Euro 2012: 20 Players to Watch for at This Summer's Championships
They're not the World Cup—nothing can rival that competition for its splendor and unequivocal magnetism, after all—but the European Championships still showcase some sublime football.
That comes with the territory when so many of the world's greatest stars frequently feature in the tournament.
The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Andres Iniesta (Spain) and Wayne Rooney (who will miss England's first two games while serving a suspension) will all be present in Poland and Ukraine, but what makes the Euros so enticing is the prospect of unearthing new stars.
Ronaldo and Rooney both leapt onto the world's radar as talented teenagers at the 2004 championships in Portugal, after all. Four years later, Andrei Arshavin introduced himself while leading Russia on a superb run to the semifinals.
This summer's tournament promises more of the same. Here are 20 players who, while perhaps not boasting the notoriety of those aforementioned stars, may be well known by the time July rolls around.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, England
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His stats with Arsenal during the 2011-12 season—his first of Premier League football after completing a move from Southampton last August—don't jump out at you, but they don't come close to telling the whole story where Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is concerned.
Four goals and two assists in 26 appearances (all competitions) don't catch the eye, but it says an awful lot that Oxlade-Chamberlain made the England squad for the European Championships at just 18 years of age.
Roy Hodgson raved about the youngster's performance against AC Milan in Arsenal's 3-0 victory in the Round of 16 return leg at the Emirates, and many felt that that was the match that cemented his eventual inclusion in the England list of 23.
He plays on the wing for Arsenal, but many believe that his future will be in central midfield, where his tendency to roam, combined with his exquisite technical capacity and nose for goal, will make him a terrific asset.
Hodgson played Oxlade-Chamberlain in a central position in England's Saturday friendly against Norway—a likely indication of where he may see playing time at the Euros.
It's always risky to pin too many hopes on an unproven youngster (the Norway game was Oxlade-Chamberlain's first senior team cap), but with Wayne Rooney set to miss England's first two group-stage matches—because of a suspension stemming from an ill-timed tackle in the Three Lions' final qualifying match—England will need other players to step up to shoulder the attacking burden.
Oxlade-Chamberlain can do just that.
Christian Eriksen, Denmark
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It speaks to the young Eriksen's ability (he's 20) that he ranked third amongst 2011-12 Champions League performers for key passes, completing 3.0 per game in six matches with Ajax—a tally bested by only Danny (Zenit St. Petersburg) and Mesut Ozil (Real Madrid).
He will be tasked with pulling the creative strings for Denmark this summer. The task will not be an easy one—Denmark must navigate a treacherous group that includes Holland, Germany and Portugal—but Eriksen has the sort of transcendent talent that can turn a game on its head.
We've seen dynamic attacking midfielders, or trequartistas, thrive in recent international competitions (Wesley Sneijder and Diego Forlan were two of the best at World Cup 2010). Eriksen may just be ready to add his name to that list, after etching it onto the board for best passers in the recently completed campaign.
Ashley Young, England
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His goal—the first of the Roy Hodgson era for England—proved the only security the Three Lions would need in their nervy 1-0 victory over Norway last weekend, and Ashley Young was one of the brighter performers on the day.
He looks set to play as a secondary striker to Andy Carroll in the 4-4-2 Hodgson will use to start the group stages, a departure from the left wing position he operates in with Manchester United, and has the sort of individual ability, seen in his excellent solo effort, that could provide the difference for England.
Karim Benzema, France
Benzema was quoted in the May 28 print edition of L'Equipe as saying that the past three season's he's spent at Real Madrid and with the French national team have helped him to grow not only as a player, but also as an individual.
He's certainly entering a golden age in his career. At 24, Benzema is coming off a season with Madrid in which he tallied 32 goals and 15 assists in all competitions, helping lead these Galacticos to the league title for the first time since the 2007-08 season.
Benzema told L'Equipe in that May 28 interview that he feels he's become more powerful during his time in the Spanish capital and feels more assured in his first five or six meters with the ball. That much was on display on Sunday against Iceland, when the France No. 10 looked quite dangerous when he found himself on the ball.
He had one neat finish called back for offside and showed an adept capacity for linking up with his fellow attackers Jeremy Menez, Samir Nasri and Hatem ben Arfa (all four are renowned as the "Class of 1987" and were in the U-17 side that won gold at that level of the European Championships in 2004).
Former French international Emmanuel Petit, who was in the sides that won at World Cup '98 and Euro 2000, believes Benzema is primed for a breakout tournament.
"He's taken on another dimension. Last year, everyone thought he would leave (Madrid),'' Petit told the Associated Press. "What he's done is exceptional, when you think how much pressure is at Madrid. It's the mark of a great player."
Aiden McGeady, Ireland
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Just 26, McGeady has already made 46 appearances for Ireland, a span during which he has made the left midfield position of manager Giovanni Trappatoni's 4-4-2 his own.
He is not without his critics, however. For all his deft movement and sumptuous skill, many might have nodded their heads in agreement with former Irish international Roy Keane's appraisal of McGeady last weekend, when he said the winger "doesn't pull up trees and needs to do more."
