Euro 2012 Preview: 5 Players That Can Lead Their Countries to Euro 2012 Glory
It may not draw the international attention of the World Cup or have the glamour of the Champions League, but there's no doubting the excitement and spectacle that is UEFA's European Football Championship.
Euro 2012 is set to kick off in Poland and Ukraine next Friday, June 8.
The groups are set, and before the knockout rounds even begin, we are in for some high-profile group stage clashes between some of Europe's most storied countries and revered superstars.
Here's how the groups look, with must-see matches and predictions:
Must-see match: Russia vs. Czech Republic, June 8, National Stadium, Warsaw
Prediction: Czech Republic and Russia to progress.
There's one in every tournament. Group B can easily claim to be the "group of death," containing the likes of the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, and Portugal. There are more superstars on the teams in this group than can be counted on two hands.
It's not easy picking just two countries to advance from this group, but it's clear that it wouldn't be smart to put your money on Denmark.
Must-see match: Germany vs. Portugal, June 9, Arena Lviv, Lviv
Prediction: Put Germany, Portugal, and Netherlands into a hat. Pick two.
Group C contains holders Spain, Italy, Ireland and Croatia. Though it appears that Spain and Italy are the clear favorites to advance, look for an upset or two and don't count out Croatia just yet. Ireland too will not go down without a fight.
It goes without saying that a group containing Spain and Italy will contain plenty of stars to watch.
Must-see match: Spain vs. Italy, June 10, PGE Arena, Gdańsk
Prediction: Spain and Italy advance with Croatia putting up a valiant effort.
Though Group B is the clear "group of death," Group D will be the most competitive at this year's tournament. It contains co-host Ukraine, Sweden, France and chronic international underachievers England. Host countries rarely become doormats, and England are notorious for choking at the international level. This brings a nice balance to what I believe will be the most exciting group to watch.
Group D also possesses plenty of star power on England, France and even Sweden.
Must-see match: France vs. England, June 11, Donbass Arena, Donetsk
Prediction: England choke as usual, France and Sweden advance.
We are blessed as football fanatics with a plethora of superstars on display in Europe today. To see them pitted against one another with their respective countries will be fascinating, especially considering many of them play together for the same clubs.
Here are five players that can lead their teams to Euro 2012 glory.
Zlatan Ibrahimović, Sweden
Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimović had a productive season with AC Milan.
Zlatan Ibrahimović, or Ibra, as he is known by his affectionate supporters, is one of the most polarizing figures in European football today. His talents are mercurial, but his inflated ego and perceived selfishness prevents him from earning the respect he deserves.
As captain of Sweden, the AC Milan striker will need to have a productive tournament if his team are to advance from a daunting group containing France and England.
Towering above all but the very tallest center backs, Ibra stands 6'5" tall.
While his height and considerable strength are assets any striker would love to possess, Ibrahimović is not your average target man.
His ball control and dribbling abilities are astonishing for a player of his size. Ibrahimović is truly the complete striker—he can dribble, create chances for teammates, hold off defenders and score from long-range.
In all competitions with Milan this season, he scored 36 goals (28 in Serie A) and added 12 assists, proving that he can create plays as well as score. With goals against Arsenal and Barcelona in this year's Champions League, he is challenging his reputation as a big-game flop.
Assuming his Sweden teammates can provide Ibrahimović with adequate service, there's no reason Sweden can't advance past the group stage.
Robin Van Persie, Netherlands
Robin Van Persie led Arsenal to a third-place finish in the Barclay's Premier League this season with 30 goals and 9 assists.
The Netherlands' plethora of superstars makes it difficult to choose a single player to highlight from their talented roster.
The Oranje barely lost out on the 2010 World Cup trophy, losing the final in extra time 1-0 to Spain. But this squad is more than capable of avenging their defeat to Spain at Euro 2012.
Unfortunately, they find themselves in Group B, the most difficult of the four to advance from. In order to progress from the group stage, the Netherlands will look to its star striker, Robin Van Persie, to come up with the goods in Poland and Ukraine.
His goal tally this season helped Arsenal to a third-place finish, behind the Manchester clubs, after Arsenal struggled early in the season.
Van Persie is also a complete modern striker. The left-footed star is a deadly finisher, with a propensity for scoring some truly beautiful goals, and can baffle defenders with his tight ball control and dribbling abilities. He also has that knack for creating game-changing chances, which is a critical X-factor for any team with title aspirations.
Group B won't be easy to get out of, especially with the offensive powerhouses of Germany and Portugal to compete with. It will Van Persie's leadership up front that will be the deciding factor in whether the Oranje have success at Euro 2012 glory.
Antonio Cassano, Italy
Antonio Cassano has matured greatly the last two seasons.
