The final group in Euro 2012 is a nightmare to call. France head to Eastern Europe hoping to shake off the lingering memories of a disastrous trip to South Africa in 2010. While England and Ukraine have been beset by late withdrawals and with Sweden hoping to capitalize on the fallout, all the ingredients are in place for a memorable grouping.
Group D Rankings
Ukraine (FIFA: 50/UEFA: 28)
England (FIFA: 7/UEFA: 5)
France (FIFA: 16/UEFA: 11)
Sweden (FIFA: 17/UEFA: 12)
Ukraine (28) will be rank outsiders to make the quarterfinals of Euro 2012. They are up against it right from the start, and once again this is something of a group of death.
Oleg Blokhin has his work cut out for him if his team are to progress. Blokhin, the first Ukrainian to win the Ballon D'or in 1975, has had something of a nightmare preparation as a number of important players have had to pull out through injury.
No less than three goalkeepers, perhaps expecting to be busy, have been ruled out while former Barcelona defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy has also had to remove himself from the squad.
Losing his two most important defensive players, Chygrynskiy and keeper Oleksandr Shovkovsky, will not have done morale any good, and now Ukraine are more reliant in outscoring their opponents than in nicking tight games. And when you look at the likes of Andriy Shevchenko still hanging around up front, at 35, it does not bode well.
Having taken over under a storm cloud following Fabio Capello's shock resignation, Roy Hodgson brings his England (5) charges into Euro 2012 with the media, for once, expecting very little return from the battle-damaged squad.
Star striker Wayne Rooney is suspended for the first two games, Rio Ferdinand has been left behind for football reasons, Michael Carrick has ruled himself out because he doesn't want to be a squad player and Gareth Barry, Frank Lampard and Gary Cahill have all been ruled out through injury.
It is safe to say that preparation could have gone better for Roy.
With a distinct lack of top-class strikers at his disposal, Hodgson, a fervent 4-4-2 man, has had to move away from his favoured formation and has gone with a 4-2-3-1 instead.
And given the players the ex-West Brom man has at his disposal, this might be their best route through the group.
Andy Carroll is expected to fill in for Rooney, and with the rest of the team really picking itself it only leaves the question as to where to deploy Steven Gerrard, behind the striker or in deep midfield.
Under Laurent Blanc, France (11) are unbeaten in their last 20 matches. This is made all the more impressive when you consider that during that run they have beaten England, Brazil, Ukraine comfortably and Germany.
Midfield and attack is where Les Bleus are strongest, with Blanc using a fluid 4-2-3-1 to get the very best out of the wide array of attacking talent he has at his disposal.
Yann M'vila is the latest central midfield star to learn an apprenticeship at Clarefontain, and he is ably supported by Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri, Florent Malouda, Yoann Cabaye, Jeremy Menez and Karim Benzema.
Despite being free-scoring and having only conceded nine goals in Blanc's 21-game reign, central defence is a vulnerable area with the likes of Roma's Philippe Mexes and Valencia's Adil Rami holding off Arsenal's haphazard Laurent Koscielny from the starting XI. And following the withdrawal of Bacary Sagna, the right full-back could yet prove to be a problem.
Having said all that, France should have more than enough firepower to see them progress.
Sweden (12) comes into Euro 2012 as the dark horses in Group D. They have always been a hard side to play against, and that has not changed under Erik Hamren, although the tactics have.
With Lars Lagerback in charge, Sweden were always a hard-working 4-4-2 team, now Hamren has moved toward a 4-2-3-1 that often sees star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic drop into the hole behind the main striker to devastating effect.
Sweden now plays with far more abandon under Hamren, and it is not unusual to see their two full-backs bomb on to support midfield. The ex-Aalborg manager has solved the Ibrahimovic being isolated up front problem by dropping his star into midfield, and he now plays ex-Bolton star Johan Elmander instead.
They are still physically powerful, built upon a steady defence and rely on set-pieces, but with Ibra now dropping off and being given cart-blanche to go wherever he likes, they are more creative than ever.
It will take England and Sweden to suddenly click to deny France a place in the quarterfinals, and if Le Bleus win the group as expected they could really find a route to the semifinals before anyone knows what is happening.
The French are the best side in what looks like a weak group, but England, while often overestimated, are never to be underestimated, and Sweden are more than capable of causing huge problems for Blanc and co.
Ukraine are probably the worst team in the competition—especially when you consider the injury situation for Blokhin—so second place will be fought out between Sweden, who offer exceptional value at 9/5 to qualify, and England, so the match on June 15 takes on even more meaning.
Add in the minor factor of Sweden only having to travel by bus for 90 miles during the entire group stage while England travel for 3,400 by plane, and you find that extra fatigue could be a deciding factor.
Given the recent form and troubles, the head has to choose the Swedes over their English cousins, but the heart says England will win through.
Winners: France: 13/8 to win Group D, 4/9 to qualify
Runners-Up: England: 2/1 to win Group D, 8/13 to qualify
Group D Fixtures
Match (07) June 11: France vs. England (Donbass Arena, Donetsk - 50,000)
Match (08) June 11: Ukraine vs. Sweden (Olympic Stadium, Kiev - 60,000)
Match (15) June 15: Ukraine vs. France (Donbass Arena, Donetsk - 50,000)
Match (16) June 15: Sweden vs. England (Olympic Stadium, Kiev - 60,000)
Match (23) June 19: Sweden vs. France (Olympic Stadium, Kiev - 60,000)
Match (24) June 19: England vs. Ukraine (Donbass Arena, Donetsk - 50,000)
Players to Watch
Ukraine: Euro 2012 will be hugely important for the Ukraine, but it will be most important to Andriy Yarmolenko. The powerful left-sided forward has been electric for Dynamo Kiev this season, and Euro 2012 will really put him in the shop window for a big move to one of the main leagues.
He is blessed with an incredible work rate and has a velvet touch when on the ball, so all eyes will be on the 22-year-old when Ukraine plays.
England: The Three Lions come into Euro 2012 under something of a cloud, and following the late withdrawals of key players they actually go into the tournament with the second youngest squad behind Germany.
The one to watch will be Theo Walcott. The Arsenal winger has improved immensely since his last major tournament, and he will provide a constant out ball for a team who struggle to hold onto the ball under pressure. His pace and directness mark him out as a winger of some danger and if he can get his shooting boots on England could go far.
France: Having been left out of Raymond Domenech's World Cup squad, all eyes will be on Karim Benzema to repeat his club form for his country. The 45-times-capped striker has only found the net 13 times in blue, but he is more than capable of rising to any occasion. As a striker he is strong, direct, has a good touch and is very hard working, so he is always guaranteed to get chances.
Sweden: Every team will be watching Zlatan Ibrahimovic, especially if he drops deep as expected, so that will leave gaps for the exciting Rasmus Elm to expose.
As a player he is typically Scandinavian in that he is a tireless runner, except that he is blessed with good vision both on and off the ball. He comes into the Euros after a good season with AZ Alkmaar in Holland full in the knowledge that three more good performances could earn him a move to England or Germany.
Sweden are only one of two teams at Euro 2012, Spain being the other, who will not have to fly to any of their games during the group stages as they are based beside the stadiums they play in.
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