McGeady responded with an excellent showing in Ireland's Saturday friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina, and along with James McLean and Damien Duff, he gives Trappatoni a number of excellent choices to play on the flanks at the Euros.
Robert Lewandowski, Poland
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Considering that Borussia Dortmund have captured the last two Bundesliga-winner's medals and claimed a domestic double this season, it's little wonder their players are popping up on many clubs' transfer lists.
Lewandoski is one of those talents.
Just 23, the Polish striker netted 22 league goals for Dortmund in 2011-12 and has three goals in his last seven appearances for the national team.
He'll come into the Euros high on confidence and will be expected to put in a good showing for the hosts. In an interview with UEFA.com, Lewandowkski professed to relishing the challenge, calling it a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Yohan Cabaye, France
Cabaye was quoted in L'Equipe's May 28 print edition following the Sunday friendly with Iceland as saying that he "feels good" on the field and is ready to assume a role in central midfield for France at the Euros.
Few players have seen their stock rise so rapidly in the past year. Cabaye was quite good in recent seasons with Ligue 1 side Lille, tallying 20 goals in his last two seasons with the club, but few expected him to adapt to the furious pace of the Premier League so quickly.
Cabaye ended with four goals and six assists in his first season with Newcastle, showing a terrific eye for the pass, as well as terrific technique from set pieces. There's no reason to think he won't build on that form this summer.
He's already off to a good start. L'Equipe gave Cabaye a six out of 10 for his performance against Iceland, which tied him with Mathieu Debuchy and Adil Rami for the highest in the French squad on the night.
Nelson Oliveira, Portugal
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He'll have to give up the No. 7 (pictured) he wore at last summer's U-21 European Championships, but rest assured that Nelson Oliveira will still make an impact for Portugal at the senior-level Euros this June.
Oliveira boasted an absurd 87.5 pass-completion rate with Benfica in last season's Champions League and has the type of pace and technical ability to change a game.
Just 20 years of age, Oliveira will likely start the tournament on the substitute's bench for Portugal, but he should expect to see some major minutes.
Claudio Marchisio, Italy
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No, he's not auditioning for the role of Bane in the upcoming summer blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises.
Claudio Marchisio will be much too busy playing with Italy at the European Championships to preoccupy himself with movies, although he is an avowed admirer of National Geographic documentaries.
The 26-year-old central midfielder enjoyed a superb campaign with Juventus, helping lead the Bianconeri to the Serie A title. Marchisio netted nine goals and chipped in four assists, while adapting with aplomb to manager Antonio Conte's 4-1-4-1 formation.
The Turin-born star is known affectionately as Il Principino (The Little Prince) in Italy, and has been tipped by former Juventus star Pavel Nedved to become "one of the best midfielders in the world."
Olivier Giroud, France
Like Cabaye, Giroud is a player who leapt onto the international scene this season on the strength of a terrific domestic campaign.
The Ligue 1 leading scorer for 2011-12 with 21 goals, the 25-year-old Montpellier forward only made his full debut for Les Bleus in late February against Germany. But as is his custom, Giroud quickly made up for lost time, scoring in that 2-1 France victory before earning a spot on manager Laurent Blanc's 23-man roster for the Euros.
Brought on as a 59th minute substitute in Sunday's friendly against Iceland, it took Giroud some time to get into the match, but he ended up as one of France's best players on the night.
Giroud provided the two assists (to Franck Ribery and Adil Rami, respectively) that vaulted France into the ascendancy in that Iceland match, which they would win 3-2. He completed all five of the passes he attempted.
It was a terrific showing from the striker, who has now given Blanc plenty to think about as he sets his lineups for the Euros.
There is a strong likelihood that Blanc will experiment pairing Giroud with Benzema in France's next friendly against Serbia on Thursday. Giroud is ready to "bring something different" to the French attack, and seconded Blanc's appraisal of him as an "atypical striker."
Given France's well-documented struggles in their last two appearances in major championships (they managed only a combined two points from Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010), something a little out of the ordinary may just be what's needed to get them back on track.
Mario Gotze, Germany
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At 19, Gotze is the youngest player in Germany's squad for the European Championships. But considering that he already has two Bundesliga titles to his name, Gotze's certainly not lacking for experience.
He's been shunted about the midfield positions by German coach Joachim Low, most recently playing alongside Sami Khedira as a holding midfielder in the friendly against Switzerland over the weekend.
But Gotze is at his best getting forward, as his average of 3.5 dribbles a game—fourth best in the Bundesliga last season—attests to, and he will be looking to do just that for Germany this summer.
Raul Meireles, Portugal
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He seems to sport a new hairdo every month, but for all his personal hijinks Raul Meireles is a very talented holding midfielder.
He's been a regular with the Portugese national side since his FC Porto days and will be counted upon to man the middle of the park this summer.
With a powerful shot and superb technique, Meireles is quite rightly considered one of the better midfielders in the Premier League. He's also quite adept at pushing forward on the counter-attack, a trait that was seen this past Champions League campaign with Chelsea.