Ibra isn't the only controversial figure from AC Milan to make this list.
Antonio Cassano has pretty much always been known as a locker room liability. There was no doubting the Italian's football intelligence, creativity or ability to change games in a single moment, but ultimately his volatility and lack of maturity hindered his career. Europe's top clubs (he has played for Roma and Real Madrid) gave up on the talent of Fantantonio—he was too much of a liability.
That was until January 2011, when AC Milan took a chance on the striker, attaining him from Sampdoria, where he had enjoyed some stability in his career. Milan's gamble paid off.
In his first season with Milan (from January-May), Cassano scored four goals and had six assists, many of which were decisive in Milan's 2010-11 Scudetto success. His chemistry with Ibrahimović was immediate, and earned him a starting role on the national side.
Due to his life-threatening injury last season, Cassano only featured 19 times for AC Milan, but he put up some impressive numbers. He had four goals and 10 assists.
Since the departure of Francesco Totti after the 2006 World Cup triumph, the Italy squad has lacked a playmaker up front. Sure, they have Andrea Pirlo, but he plays much deeper in the midfield and is hardly an attacking midfielder. Cassano's maturity and creative play has been instrumental in Italy's qualifying campaign for Euro 2012. He will be Prandelli's first-choice striker at Euro 2012. It remains to be seen who will start alongside Cassano up front for Italy, the most likely options being Mario Balotelli and Antonio Di Natale.
If Cassano can muster the kind of performances necessary to keep Italy's offense flowing with his passing and creativity, Italy should be able to fight for the final prize in Poland and Ukraine, something they haven't won since 1968.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
Cristiano Ronaldo scored 60 goals in all competitions this season with Real Madrid.
Regardless, it's hard to argue that Ronaldo isn't the best player at Euro 2012.
With Real Madrid this season, the superstar scored an incredible 60 (yes, 60) goals this season in 55 appearances. He also chipped in with 15 assists.
That's an average of more than a goal scored per game and about one assist per four games.
His individual statistics are hard to argue with, but there is a reality at hand that cannot be overlooked.
Portugal have not reached their on-paper potential that their talented rosters have possessed in recent years. Though the squad also contains stars Nani, Pepe and Fábio Coentrão, Portugal have yet to capitalize on the supreme talents of its rosters in recent years, and this largely comes down to Portugal's team chemistry.
Ronaldo mustn't try to do everything himself, something he has been guilty of in years past. His maturity has improved over the last two seasons, but still, he must utilize the teammates at his disposal if Portugal are to have any chance of progressing from Group B alongside Germany or Netherlands (sorry Denmark, it ain't happening).
As the best player at Euro 2012, and with no Messi to be spoken for, the time is now for Cristiano Ronaldo to bring his ethereal club form to the international level. If he does so, Portugal are more than capable of lifting the trophy in Kiev.
Who's to say Portugal's success wouldn't result in Ronaldo winning the Ballon D'Or over Messi this year?
Mesut Özil, Germany
Özil scored 4 goals and 17 assists in La Liga in the 2011-12 season.
Despite his young age, Mesut Özil was a force to be reckoned with in the 2010 World Cup. Still relatively unknown then, his performances in midfield pushed Germany to the semifinals.
In the last two years, the Real Madrid star has established himself as one of Europe's best attacking midfielders. His link-up play with Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuaín and Karim Benzema at times seems telepathic.
In each of his first two seasons with Real Madrid, Özil contributed a whopping 17 assists in La Liga. He also scored at least four goals in both seasons.
Özil's play has literally changed Germany.
In the past, Germany was known for playing physical, tactically-disciplined football. Özil's emergence as a top European talent has allowed Germany to adopt a more free-flowing, attacking style of play that is not only effective, but highly entertaining to watch.
Germany's success at Euro 2012 rests on how well Özil can pull the strings in midfield. If he can create chances for his teammates and chip in with a goal or two, Germany should emerge as the victors of the talent-packed Group B.
Iker Casillas captained Spain to glory in Euro 2008.
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Fernando Torres, Spain
Without David Villa, Spain will rely on Fernando Torres to carry the scoring load.
Iker Casillas, Spain
The Real Madrid goalkeeper, arguably the best in the world, captained Spain to glory in Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup.
Arjen Robben, Netherlands
The explosive winger will have to be at his best to get out of Group B.
Gianluigi Buffon, Italy
After a strong season between the posts with Juventus, Buffon will anchor Italy's back line.
Yann M'Vila, France
After suffering an anklesprain last week, France will hope their young midfielder will be fit.
Luca Modric, Croatia
The influential Tottenham midfielder could be the difference-maker in sending either Spain or Italy home early from Group C.
Peter Cech, Czech Republic
Cech had a spectacular season with Chelsea, and was influential in their Champions League success this year.