations. Nonetheless, England will be reasonably happy with their lot. France will provide the biggest test but Sweden cannot be ruled out as a rival either. Hosts Ukraine round off the group but England will be expecting to win at least two of their matches to escape Group D.
Hugely impressive in qualifying, the Italians take a place alongside Spain, Croatia and Ireland in a Poland-based Group C. Matchday one sees Cesare Prandelli's side square off against the world champions but after rediscovering their defensive doughtiness, as well as a friendly win over the Spanish, Italy have nothing to fear. And let's face it, they can't do any worse than they did at the 2010 World Cup. Prandelli has turned the Italians around and made the national team a source of pride again.
Like the Italy coach, Laurent Blanc has transformed les Bleus from a fractured, unhappy camp into a side which can count themselves among the favourites for the competition. A friendly win at Wembley a year ago will have shown that there is no need for a sense of inadequacy when facing England, whom they beat in the game of the tournament at Euro 2004. Ukraine and Sweden will be no pushovers but as a fourth-ranked side, France could have fared a lot worse.
Things could have been a lot worse for the Greeks too. They have succeeded in drawing the weakest top seeds in the shape of Poland as well as the next-lowest ranked nation in the Fifa Ranking - Czech Republic. The latest installment of this Greece team, under Fernando Santos, defied expectations and qualified well. They should be optimistic of taking something from all opponents and taking their place in the last eight. From there, as they proved in 2004, anything can happen.
They may have been drawn in the Group of Death with the Netherlands, Portugal and Denmark but Germany are among the favourites for the title for good reason. A hugely talented group of emerging players under coach Joachim Low, the Germans recently overwhelmed the Dutch in a high-profile friendly. That can act as a useful indicator, and nothing more, of current levels but the Netherlands are likely to be the sternest competition for a knockout berth. If they come through that encounter unscathed, on matchday two, they will be reasonably optimistic of a quarter-finals spot.
There was widespread relief in the co-hosts camp that they managed to avoid any of the renowned favourites in their Euro 2012 group. Instead they will tussle with Russia, Greece and the Czechs. Poland, on current ranking, are far and away the weakest team in the competition but should not consider themselves inferior, in tournament conditions on home soil, to their adversaries.
The co-hosts will be hoping for an early tournament bounce and an early three points against Sweden on matchday one. Furthermore, if England and France draw their initial encounter then Oleg Blokhin's side will be all of a sudden frontrunners. There has been a tendency to underestimate the Ukrainians of late, owing to their lack of competitive football. Recent friendly results have been encouraging and the side features some promising talent ready to come of age on the international stage.
A 3-0 reverse in Hamburg against Germany would have smarted for Bert van Marwijk's side but their qualification form has been close to imperious. Justifiably ranked as the world's second-best team, the Dutch were even briefly top of the Fifa Ranking for a spell earlier this year. Much like Germany, the Oranje are to be considered among the favourites and, therefore, must be able to beat the likes of Portugal and Denmark in order to reach the latter stages.
Group A may be ostensibly short on quality but that means that each side within the section have a reasonable shout of coming through the initial stages. The Czechs came through the play-offs and, although Michal Bilek's side are not as strong as previous incarnations of Czech squads of the past, there is enough quality to surmount, at least, Poland. That game comes on the final matchday and could well be a showdown for a quarter-final spot.
Slaven Bilic's side emerged on the world scene at the last European Championship but saw their swift progress curtailed by failing to qualify for the World Cup two years later. Nonetheless, they have come through a play-off assignment against Turkey convincingly and will play Spain, Italy and Ireland in the tournament finals. They are undefeated against Italy since independence and will surely relish the opportunity to defeat Ireland in order to place themselves among the challengers for a last eight place.
The Danes are not the type of team to shirk a challenge and care not for reputation or stature but even Morten Olsen would readily acknowledge the enormity of their task in attempting to escape Group B. They face two of the world's top three teams, on the first and third matchdays, with Portugal sandwiched in between. They outrank the Portuguese by virtue of their recent superiority in the qualification shootout.
Described by the coach Erik Hamren as 'clearly the underdogs' Sweden will be up against it once the tournament kicks off against Ukraine. England and France will both view the tie against Sweden as a winnable game even if England haven't defeated them in a competitive fixture in some 40 years. Nonetheless, facing a host is never an enticing prospect and the Swedes will need to avoid defeat in the opening game to stand any chance of progress.
||Republic of Ireland
The draw showed no mercy to Giovanni Trapattoni's side. After negotiating the qualification hurdle they have been pooled together with three of the world's top 10 sides. The Irish are capable of frustrating any rank of opponent but in a group of such quality the difference between one point and three, in any encounter, is unquantifiable. Furthermore, Ireland have not beaten a side ranked above them in the Fifa Ranking in a competitive fixture in 10 years. The Boys in Green must cause at least one upset in order to progress.
Despite the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese will not relish the group into which they've been drawn. Under pressure from the outset they will face Germany in the first phase before an encounter with Denmark that will be crucial for either side to progress. The Danes will fancy their chances after having beaten Portugal in their recent qualifier which determined the automatic place at the finals. Paulo Bento's defensive problems are well-known and, against a free-scoring Netherlands and Germany, the 2004 finalists may struggle to keep out the goals.
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