The qualifying for Euro 2012 is drawing to a close and we are now starting to know who will be participating in next summer's tournament. While there are some teams that still need to win their final qualifying matches, most of Europe's giants need only a draw over their final few matches to qualify.
Anticipation has been building as UEFA gets ready to conduct the draw for group stages of the tournament. This year's draw could be very interesting since both Poland and the Ukraine, the tournament's hosts, will both be seeded in the top pot despite being what many people believe as two of the weakest teams in the tournament.
With Poland and the Ukraine both being in the top pot, the other top seeds, Spain and the Netherlands, now face a higher chance of being drawn against tougher opposition in the group stages. Conversely, top teams that would have normally been seeded now stand a 50 percent chance of avoiding the two giants, and being placed in a group with the perceived weaker teams.
The draw for the group stage of this tournament has the potential to make this a really interesting tournament, and give some of the giants a much harder road than they might have expected.
Nevertheless, it is shaping up to be a fantastic tournament. Here is a look at how the favorites rank to bring home the trophy.
We all remember the disaster that was France in the 2010 World Cup. While that was over a year ago, the problem for France is that they have yet to fully recover from that debacle.
France started slowly following their World Cup disaster, but they have managed to regroup. However, they are still at risk for not even qualifying for next summer's tournament. France currently holds just a one-point lead over Bosnia-Hersgovnia heading into their final two qualifiers against Albania and Bosnia-Hersgovnia.
Even worse for France, they will be without stars Karim Benzema, Frank Ribery and Blaise Matuidi. With their stars missing, France will face a tough challenge in maintaining their top spot in Group D.
This current French team is a far cry from the squad that went to the World Cup Final just five years ago. Even if this team does qualify for Euro 2012, they are no longer one of Europe's giants and will find it hard to even make it past the group stage.
Meanwhile, the Portuguese somehow find themselves in the favorites discussion before every major tournament before they end up crashing out embarrassingly quickly. The reason for that could mainly be attributed to a player they have by the name of Cristiano Ronaldo. But while Ronaldo has starred for both Manchester United and Real Madrid, his most famous moment in a Portugal shirt remains his classic wink after he got his then-United teammate Wayne Rooney sent off during their match against England at the 2006 World Cup.
Ronaldo's success has not translated to the international level, and Portugal is hurting because of it. They currently sit in a three-way tie for the top spot in Group H, even on points with Denmark and Norway. They currently are far from guaranteed to qualify for this tournament.
Croatia has quietly gone about qualifying with just one loss that they suffered in the early stages of qualifying. Despite only one loss though, they still are just one point ahead of Greece heading in to the final round of qualifiers.
Croatia is looking to qualify for their third straight European Championships after failing to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. The Croatians have one of their stronger teams as they look to improve on their 2008 performance that saw them advance all the way to the quarterfinals. That team had prevented England from qualifying for the 2008 tournament and they are surely hoping they could knock off some other giants at the next one.
While the Croatians are among the top half of the teams that will potentially be in the tournament, they are still a very big long shot and it is highly unlikely that they will be raising the trophy next July.
I'm not buying into the hype that comes out of England every time a major tournament comes around that says England have finally figured it out and will win this next tournament. They say that every two years and it never seems to come to fruition, and I simply won't believe it until I see it.
The truth is, England haven't figured it out yet. They need a complete overhaul of their team, which they have been doing, but they've been doing it far too slowly. In truth, England should try an experiment where they start Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young, Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and maybe even Rio Ferdinand all at the same time.
Even though most of the country would hate supporting a team that is so stacked with Manchester United players, this team would have a lot of chemistry together. There's only one other national team whose core is made up of players from primarily one club, which is Spain and their large Barcelona contingent.
Well, Barcelona and Manchester United have met in the Champions League finals twice in the last three years, and Spain has won the last European Championship and World Cup, so maybe they're on to something here with that whole chemistry thing.
