Euro 2012 Team Talismans: 16 Most Important Players in the Tournament

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistJune 2, 2012

Euro 2012 Team Talismans: 16 Most Important Players in the Tournament

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    With the second-most anticipated event in any football calendar almost upon us, it’s about that time when we begin to formulate our Fantasy Teams and pick out who’s going to be doing the damage for their countries.

    One of the most brilliant things about ‘The Beautiful Game’ and to a larger extent, sport, is that anyone can play. Anyone.

    This means that no matter your race, religion or most importantly to this slideshow, nation you hail from, you’ll have the opportunity to be successful in this crazy competition of athleticism.

    In short: every country has their hero.

    With sixteen sets of players waiting impatiently to get going on June 8, here are the standout players from each nation that will need to perform to their fullest over the next month-and-a-half if their team is to have any chance at achieving glory.

Croatia: Luka Modric

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    Constantly being linked with a move to just about any side with the funds necessary to purchase him, Luka Modric could well be plying his trade in the Champions League next season despite the fact that Tottenham failed to qualify for the tournament.

    And for good reason.

    In a Croatian midfield packed with creative talent, the 26 year-old still stands out as a key player and will be a vital factor in any success that the nation may see.

    As far as cold, hard statistics go, the 2011-12 season wasn’t Modric’s best so far at White Hart Lane, scoring five goals and recording seven assists across all competitions.

    This will be Croatia’s third consecutive European Championship tournament that they have qualified for and one could argue that in a group with Spain, Italy and Republic of Ireland, Slaven Bilic’s side have a decent chance of making it into the knockout stage of Euro 2012.

    Croatia have lost just two of their last ten international matches and have failed to score in just three of those games.

    With the likes of Nikica Jelavic, Mario Mandzukic, Ivica Olic and Eduardo ahead of him, Modric need only play his usual role of supply chain for Croatia to score goals in Poland and Ukraine as they have done for much of their route to the competition. 

Czech Republic: Petr Čech

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    Having just signed a new four-year contract at Stamford Bridge, any and all fears of club speculation will have evacuated the mind of one of the world’s best goalkeepers as he makes his way to the Euros.

    Petr Čech was on hand (pardon the pun) to play a pivotal role in Chelsea’s Champions League final victory over Bayern Munich in May, saving a penalty shootout attempt from Ivica Olic that eventually decided the tie.

    The 30 year-old has earned 89 caps for the Czech Republic and looks to be well on his way to adding a considerable amount to that tally, given his relatively young age for a stopper.

    Unfortunately for Čech, things haven’t looked quite as assured at the opposite end of the pitch for the Czech Republic as Michal Bilek’s men have failed to consistently score goals on their qualification trail, relying mostly on a tight defence instead.

    In front of Čech sits a stubborn 4-2-3-1 formation consisting of Jaroslav Plasil and Petr Jirosek playing the defensive midfield responsibilities.

    While the Champions League final was a sterling performance seen by those from across the globe, Čech sticks out as a more poignant figure for his national side than he does at Chelsea.

    In a slightly fortunate group where they will face off against Poland, Greece and Russia, “Mr. Perfect”, or Pan Dokonaly as he is called in his native, will still have to be just that if the Czech Republic are to mimic the underdog team of 2004, when they reached the semi-finals of the tournament.

Denmark: Christian Eriksen

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    It’s hard to believe that at just 20-years-old, the Euro 2012 competition won’t even be the first major international tournament for Christian Eriksen, who featured at the 2010 World Cup.

    Since then, the youngster has gone from being a possible call-up to becoming an integral part of the Danish national side and for as many in the football fraternity, represents the future of Danish football.

    The Ajax playmaker is being tipped for a move abroad this summer, with Spain, England and Italy all emerging as plausible destinations.

    In 44 appearances for the Dutch outfit this season, Eriksen scored eight goals as well as recording an incredible 22 assists.

    This puts the midfielder, barely out of his teens, on a par with some of Europe’s hottest prospects and despite his age, a great deal of Denmark’s hopes rest on his shoulders heading into the “group of Death” that is Group B.

    Nobody would blame the Danes if they came out of the competition fruitless as they prepare to go up against Germany, Holland and Portugal, two of which are being highlighted as favourites to go and win the whole thing.

    If you had to pick a section of the pitch that were to be Denmark’s strongest, it would probably have to be their midfield and Eriksen is certainly the leader of that particular pack, regardless of his youth.

England: Steven Gerrard

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    Earning nothing but misery on the international stage of late yet bathed in high expectations, the selection for England’s ‘talisman’ at Euro 2012 will probably be criticised and picked upon no matter how appropriate it is or isn’t.

    Regardless, here we go.

