Euro 2012: 8 Bold Predictions for European Championships in Poland and Ukraine
Although it may seem far away now, Euro 2012 is right around the corner, just a little over two months away.
After the World Cup, many view UEFA's European Football Championships as the most competitive tournament in international football. From 53 total nations, the list has narrowed down to 16 teams who will battle it out this summer for the title of strongest European national team in the world.
Spain, of course, come into this competition as favorites on the back of their Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 victories, but one would be foolish to rule out a Germany side that won all 10 of its qualifying matches.
The Netherlands are also a massive threat, with Robin van Persie in the midst of the best season of his career.
England, Portugal and France are very much the "wildcard" teams. They're not as consistent as the best teams of Europe, but their history and individual talents make them impossible to rule out as contenders for the Euro 2012 title.
Looking at all of the teams competing at this summer's competition, its clear that there will be very few "easy" games for any of the competitors.
Ukraine and Poland are the weakest nations in the competition, but their home advantage will surely strengthen them as a unit against the other countries they'll face in the tournament.
On the basis of their current strengths and weaknesses, let's make some friendly predictions about how the various teams competing in Euro 2012 will fare.
Portugal Will Qualify for the Knockout Stages
Portugal have been drawn in Euro 2012's Group of Death, Group B.
To qualify, they need to finish ahead of Netherlands and Germany, the number two and three highest-ranked national teams in the world respectively.
Not to mention Denmark, who themselves have a very impressive squad ranked 11th in the world, according to FIFA's world rankings.
There's a reason, however, that I'm backing Portugal to qualify from this group. The reason is that, when on form, they can be nearly unstoppable as a unit.
Of course, Portugal's success starts and ends with their star player and captain, Cristiano Ronaldo. But Portugal have bags of quality beyond Ronaldo in the form of Nani, Joao Moutinho, Pepe, Fabio Coentrao and more.
In the second leg of the UEFA Euro 2012 qualifying playoffs, Portugal showed how lethal they can be at their best. They dismantled a good Bosnia & Herzegovina side 6-2, with Ronaldo scoring two and Nani bagging one.
However, Miguel Veloso's goal and Helder Postiga's brace helped show that Portugal had so much more to offer than just Nani and Ronaldo, and was a unit to be reckoned with.
Portugal's squad may not be as impressive as the personnel available for the top nations in the world, but they have enough quality players to beat out Netherlands or Germany for a spot in the knockout rounds.
And with Cristiano Ronaldo leading the way, anything is possible.
Republic of Ireland Will Win at Least One of Their Games
Although Portugal's run to Euro 2012 came to an impressive ending, it wasn't as remarkable as Ireland's.
Under the guidance of Giovanni Trapattoni, Ireland qualified for the European Championships for only the second time ever in its history as a UEFA member country.
Ireland managed to finish second in a group that contained both Russia and Slovakia, losing only once in a tight 2-3 contest against Russia. Otherwise, Ireland were unbeaten in group play.
Ireland's shining moment came in the first leg against Estonia, where, with the help of a late brace from captain Robbie Keane, they were able to effectively seal up Euro 2012 qualification with a 4-0 victory in Estonia.
In Poland and Ukraine, I can't see Ireland beating out either Spain or Italy for a spot in the knockout rounds. However, considering Italy's poor recent form, I'm backing Ireland to give them a run for their money.
Croatia's excellent form in qualification will also work against Ireland, and I can see Luka Modric and company being simply too much for Robbie Keane's boys.
I expect that Ireland will record a victory against either Croatia or Italy though, and in doing so decide who makes the knockout stages.
England Will Scrape by to the Knockout Stages
England are yet to pick a new manager in the wake of Fabio Capello's resignation, and will be without their best player, Wayne Rooney, for their first two group games.
Yet, despite this, I'm still backing England to qualify for the knockout stages of Euro 2012 from a group containing France, Ukraine and Sweden.
It's a risky bet because England's Group D is arguably the second-toughest in the competition after Group B, the Group of Death.
Sweden are impossible to rule out with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in their ranks, while France are a threat with the massive amount of talent the country is consistently producing.
But that's why I'm backing England to qualify: they are constantly producing top-quality talent also.
Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck are both expected to be included in the Euro 2012 squad for England, and one of them may very likely become a permanent partner for Wayne Rooney going forward.
