With all eyes focused on South Africa for the next four months, qualifying for the 2012 European Championships in Poland/Ukraine will be upon us in no time. The procedure for qualifying is as follows: the nine group winners and best second place team are given automatic berths; while the eight other runners-up receive playoff berths against one another for a spot in the tournament.
Most of the talk surrounding Euro 2012 has centered on the host nations, Poland and Ukraine, and their perceived inability to build the infrastructure and stadiums necessary to host an event of such magnitude. But with the draw out, we can finally turn our focus to the soccer.
With that being said, let’s take an early peek at the groups:
Group A: Germany, Turkey, Austria, Belgium, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan
Group A draws the early tag of second group of death with world-powers Germany, an up and coming side in Belgium, and a team in Turkey that will be looking to bounce back from their failure to qualify from the World Cup. Austria proved that they could give the big boys a run during Euro 2008 and scored surprise home wins over France and Romania during World Cup qualifying. However, look for them to be over matched in this group. Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan offer little in terms of quality but add some very daunting away trips to Almaty and Baku for the other teams in this group.
An aging German side should still be strong enough to take the top spot in this group, leaving a real battle for second place. Look for a young Belgian team to come of age during this qualifying campaign, but for the hungry Turks to just squeeze out second place. Don’t forget that this is the same Turkish side that stunned Europe on their way to the Euro 2008 semifinals.
X-Factor—Dick Advocaat: The experienced Dutch manager took helm of Belgium at the end of their World Cup qualifying campaign and provided instant results with wins over Turkey and Estonia. Most recently, Advocaat led Zenit St. Petersburg to UEFA Cup glory in 2008 and should provide the right tonic for a young and talented, but undisciplined and, at times, immature Belgian side. With the right moves, he could easily lead Belgium to the second spot in this group.
First place: Germany
Second place: Turkey
Group B: Russia, Slovakia, Ireland, Macedonia, Armenia, Andorra
Group B should be a tale of two groups of three with Russia, Slovakia and Ireland battling out for the top spot, while Macedonia, Armenia and Andorra fight to stay out of the basement. Russia, without legendary coach Guus Hiddink, will be looking to bounce back from their failure to qualify for South Africa but may be running out of their magic tonic. Slovakia will be looking to prove that their last qualifying campaign was not a fluke, while Ireland will be looking to forget their heartache from their playoff with France.
With the top three teams each having the quality to top this group, top spot will most likely go right down to the wire. Look for the Russians to edge this group on the strength of their home form and for the Irish to nap the second spot.
X-factor—Robbie Keane: The Spurs captain has struggled this season and is currently on loan at Celtic. Will he find the form that brought Ireland to within a sniff of the World Cup or are his best days behind him? An Ireland without a potent Robbie Keane is simply not going to be enough in this group.
First place: Russia
Second place: Ireland
Group C: Italy, Serbia, Northern Ireland, Slovenia, Estonia, Faroe Islands
Group C is the only group to feature three World Cup teams and deservedly so carries the “Group of Death” tag. While Italy will certainly be the favorites, they are another world-power going through an identity crisis as their golden generation is ushered out the back door. They certainly won’t be happy drawing two Balkan sides as they have historically struggled against their brand of football, winning just twice in eight tries against former Yugoslav Republics since 1994. Both were narrow 1-0 home wins against Slovenia in 1995 and 2005.
With an air-tight defense featuring Branislav Ivanović, Nemanja Vidić, and Neven Subotić, Serbia are poised once again to threaten Europe’s elite. Slovenia and Northern Ireland are no slouches, but they rely too much on their home form for success and will struggle in this group. Estonia can be a tough nut to crack every once in a while in Tallinn, while the Faroe Islands are just making up the numbers.
X-factor—Belfast: While Northern Ireland will struggle to challenge for the second spot in this group, their home form is exceptional, and they have recently beat Denmark, Spain, Sweden, Slovenia and Poland at home. Look for somebody to drop points here and for it to prove costly in the final tally.
First place: Serbia
Second place: Italy
Group D: France, Romania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Belarus, Albania, Luxembourg
Group D will provide France with a foray into Eastern Europe and some difficult away ties but could provide the right tonic to awaken the sleeping giants. With Raymond Domenech likely gone after the World Cup, France will look to qualify comfortably for these finals rather than the treacherous route they took to the World Cup. Romania has slipped off the map recently after a strong Euro 2008 campaign, while Bosnia-Herzegovina are a team on the rise, albeit they are without the mastermind of their previous campaign, Ćiro Blažević.
Belarus and Albania are difficult to break down at home and can be counted on to steal a point here and there against the bigger teams in this group. Luxembourg will struggle to do anything but wind up with no points.
Look for Bosnia to continue their impressive form as they try and qualify for their first finals as an independent nation, while France will finally get it right in this campaign. Romania, on the other hand, will be left wondering where it all has gone wrong.
X-Factor—Adrian Mutu: Romania relies heavily upon this enigma of a striker. When he’s hot. he is one of the best in Europe but has proven to be a headache off the field. Mutu recently failed another drug test, and there are questions as to whether he will even be in the side for this campaign. Without him, Romania is nothing short of a mediocre squad, but with a motivated Mutu, they can compete with Europe’s best on a good day.
First place: France
Second place: Bosnia and Herzegovina
Group E: Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Hungary, Moldova, San Marino
Group E should be two-way traffic with the Netherlands and Sweden battling it out for the top spot and best runners-up spot as the Swedes attempt to bounce back from their World Cup heartache. Finland and Hungary loom as potential threats within this group, but expect this to be one of three groups fighting for the best runners-up berth. Moldova will look to improve upon their meager World Cup qualifying campaign and should do so by grabbing six points against the worst team in UEFA, San Marino.