    Steven Gerrard has tasted the ecstasy that comes with a Champions League triumph as well as the lows that go hand in hand with finishing below your closest local rivals in the Premier League.

    However, the Merseyside legend has experienced nothing but woe on an international level.

    Gerrard made his debut for England back in 2000 and his first involvement in a major tournament was the European Championships of the same year.

    12 years later and the 32-year-old is still a staple in the squad of the Three Lions, but he has been somewhat of an inconspicuous puppeteer at times.

    For all of his exploits on the club scale, the limelight frequently seems to be directed at others, but the Liverpool man would probably tell you that he prefers it that way.

    Steven Gerrard will certainly attract more than his share of the attention this time around as he goes into his second consecutive international competition as captain of his crop.

    Personal speculation and injuries respectively meant that John Terry and Rio Ferdinand were unavailable to compete for much of the 2010 World Cup.

    Gerrard led his men well and should do as well as any other in Poland and Ukraine.

    Whether playing on the right, more central or behind the strikers, Gerrard will give his all to the badge which he represents and is the exemplar in terms of how to handle such responsibility.

    The playmaker may not have the same accolades to his name at Wembley as he does at Anfield, but if he performs the same as he does during the regular season while staying injury-free, Gerrard could be the difference for England at Euro 2012.

France: Franck Ribery

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    France are being tipped by many to be the dark horse victors in Poland and Ukraine after undergoing a dramatic overhaul at the hands of Laurent Blanc.

    The former Manchester United and Barcelona sweeper appears to have mopped up the travesty that was the 2010 World Cup, where players and coaches clashed in a terrible case of defiance.

    The team is now made up of both old faces and new but one particularly powerful example of the former is Franck Ribery.

    The Bayern Munich attacker finished the Bundesliga season with 17 goals and 27 assists, leading Die FCB to the Champions League final in the process.

    In a similar run of form, the winger has been a constantly evident figure in France’s run to Euro 2012, scoring two goals in their last two matches.

    Les Bleus  have looked impressive going forward in the last year, but with defence an apparent frailty, it looks as if Blanc may be adopting a slight “We can score more than you” mentality, with Ribery spearheading the assault.

Germany: Mats Hummels

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    Germany have been almost unanimously placed as the favourites to topple Spain from their European perch this summer. That isn’t surprising.

    What may be, however, is the selection for who their most important player will be at Euro 2012.

    A staunch defence has always been the platform upon which Germany have built their formulaic and structured attack.

    Not to sound too paradoxical, but a good defence makes a good attack.

    Franz Beckenbauer, Lothar Matthäus, Jürgen Kohler; the list of world-class centre backs to play for Die Mannschaft is a long one and Mats Hummels could soon join the alumni.

    The 23 year-old is coming off the back of his second consecutive Bundesliga title-winning campaign with Borussia Dortmund and has recently turned the German tide even further by securing the DFB Pokal trophy after beating Bayern Munich in the final.

    The German national side deserve the praise they are receiving and are full to the brim with talent all over their squad.

    Other players who will undoubtedly play essential parts in the tournament run are figures like Manuel Neuer, Phillip Lahm, Mario Gomez, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mario Götze.

    The list of remarkable talent within the nation could go on.

    However, Hummels is pretty much a dead-cert to start under Joachim Löw which, at his age, is nothing short of magnificent.

    Should Germany hold out against the likes of Netherlands, Portugal and, to a slightly lesser extent, Denmark, in the group stages, then Hummels will have officially established himself as a world talent and one that could be the cornerstone of the nation’s defence for some years to come.

    In their last twelve matches, Germany have scored an impressive 32 goals.

    With that in mind, it’s safe to say that the attacking aspect will take care of itself, making it Hummels who will have to lead the defence in ensuring the German goal remains intact.

Greece: Kyriakos Papadopoulos

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    At odds of 80/1, we can almost totally discount the possibility of Greece turning around their economical frustration by repeating the heroics of Euro 2004 in this year’s edition of the competition.

    However, that isn’t to say that the side is without their stars, it just has less of them.

    One such star is Kyriakos Papadopoulos, a player whose name alone makes you hope that Greece don’t go far just so that you don’t have to repeat it too many times.

    In an underdog side, the 20 year-old shines as a glimmer of hope for Greek football and despite his age, will lead from the front as a defender capable of a goal, scoring five for club Schalke 04 this season.

    Fernando Santos’ youth was merely a schoolboy when he saw his idols lift the title eight years ago and although he is unlikely to do the same in 2012, he’ll certainly be one of the primary factors in their run.

    Papadopoulos couldn’t have hoped for much better in terms of pool selection having been drawn in the same group as Czech Republic, Russia as well as hosts Poland.