Although he's proven me wrong countless times before, Theo Walcott is starting to look more and more like the world-class winger we all thought he'd become, and Jack Wilshere oozes class when fit.
And finally, the youth brought in on defense from Kyle Walker, Micah Richards, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones should benefit England greatly as well.
Provided England find someone semi-competent to guide their team at this summer's Euros, I believe they'll have too much talent not to qualify for the knockout rounds.
Italy Will Disappoint
Though many have been quick to praise Italy's "new era" under Cesare Prandelli, I'll be the first to admit that I'm not sold.
For starters, Italy's 8-2-0 record in qualifying is not as great as it seems.
Against Serbia, Italy picked up a forfeit win at home after rowdy Serbian fans caused the game to be abandoned while it was still 0-0.
In Serbia, Italy could only manage a 1-1 draw, despite scoring in the opening minute of the game.
Against Slovenia, the only other semi-decent team in their group, Italy could only record fragile 1-0 victories both home and away.
The Italians built up a decent goal advantage with sizable victories over the Faroe Islands, Estonia and Northern Ireland at home (in addition to the 3-0 forfeit win over Serbia), but away from home they were dreadful.
They failed to beat any team by more than one goal, scoring only one goal against -20 goal difference Northern Ireland and drawing Northern Ireland—the 87th-highest ranked team in the world, according to FIFA.
Recent results have been even more disappointing for Italy, losing 1-0 to both Uruguay and the United States.
The current incarnation of the Italian national team isn't as talented as it has been in the past, due to absence of defensive stalwarts like Fabio Cannavaro or Alessandro Nesta, as well as the absence of deadly strikers like Francesco Totti or Roberto Baggio.
Nevertheless, the team has enough talent to play much more fluid football than they currently do, and their form going into the competition should have Italians worried.
Due to the relative weakness of their group, I don't forsee Italy being dumped out of the competition in the group stages.
However, I have little doubt that when the going gets tough in the knockout rounds, they'll be one of the first teams to go.
France Will Impress
It's been a while since we've been really impressed by a French national team.
They have been in limbo for almost a decade now, and though Zinedine Zidane was able to stop the rot when he returned for the 2006 World Cup, his exit afterwards showed just how much trouble the national team was really in, culminating with the 2010 World Cup fiasco.
But since Laurent Blanc has taken over, France has achieved quiet but consistent success.
Their Euro 2012 qualifying record was worse than most of the nations that qualified for the tournament, but it was achieved in a group harder than most other groups in the competition.
France had to overcome the likes of Bosnia & Herzegovina and Romania, and though there were definitely some major bumps along the way, they got the job done.
The reason I'm so high on France is because their recent 2-1 victory over Germany emphasizes not only how far this national team has come, but how far they can go.
For some time now, the world-class talents have been there: On their day, Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri can be completely unplayable.
However, the team unity and even distribution of quality has been missing.
That is now starting to appear. Karim Benzema has had an excellent season for Real Madrid and France, but he is no longer the national team's only option. Olivier Giroud has looked great in a France jersey and could be the center forward the team has been so badly missing since Henry's retirement.
In defense, there has also been an increase in quality. France have never had problems with quality full-backs, but the emergence of Adil Rami and Laurent Koscielny gives Blanc the opportunity to start two of the best center-backs in football today.
And Philippe Mexes is certainly not a bad option either.
France is a team full of quality, but for so long, they've been missing the unity necessary to succeed.
Against Germany, we saw that unity, and with Blanc at the helm, France could make a deep run in this year's tournament.
Spain Will Not Win Euro 2012
Spain dominated their Euro 2012 qualifying group and are heading into the tournament as slight favorites to reclaim the trophy. But I'm almost sure they won't—and here's why.
First, just on a factual/statistical basis, no team has ever won two consecutive Euro titles. The closest to do so has been Germany, who won Euro '72 and '80 but lost in '76 in the final, and again came close when they lost in '92 in the final but won it in '96.
More significantly, Spain have very much lost their aura of invincibility after the 2010 World Cup, and some might even argue that it's been lost ever since the United States ended their undefeated streak way back in the 2009 Confederations Cup.
In Spain's first three friendlies after the World Cup, they recorded a 1-1 draw with Mexico, a 4-1 loss to Argentina and a 4-0 loss to Portugal—very poor from the world champions.
