As I write, the second largest tournament in international football kicks off in 58 hours, 11 minutes and 12 seconds, 11 seconds, 10 sec—the point is: Euro 2012 is close.
The competition will see the best of the best from all over Europe compete in an arena designed to produce one victor that will stand triumphant above the rest.
While all nations may not face each other directly, the Euros are as fine a chance as any to see just who the truly dominant players are. And while it’s ultimately the team effort that matters most, you can bet that individual performances will get critically analyzed to nearly the same extent.
With that in mind, here is the first installment of a four-part series that will start at the back and move to the front line of the field, pointing out the top 10 players in each position and just why they have been nominated as such.
The last line of defence and each team’s No.1, it feels appropriate that we rank the goalkeepers first.
To set the record straight, each country is allowed only one candidate for this ranking in order to give the fairest and most balanced Top 10.
That applies not just to goalkeepers but to all four parts of the series.
So, let us get underway with the top ten stoppers.
As the player that would undoubtedly be the choice of many for “Best Goalkeeper in the World”, Iker Casillas’ extensive trophy cabinet is an indication of the Spaniard’s success playing at the elite level.
The 31-year-old has won five La Liga titles, a Copa del Rey and two Champions League trophies during his 22-year tenure at the Santiago Bernabeu—and that’s but to name a few.
Spain are fortunate to have such a strong array of goalkeepers amongst their ranks, and the Real Madrid youth product has occupied the No. 1 spot for his national side since 2002, keeping out the likes of Pepe Reina, Victor Valdes and the emerging David de Gea.
Individually, Casillas has also picked up numerous honours, including a World Cup Golden Glove, five UEFA Team of the Year inclusions and the last four consecutive FIFPro World’s Best Goalkeeper awards.
Of course, part of Casillas’s career success is down to the defensive lineups that he has been fortunate enough to have play in front of him, but it is the job of the goalkeeper to match that level of performance to remain at the top. The lifelong Merengue goes beyond that.
Type “Iker Casillas Compilation” into Youtube and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.
First emerging from the Real Madrid academy in 1999 at the tender age of 18, the stopper has earned his place in the pantheon of goalkeeping greats—and the most fascinating thing is that he looks as if he could go for another decade yet.
The captain of the Czech Republic is fresh off a campaign run in which his Chelsea team managed a second-half season revival, winning the FA Cup and a slightly more well-known trophy called the Champions League.
Čech has been a large figure for the Blues in more way than one since arriving at Stamford Bridge in 2004 for a fee of £7 million.
The 30-year-old was recently rewarded with a four-year contract extension that will see him play for the West London outfit until the end of the 2015-16 campaign.
That being said, Čech owes a portion of his achievements to the defence in front of him.
Having worked with the likes of John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Ashley Cole and William Gallas, as well as a host of other elite defenders, it’s safe to say that the ‘keeper has had games where he hasn’t had to lift a finger.
This is far from the case internationally.
The Czech Republic by no means have the strongest defence out of the 16 teams in the Euros this year, but have, at the same time, maintained an impressive habit of keeping their goals-conceded rate down to a very low average.
In their last 12 international matches, Michal Bilek’s men have managed to keep six clean sheets, conceding just one goal in two of those games.
Taking all this into consideration, it’s safe to say that Čech is a considerable factor in that success, and his exploits on the club level are a more evident example of why he’s so good at what he does.
Other stoppers plying their trade for “bigger” nations may hold more glamorous records for their countries, but a huge factor in that is the four players sitting directly in front of them.
Technically the most expensive goalkeeper in the world, Gianluigi Buffon’s £33 million transfer from Parma to Juventus in 2001 remains the biggest sum that has ever been spent on a No.1.
The 34-year-old has just about stopped any other Italians staking a claim on the Azzuri’s goalkeeper jersey, and has made the position his own for the past 12 years, racking up a magnificent 114 caps in the process.
The Italian captain plies his club trade in a league notorious for its conservative approach, and while this could be interpreted as a lack of attacking mentality, it speaks more to the quality possessed by the defences of the division.
Juventus managed to keep clean sheets in 21 of their 38 league matches this season, some 55 percent of their games that year.