Jesus Navas, Spain
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Both Navas and his Sevilla teammate Alvaro Negredo are expected to transfer their superb club form in 2011-12 to the upcoming European Championships.
Navas was in the World Cup squad that traveled to South Africa and has the pace and trickery to earn some serious minutes on the wings.
Negredo as well could play a key role for Spain. He was very positive in the May 26 friendly with Serbia and will be looking to continue his fine run of goalscoring form (he tallied 14 league goals last season).
Shane Long, Ireland
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Robbie Kean isn't getting any younger, and Kevin Doyle is coming off a disappointing season with Wolves.
That means that the time is ripe for West Bromwich Albion striker Shane Long to steal the show for Ireland at the Euros.
He's certainly off to a good start. Long scored the lone headed goal in Ireland's 1-0 victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina last Saturday and saw another header cleared off the line.
It's that type of aerial prowess and grit, usually seen from Doyle, that could earn Long some major minutes in Poland and Ukraine.
Alan Dzagoev, Russia
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Manchester United fans will remember him as one of the scorers for CSKA Moscow in a shocking 3-3 tie at Old Trafford back in the 2009-10 Champions League.
Still only 21, Dzagoev is set to star for Russia this summer as he takes part in his first major tournament sporting the national colors.
He's known as a technically talented midfielder and will likely pair Andrei Arshavin in the middle of the park. Like the Arsenal midfielder, Dzagoev will be expected to bear the brunt of the creative responsibility for Russia.
Toni Kroos, Germany
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He's best known for the howitzer of a right boot he unleashes upon opponents in and around the penalty area, but Toni Kroos rarely gets the acclaim he deserves at club level.
Then again, that's difficult when you're frequently selected in a midfield that boasts the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben.
Kroos was named to the 2010 World Cup squad that so bedazzled viewers on its swashbuckling run to the semifinals. He played a peripheral role then, but expect him to be a starter in midfield this time around.
He will be battling with Mario Gotze for playing time.
Johan Elmander, Sweden
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Sweden received a major boost when Johan Elmander was pronounced fit ahead of their June 11 opener with co-hosts Ukraine.
The Galatasaray hitman, who scored 12 goals in 36 appearances this season, was nursing a foot injury he'd suffered in the latter stages of the Turkish campaign, but it appears he's made enough of a recovery to play a key role for the Swedes.
While Elmander often finds himself in teammate and international superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic's shadow, he is a very adept striker known for his nose for goal.
If Sweden are to progress out of a group that includes France and England, they'll need Elmander at his best.
Wesley Sneijder, Netherlands
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Sneijder's dip in form at Inter following that superb 2009-10 season, when he cemented himself as one of the premier attacking talents in world football, has been attributed to any number of reasons.
But perhaps the most convincing is the coaching change that followed Inter's historic treble in 2010. Jose Mourinho had brought Sneijder to Milan, and the Dutch midfielder repaid that faith by calling Mourinho "the best coach in the world."
Sneijder attributed Mourinho's success to an ability to glean the best out of his players, saying that the confidence he instills in his sides is truly remarkable.
The No. 10 for both club and country has looked shorn of that confidence ever since the Portuguese tactician packed his bags for Madrid, and he has failed to replicate his scintillating form.
At his best when allowed to roam behind one or two strikers, Sneijder often picks up his play while with the national side. That much was on display on Saturday, when he provided an inch-perfect lofted pass over the Bulgarian defense for Robin van Persie, who coolly finished to open the scoring for the Netherlands.
Fernando Torres, Spain
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Like Sneijder, Torres will be looking to salvage his former stardom at the European Championships.
The toast of the English game in the 2007-08 season, when he'd starred for Liverpool, Torres had continued his trailblazing in Austria and Switzerland, scoring the winner in the final against Germany.
But that Torres has not been on display for years now. We saw glimpses of his former predatory self in the final portions of the Chelsea season—that Roberto di Matteo was named manager during that time is no coincidence—and while Torres did not start in the Champions League final on May 19, his industry down the flanks led to the decisive corner kick that would see Didier Drogba head home the equalizing goal and force the game into penalty kicks.
Torres, like Adrian, will be battling with Fernando Llorente for the forward position in Spain's midfield-heavy 4-5-1. He was a late addition to Vincente del Bosque's side, but considering his uptick in form these past few weeks, he may just be primed for a comeback.
Andrei Arshavin, Russia
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Arshavin could rightfully say that, along with Fernando Torres, he was one of the best players at Euro 2008.
The creative dynamo's superb form keyed Russia's surprise run to the semifinals, but like Torres, he has seen his performance dip precariously since that stirring competition.
A loan deal with former club Zenit St. Petersburg helped the Arsenal man rediscover some of that lost confidence—he scored four goals after joining in late February and helped lead Zenit to the league title—and he will now be called upon to replicate that form in Poland and Ukraine.
Arshavin has been the Russian captain for years now and has enjoyed some of his finer displays of recent memory with the national side, where he is allowed to operate as a central attacking midfielder or support striker—a striking difference to his positioning with Arsenal, where he's often used as a winger.