And prior to Spain's 5-0 demolition of lowly Venezuela, they had draw 2-2 with Costa Rica, lost 1-0 to England, beat Chile 3-2 and lost 2-1 to Italy.
The theme I'm trying to convey here is that, with Spain's qualifying games sandwiched in between their friendlies, everything looks fine and dandy.
But if you look below the surface and cast aside those qualifying games, where Scotland and an out-of-sorts Czech Republic were Spain's biggest rivals, you'll see that Spain have consistently underperformed against the world's best teams.
Add in to that Spain's top two strikers of over the last half-decade or so (Fernando Torres and David Villa) are injured or badly out-of-form, and Spain look like they're in for a bumpy ride at this summer's Euros.
I expect Spain to easily advance from a group with no serious threats, but against the Germanys, Portugals and Frances, I fancy Spain to be pushed to the edge and ultimately conquered.
Netherlands Will Fall in the Group of Death
Netherlands have an outstanding pool of talent right now, and are undoubtedly going through their Golden Age in terms of player quality.
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has transformed himself from a washed-up has-been at Real Madrid into one of the best strikers in the world for Schalke and the Dutch national team.
Robin van Persie is arguably the EPL's best player right now, while Arjen Robben has been in scintillating form in recent games.
But despite this and an excellent qualifying campaign, I'm backing Netherlands to be the team to fall in the Group of Death.
First of all, Germany's 3-0 victory over Netherlands exposed many cracks in the armor of the Dutch.
Aside from Gregory van der Wiel, Holland's defense looked way too weak to deal with the constant threats of Germany, and shipped three goals as a result.
Further up the field, the Netherland's normally reliable defensive midfield options looked awfully unreliable. Mark van Bommel showed his age with his lack of pace and much less tenacity than had been on display in the 2010 World Cup.
Kevin Strootman, the promising PSV Eindhoven talent, looked even worse, losing all 10 of the challenges he was involved in during the game.
Holland's offense was decent, and suffering from the absence of Robin van Persie, but all-in-all it was a woeful display from the Dutch.
Second of all, many of Holland's top players are out-of-form. Rafael van der Vaart has been badly struggling with form since the 10-game mark of the season, while Dirk Kuyt has had his worst season in a Liverpool shirt.
Nigel De Jong has seen limited game-time for Manchester City this season, while Wesley Sneijder has had one of the worst seasons of his career due to a number of injury problems.
Furthermore, Holland's most reliable subs, Eljero Elia and Ibrahim Afellay, have seen almost no playing time this season due to managerial fallouts (Elia) and long-term injuries (Afellay).
With personnel problems all over the pitch, and poor form recently, I think Netherlands will just be squeezed out in what is sure to be a mouthwatering battle between Germany, Portugal and Holland this summer.
Germany Will Win It All
No predictions for Euro 2012 are complete without a prediction of who will win it all.
And so, I give you my winner: Germany.
They had the strongest Euro 2012 qualifying campaign of any country in Europe. With 10 consecutive wins, including four impressive ones against the likes of Belgium and Turkey, Germany destroyed their opposition with consummate ease.
They didn't let up after Euro 2012 qualifying either. Though their recent 2-1 loss to France was most certainly a setback, it came after a masterful 3-0 victory over the No. 2 ranked country in the world, Holland.
Germany have always been consistent performers in the world's biggest football tournaments. Since disappointingly finishing third in the group stage of Euro 2004, Germany have finished third at the 2006 World Cup, second at Euro 2008 and third at the 2010 World Cup.
But as the saying goes, "First is everything, second is nothing."
Although Germany's youth systems continue to produce some of the world's best players, the veterans who've played through many of Germany's recent international tournaments are tired of "solid" second or third place finishes and are hungry for first.
Guys like Mesut Ozil, Thomas Mueller, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mario Gomez, Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira, Mats Hummels, Manuel Neuer and more are all either entering—or are already in—their prime.
They are all performing excellently at the club level, and know that it is unlikely Germany will have another chance quite as good as this one to win this competition.
For that reason, I'm backing them to win it all. For me, they've been the most impressive team in the world since the 2010 World Cup, and if they can replicate the form and play they've shown since then, I have little doubt that they'll be the victors at the end of Euro 2012.