It was a statistic like this that led the Old Lady to the Serie A title and back into the Champions League for next season.
While it may be a team effort, Buffon still managed to let in just 16 goals all season, and the number is largely due to the individual efforts of the veteran.
It’s no secret that goalkeepers tend to have longer careers than their outfield counterparts, but even at 34, Buffon is showing no signs of slowing in the way that he plays.
Even considering the recent misfortune of Juve, Tuscan-born Buffon has remained a loyal servant to both club and country, and all for good reason.
Italy have managed clean sheets in seven of their last 12 games while letting in just one goal in four of those games.
The saying goes that “attack is the best form of defence,” but Buffon needs pay minimal attention to that theory if he is to remain a world-class talent at Euro 2012.
France haven’t exactly been renowned for their fantastic defence in recent years, owing much of their success in the modern era to creative midfield players more than anything.
However, it seems that Laurent Blanc is intent on changing that trend having seen his side undergo a drastic improvement on the defensive side of things over the last year.
In their last 11 matches, competitive and friendly, Les Bleus have managed to keep a stubborn six clean sheets and let in just one goal in another four of those games.
While the improvements can’t be entirely pinned on Hugo Lloris, the team captain has remained one of the more consistent features in the French team in recent years, and has never let his standards fall.
The Lyon stopper kept just 11 clean sheets for his club this season, eventually seeing them to a fourth-place finish. That being said, you can bet that they would have ended up in a far worse position were it not for Lloris.
This is evident when the No.1 plays for his country, amounting to an altogether better concession ratio.
Of course, you can say that’s only natural when playing with a higher standard of defence in front of you, but recent improvements or not, Lloris has still been far from not busy in the last year.
As dark horses to go and win the Euros, France will need their 25-year-old national captain to lead his troops from the back, so to speak, and is guaranteed to be tested in his abilities.
Having become a runner-up in the Champions League last season, Manuel Neuer is one of many Bayern Munich stars in the German squad hoping to end their European anguish by winning the Euro 2012 tournament this summer.
At 26 years old, Neuer doesn’t seem phased by the amount of talent that surrounds him on either the club or international level, instead marshaling his defence with the calm posture of a seasoned veteran.
Germany are fortunate to have a wealth of goalkeeping talent at their disposal, and it speaks volumes that Neuer is such an assured first choice ahead of other hopefuls Tim Wiese and Reto Ziegler.
However, it is of course fair to say that Germany have been far from defensively convincing in their run-up to the tournament.
In their last 11 outings, Die Mannschaft have managed just two clean sheets, a surprising statistic given that for so many years, the German defence was the base upon which the rest of the team was built.
Regardless of the defensive troubles, however, that responsibility lies almost entirely on the uncertainty amongst the outfield defenders.
Apart from Phillip Lahm, it is still much of a guess who Joachim Löw will favour for the three defensive spots.
As mentioned above however, Neuer isn’t the culprit in the German back line, and after keeping 26 clean sheets in all competitions last season, is without a doubt one of the top stoppers in this tournament.
A slightly surprising inclusion to some, Igor Akinfeev will be a relatively unknown name to others.
Back in Euro 2008, Akinfeev caught the eye with some impressive displays against Greece, Sweden and Netherlands, and while it may be too much to hope for, the 26-year-old will want to pull off some similar heroics in Poland and Ukraine this summer.
The CSKA Moscow 'keeper managed to keep a very decent 24 clean sheets for his club last season, featuring in just 50 matches.
It’s safe to say that Russia’s defense isn’t exactly the world’s finest as a unit, meaning that Akinfeev’s performances will have to be of more quality.
A key feature of Akinfeev’s play is his ability to keep out short-range attempts, remaining on his feet until the last possible moment to pull off that perfect camera save.
In terms of reflexes, there are few shot-stoppers to rival this man, and if Russia do in fact make any substantial attempts at the title, they have a safe pair of hands blocking their net.
As is their way, it seems as if everyone on British shores, whether it be the media or the general public, have become accustomed to finding flaws all over the English squad, from the players right down to the manager that chooses them.
However, a position that hasn’t caught any flack whatsoever is the one between the posts.