Sweden and Netherlands will be pleased with this draw and should have far too much firepower than the others in this group. Finland’s squad in transition, and Hungary’s team is a perennial underachiever. Points in Budapest will be hard to come by. Sweden just squeezed it out last time.
X-Factor—Zlatan Ibrahimović: Ibra is the major cog in the Swedish attack, but after their failures last campaign, he has been left questioning his future with the national team. If he does not return, Sweden will struggle mightily to replace his production up top. But if he does return, they will push the Netherlands all the way.
First place: Netherlands
Second place: Sweden
Group F: Croatia, Greece, Israel, Latvia, Georgia, Malta
Group F is one that Croatia and Greece will be relatively pleased with and expect to dominate. Israel always tends to be a few touches behind the pack and will struggle to keep up with the others in this group. They are too heavily dependent upon Yossi Benayoun. They will know the others in this group well from recent qualifying campaigns, but against Greece and Latvia, they only picked up two points from four games last campaign.
Latvia has never been able to repeat their incredible campaign of Euro 2000. They will look to pick off a point here and there but will not realistically challenge for qualification. Drawing Georgia means a daunting away trip to Tbilisi, but again, they lack the class to push for anything but pride in this group. Malta are not the automatic three points that the other minnows are and Croatia will be looking for revenge after drawing in Valetta in 2005.
This group should come down to the head to head games between Croatia and Greece, but a lot will depend on how the teams fare in Tel Aviv. Right now the edge lies with a Croatia team working their way back from injuries that devastated their previous campaign. Greece will be in transition after the looming loss of father figure Otto Rehhagel.
X-factor—Eduardo: The striker who was second in the goal scoring charts in Euro 2008 qualifying has worked his way back from a vicious broken leg and will look to regain his prolific form for Croatia. With a reinvigorated and healthy Eduardo, Croatia should top this group. Without him, they will struggle to find goals.
First place: Croatia
Second place: Greece
Group G: England, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Wales, Montenegro
Group G certainly is not the worst group England could have found themselves in. Switzerland has proven their class in their recent campaigns but is a known quantity and a squad that should be dealt with. Bulgaria has a star in Captain Dimitar Berbatov but lack depth elsewhere will prove to be difficult.
Wales was disappointing last campaign, and this one seems to bring more of the same for the Welsh. They will struggle to make an impact even though they can be counted upon to give England a run on pure passion. Montenegro is the team everybody wanted to avoid out of Pot five as their ranking is artificially low since they just became a country. Look for them to pip Wales for the fourth spot and steal some points off the big boys.
England should be on cruise control in this group. After their recent success in Zagreb, they will not be intimidated by two more trips to Eastern Europe. Bulgaria will push Switzerland all the way, but come up short.
X-factor—Bulgaria’s Defense: Bulgaria will need to depend on their backline, not their offensive firepower, to qualify. If they can give themselves a chance to allow Berbatov and company to win games, this is a team that could surprise people.
First place: England
Second place: Switzerland
Group H: Portugal, Denmark, Norway, Cyprus, Iceland
Group H is top heavy with two World Cup qualifiers in Portugal and Denmark, which will reignite the battle they started last qualifying campaign. Just like the last campaign, this battle will go right down to the wire, but there is a good chance both teams could qualify in the end. While Norway, Cyprus and Iceland will each provide their own unique challenges, the runner-up from this group should be battling with either Sweden or the Netherlands for the best runners-up spot.
Norway has not qualified for a tournament since Euro 2000 and does not look to break that streak anytime soon. They were hugely underwhelming in a very weak World Cup qualifying group. Cyprus will cause some problems at home but will struggle away from Larnaca, while Iceland has not shown any signs of doing anything but propping up this table.
With a healthy Ronaldo, look for Portugal to get the top spot. If Denmark can come out of their Scandinavian battle with Norway alive, they should claim the second spot.
X-factor—Cyprus: While they will not be expected to challenge the top two teams, watch out for this squad as they could easily pick off a point or two from either Portugal or Denmark at home. Cypriot football is on the rise, epitomized by the fact that two domestic teams qualified for the Champions League in the past two years. This is a team poised to make moves.
First place: Portugal
Best runners up: Denmark
Group I: Spain, Czech Republic, Scotland, Lithuania, Liechtenstein
Group I represents a chance for Spain to charge through a qualifying campaign perfect again as they face teams that massively underperformed in their recent World Cup campaigns. Both the Czech Republic and Scotland are ageing sides that have struggled to adapt to coaching and player turnover. Lithuania is a second-tier team that will be happy to pick up a few points in this group. Liechtenstein actually impressed last campaign with a home draw against Finland. So look for them to try and spring a trap upon Lithuania and sneak a point.
Spain will cruise through this group. The real plot will be for second place and the corresponding playoff berth. Scotland should be reignited under new coach Craig Levein and ready to return to the form that almost took them to Euro 2008. The Czech Republic will look to recapture some of the form that make them perennial European powers. The home and away between these two teams will decide their fate. Look for the Czechs to win out with their experience.
X-factor—Milan Baros & James McFadden: Both strikers are central figures for their national teams but have failed to live up to their expectations lately. Baros enjoyed a breakout Euro 2004, but has since struggled to live up to his potential (sorry, but four goals v San Marino does not count for anything in my books). McFadden enjoyed a breakout campaign during the Euro 2008 qualifiers but only netted twice during the World Cup qualifiers. Whichever striker peaks at the right time in this group might just do enough to fire their respective team into the playoffs.
First place: Spain
Second place: Czech Republic