Even if England don't go with their Red Devils lineup, it's time to completely turn the team over from the so called "Golden Generation." If they continue to try to slowly integrate new players in with their old players, they will continue to not go anywhere at the international level.
This means that both Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard should never see the field again while wearing an England shirt, not because they are bad players, but because the team has moved past them. The same could apply to Rio Ferdinand and maybe even John Terry.
This isn't to say Lampard is a bad player. For example, Lampard and Ryan Giggs are two tremendous players, as evidenced by Lampard's hat trick last week and the fact that Giggs already has two goals and even more assists even though he barely plays, for their respective clubs. However, this season both Chelsea and Manchester United discovered that they are far better teams when Lampard and Giggs are left on the bench.
This is something that England need to realize with their players who have tried and failed before. Until they completely overhaul their "Golden Generation," this team will still come up short.
The 2006 World Cup winners are getting back to their top level of play. While there has been quite some turnover between their World Cup winning team and their current team, the Azzurri are finally starting to find the right blend of players.
American-born forward Guisseppe Rossi is beginning to grow into a star for Italy, and despite missing the final 23-man roster for the 2010 World Cup, he is now becoming one of Italy's most depended-on forwards.
The Azzurri are currently unbeaten in qualifying, sitting atop Group C with 22 points, eight points ahead of second place Serbia.
While many people aren't picking the Azzurri to challenge for the title in Euro 2012, the Italians do have the potential to sneak up on some people and make a deep tournament run.
The Germans are poised to be one of the most dangerous teams in next summer's European Championship.
Having rebuilt their team in the last few years, the Germans surprised many by advancing all the way to the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup with a relatively young and unknown team.
The 2010 World Cup saw German star Mesut Ozil announce himself on the world stage, and he parlayed his terrific World Cup performance into a mega move to Real Madrid. At Madrid, Ozil has only continued to get better, as has the rest of the German team.
The Germans have been flying through qualifying so far, winning all eight of their matches and have an astonishing plus-23 goal differential. They have conceded only five goals throughout qualifying.
With another year under the Germans' belt, this team is even better than the squad from 2010, and they will be looking to lift the trophy at the end of this tournament.
The World Cup runners-up picked up right where they left off for European qualifying, winning all eight of their qualifying matches.
The Dutch have already wrapped up the top spot in their group, leaving them two more qualifying matches to experiment with their team selection and give younger players some experience.
The Dutch have been coming on strong in recent years, led by midfielder Wesley Sneijder. Though their World Cup final performance was marred by their dirty play and the amount of yellows they received, one should not forget the form they showed while getting there, and since then during qualifying.
The Dutch have compiled one of the best teams they've had in quite some time, with the only knock being they have some injury-prone players such as Rafael Van Der Vaart and Robin Van Persie. If the Dutch could stay healthy though, they could very well be lifting the trophy come next July.
If there is one thing I have learned over the years, it is this. When a team establishes dominance at something, it is always safer to just pick them to keep dominating rather than to pick someone else since that is often the "trendy" thing to do.
Well, Spain has established dominance at both the World and European football levels. They have won their last two major tournaments, Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup. Their only blemish has been their semifinal loss to the United States in the 2009 Confederations Cup, though it was obvious that they were not taking that tournament seriously.
Spain will be returning with relatively the same team, and even better for them, most of their team plays together year round. The core of Spain's team is made up of FC Barcelona players, especially their midfield duo of Andres Iniesta and Xavi. Even more, substitute midfielder Cesc Fabregas left his captaincy at Arsenal to become a substitute midfielder at Barcelona last summer, keeping even more of the team together.
Barcelona have been absolutely dominant in the club game, being led by these Spanish players. Not only have they dominated La Liga but they have won two of the last three UEFA Champions League titles.
Having their squad play together all year has helped build tremendous chemistry in the Spanish camp, a chemistry that has helped them remain dominant on the international level.
Until another team proves they can step up and defeat Spain, the defending European and World Cup champions will remain the favorites to win every tournament they play in.