In Joe Hart, England appear to have finally found a No.1 that they can rely upon following a period of uncertainty regarding the goalkeeping duties.
Scott Carson’s blunder against Croatia is replayed as the moment that prevented England from making it to Euro 2008, and while Hart did feature at the World Cup in 2010, his placement is far more justified this time around.
The 25-year-old admittedly has a host of star talent in front of him when playing for his club, so the shift won’t be too large for Hart when on England duty.
In their last five matches, England have kept four clean sheets, the most notable of which came in a 1-0 win over World and European champions, Spain, in a November friendly.
Although the English defence is of a high standard, Hart hasn’t gone through these games without a challenge on goal and is certainly capable of the odd “wonder save”.
The Manchester City goalkeeper also managed to keep a certain Republic of Ireland international away from the pitch for a considerable amount of time, leading us to the next nominee.
Shay Given may have played second fiddle to Joe Hart for the vast majority of his tenure at Etihad Stadium, but Euro 2012 presents the former Newcastle United stopper with a chance to really put one over his old nemesis.
Given, now playing at Aston Villa, is one of the oldest players at the tournament, at a respectable 36.
The Irish veteran has been a staple in the Republic of Ireland squad since 2000, and although there are some other big players amongst their squad, a lot of their success will inevitably rest on Given’s shoulders.
In their last 10 outings, the Boys in Green have kept an astonishing seven clean sheets, and have failed to concede more than one goal in those games.
After Given appeared as a doubt for the tournament, along with John O’Shea, due to injury, Giovanni Trappattoni has announced that his No.1 is now fit and ready for Poland and Ukraine, where he will play a massive role in the Republic of Ireland’s hopes of progressing past a group that includes Spain, Italy and Croatia.
After going through a period of doubt and shakiness, Wojciech Szczesny has emerged as the undisputed first-choice goalkeeper at Arsenal, and has appeared to do so in the Polish national team also.
At 22 years old, the former Warsaw starlet is one of the youngest stoppers making their way to Euro 2012, and a lot is being pinned on the youth living up to the expectations that come with being a host nation.
Poland haven’t conceded a goal in all four of their 2012 fixtures. And given the fact that the White Eagles, up until now, haven't been renowned for their defence, it’s safe to say that Szczesny will have his part in keeping that current trend going.
The Poles couldn’t have hoped for better when it comes to their group, but Szczesny will still have his work cut out for him going up against Greece, the Czech Republic and their most dangerous opponents, Russia.
In 38 league appearances for the Gunners last season, Szczesny managed to keep a decent record of 13 clean sheets, earning considerable plaudits amongst the Premier League community.
With club matters all wrapped up for now, though, the youngster will be focused on nothing more than seeing his side through to European glory in their own backyard.
Despite his age, Szczesny will be one of the biggest players for Poland and will need to hold a stern grip over those in front of him if his side is to succeed this summer.
When thinking about the Dutch philosophy of “Total Football,” one would hardly think of the position of goalkeeper as one that greatly affects the Netherlands’ chances of victory.
And one would be almost bang on the money.
However, while Maarten Stekelenburg may not have the biggest influence on any passing buildup or a direct hand in any goals scored, as much responsibility lies with the No.1 performing well as it does Nos. 2 through 11.
For years, it was Edwin van der Sar who ruled the roost between the sticks for Holland, but since 2008, it seems that Stekelenburg is the ‘keeper of choice for Bert van Marwijk.
The 29-year-old was a part of the Roma team that finished the Serie A season in seventh position last season, conceding the second biggest amount of goals for any of the top 15 sides in the league.
However, this was largely down to the failings of the whole defence, and Stekelenburg hasn’t showed any massive dip in form since making his move to Italy from Ajax in 2011.
Stekelenburg was also a part of the Netherlands team that made their way to the final of the 2010 World Cup, where it was they who fell victim to Spain, despite a series of magnificent saves from the goalkeeper.
Throughout the tournament, Stekelenburg only conceded six goals and will be looking for similar form this summer, where he hopes to go one better in Euro 2012.
Statistics were provided courtesy of Transfermarkt.com and WhoScored.com.