Euro 2012 – the draw dissected
Much will be written and said before next June, and much is yet to happen – knees will twist, hamstrings will tear, metatarsals will fracture, squads will be picked. Having said that, the temptation to comment and judge the draw for Euro 2012 is too great at the moment:
Group A – Poland, Greece, Russia, Czech Republic
Instantly judged by most observers as the “boring” or “crap” group, I’m actually quite looking forward to this, because at least one team that otherwise wasn’t expecting to make it into the quarter-finals will now progress. Beneath a superficial tension between the Russians and their former Soviet satellite states, there are a number of story lines waiting to be written. Could the co-hosts, the lowest ranked team in the competition, make it through? Can Dick Advocaat’s Russia live up to the “dark horses” billing once again, as they did in Euro 2008? Can a Czech side with a mixed bag of youth and experience, led by Petr Cech, Milan Baros and Tomas Rosicky, erase the memories of the last 2 major tournaments or once again leave early? And can Greece continue their impressive unbeaten run in this tournament and fly under the radar again?
It’s a fascinating combination of teams, and although both sides who go through will most likely have to face one of the favourites, whoever comes out of this group could go on to be the surprise package of the tournament. I still fancy Greece as a sneaky outside bet for the title again. After all, they’ve done it before…
Group B – Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Portugal
People have already decided this is the clichéd “group of death”, but I don’t buy that. Granted, it has two of the three favourites in it, and also the two favourites who absolutely despise each other. It’ll be an interesting spectacle, that. But beyond that, I’m not convinced either Denmark or Portugal pose much of a threat. Portugal struggled to get through their group, and their play-off encounter against Bosnia-Herzegovina didn’t fall their way until the second half of the second leg. Cristiano Ronaldo can’t do it on his own. They were lucky in 2010 to get an Ivory Coast side lacking in fire power and the minnows of North Korea, but I think they’ll be exposed this time. And Denmark are Denmark – eternally average at the major tournaments.
The problem with “groups of death” is they inevitably don’t live up to the billing, and become damp squibs. One that I remember particularly well is Group D at Euro 2000, also containing Denmark and the Dutch, as well as two of the best teams in Europe at the time, the Czechs and the French. In the event, it was a procession, and the final encounter between the Netherlands and France saw Les Bleus able to effectively put out a reserve team. It’s unlikely to be this way this time, because Germany vs Netherlands is the second game, not the last one, but I can’t see too many surprises there.
Group C – Spain, Italy, Republic of Ireland, Croatia
This, however, is the real “group of death”, and not just because we’ll all be bored to death by all the passing. First, you’ve got Spain, the “best team in the world”, reigning European and World Champions, but also a team that doesn’t look as invincible as it once did, especially when up against strong organised defensive sides. They are up against 3 strong organised defensive sides. Spain vs Italy is not going to be so much a clash of cultures, as I see Spain having more in common with Italy than flair sides like Brazil, but if there’s one team who you think would be good at parking the bus, it’s the Italians. Then it’s Spain vs Ireland, a side that frustrated the German side that got to the final in 2002, who will give it absolutely everything. And finally it’s Spain vs Croatia, a difficult side to beat under the tactically astute Slaven Bilic.
To me, it is perfectly plausible that Spain, at the very least, don’t top the group. These three will frustrate them, especially as a number of teams have now demonstrated this is the way to stop them. No European nation has ever won 2 consecutive Euros, let alone with a World Cup in between. Add in a burning sense of overconfidence in recent months in the red camp and you’re looking a team that is at risk of swallowing itself whole. The late 90s/early 2000s France team should serve as a warning – they seemed unbeatable too, but then crashed out in the groups in 2002. If they’re going to come unstuck, it may well be here. I still fancy them to make it through – you have to. In fact, other results may well work in their favour, as in the World Cup after the defeat to Switzerland. But don’t start engraving their name on the trophy as many would love to do already, by any means.
Group D – Ukraine, Sweden, France, England
No disrespect to the co-hosts and the Scandinavians, but England and France are the focal points of this group, and in particular the first match in the group between them. This of course is a repeat of Euro 2004, when France came from behind with two late Zinedine Zidane goals as Sven’s England collapsed under the pressure of trying to hold on to a 1-0 lead. The interesting feature of this is that these are arguably the two teams who had the worst 2010 World Cups in relation to expectations, so there’s a decent chance that at least one of them will make a triumphant return, and also that one of them will flop again.
So, given that France are now unbeaten in 17 matches, you’d think that they are the most likely to be the former. As for England, it’s a tough draw, tougher than it looks – if people are going around saying it’s easy, they’re once again falling into the trap of underestimating their opponents, as in 2010, or 2008, or 2000, and so on. After all, England usually do best when the chips are down and expectations are low, and this superficially easy group is just the sort of trap they usually fall into. Take a look at the records against said teams – they lost to France in 2004, they’ve failed to beat Sweden at major tournaments every single time, Ukraine beat them as recently as 2009 in the World Cup qualifiers, and England haven’t beaten the hosts at a major tournament since a 2-0 win over Switzerland in 1954, which includes a defeat to Sweden in 92, as well as losing to Italy in 1980 and Portugal in 2004. Plus the England team base is 540 and 930 miles from the cities they will be playing in, and Rooney is of course suspended for all 3 group stage matches. It’s exactly the group they usually fail in. You might as well start planning the FA enquiry already, Sir Trev.
And even if England do get through, they are virtually guaranteed a tough quarter-final draw. Group D is partnered with Group C for this round, meaning if England, as most rational observers would probably predict, finish 2nd in their group, they are most likely to be drawn against Spain, or if not, Italy or Croatia. Even if they win the group, they’re probably going to get one of those. And then even if they somehow win that match, they’ll either face the winners of Group A or, most likely, Germany or the Netherlands from Group B. If England are going to win this tournament – which they aren’t, obviously – they’re going to need to beat the best to even get to the final. That’s what makes the Euros such a tough competition.
Anyway, moving away from a team that isn’t going to win to some that might, it is set up quite nicely for the knockout stages. A hiccup for Spain or France in the group stages could see them play each other, as they did in 2006 when Zidane inspired the French to a shock win. But if France do get through on top of the group, they may well end up facing one of the teams they had to beat in at crucial stages in 1998, Italy or Croatia, which, to be fair, isn’t too bad a draw for a team in form. They are definitely worth considering for this title.
Either way, a semi-final line-up of Spain and France each playing one of Germany and the Netherlands looks the most likely. Having said that, 1) this was pretty likely anyway because of the constricted nature of the 16 team Euro system (roll on 2016), 2) Italy, Russia and Greece should not be sniffed at, and 3) there are always shocks at international tournaments and it never goes the way you expect, so I’ll be amazed if that is the line-up come 27th June. By then, I’ll be in the US and A, so hopefully I’ll avoid most of the public and media angst after England go out in the groups or the quarters yet again…