    The Galanolefki still have a major task on their hands in term of advancing in the tournament but expect this youngster’s name to be mentioned in the same breath as any involving Greek success this summer.

Italy: Gianluigi Buffon

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    With scandal and uncertainty currently surrounding the Italian national team, it’s not even clear if the Azzurri will even end up competing in Poland and Ukraine in June and July.

    Allegations of match-fixing mean that Serie A players and coaching staff alike have been arrested for questioning in recent months and weeks, meaning that the national side may be pulled from competition.

    However, for the sake of this article, let’s analyse their team as normal and just go about our critiquing business as if everything is just peachy.

    Since winning the World Cup back in 2006, Italy have somewhat fallen off of the international football map.

    Cesare Prandelli’s team now sit 12th in the FIFA world rankings.

    That being said, Italy enjoyed a near spotless qualification to Euro 2012, an achievement that was largely down to a particularly stubborn defence with Gianluigi Buffon at its base.

    The 34-year-old is still the most expensive transfer ever in his position and although the £33m switch took place over a decade ago, it still seems like money that was well spent by Juventus.

    The Turin outfit just lifted the Scudetto title for the first time in nine years and it’s fair to say that even though the veteran had a valiant defence in front of him, at least some of the 17 cleans sheets that the club kept in their league campaign were owed completely to the efforts of Buffon.

    It appears that Prandelli’s Italy has adopted the characteristic of Serie A in that defence is the first priority and goals come second.

    This technically makes Gianluigi Buffon the most vital player in the whole team and with goals appearing as quite difficult to come by, the Italian captain will need to keep out current European champions, Spain, early on if his side is to top their group.

Netherlands: Arjen Robben

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    The other team being hinted as favourites to strip Spain of the European title, Netherlands, have lost some of their lustre in recent weeks.

    Since qualifying for the 2012 edition of the Euros, the Oranje’s form has dropped with the nation winning just two of their last six friendlies, losing three.

    However, one man who has remained at the heart of the team, disappointing form or not, is Arjen Robben.

    The 28-year-old enjoyed a superb club season, helping Bayern Munich run Borussia Dortmund very close to the wire in the Bundesliga season before then meeting their rivals in the DFB Pokal final.

    Robben finished the campaign with 19 goals and 10 assists and, after a rest, will be hoping to shine just as brightly on the international level.

    In a similar fashion to France, Bert van Marwijk’s men haven’t been as clinical in defence as they have been in attack, making Robben all that more important a star.

    Given the scoring success that the trio have seen this season, Robin van Persie, Klaas Jan Huntelaar and Luuk de Jong will score at Euro 2012; that’s just about a certainty.

    What isn’t certain however, is how much of the ball that the three will receive and that is where Robben falls into place.

    At Bayern, the winger has to take on board a large portion of the scoring opportunities, standing out as one of the premier attackers.

    While that’s still true amongst Holland’s elite, the strikers in van Marwijk’s roster mean that Robben’s first priority will be providing ammunition to those ahead of him.

    This, as we know, is a role that he is more than capable of playing and the importance of the speedster's superior crossing in this occasion is paramount.

Poland: Robert Lewandowski

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    Having not played a competitive match since 2009, an enigmatic phantom of secrecy currently surrounds Poland and their chances of succeeding at Euro 2012.

    The joint hosts will be relying heavily on the talents of their Borussia Dortmund based trio who are fresh from a season in which they earned a German cup double including the Bundesliga title and the DFB Pokal trophy.

    Lukasz Piszczek and national team captain Jakub Blaszczykowski have both played significant parts in the recent success of Die Borussen but the Pole with whom the most responsibility lies is Robert Lewandowski.

    The 23-year-old featured to a lesser extent at Euro 2008 but the last four years have been incredibly kind to the forward and he is not only Poland’s biggest attacking threat but is also being tipped for an underdog’s assault on the Euro’s Golden Boot award.

    After waiting in the wings for several seasons, Lewandowski featured for Borussia Dortmund on over 40 occasions this season, scoring 30 goals and making 12 assists in the process.

    With the home crowd behind him, Lewandowski is sure to be a hit at the summer tournament, providing his team can give him the right service.

Portugal: Cristiano Ronaldo

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    Is there really any point even batting this one up for discussion?

    Cristiano Ronaldo scored a monumental 60 goals for Real Madrid this season. Were it not for a certain Argentine maestro over at the Camp Nou, the Portuguese attacker could well have found himself clutching La Liga’s Golden Boot award.

    However, he’ll just have to settle for the Spanish league title instead.

    Regardless of the success Ronaldo has seen during his club exploits however, the former Manchester United talisman hasn’t been able to showcase his talents amongst the not as star-studded Portuguese national team.

    Portugal have won just twelve of their last 24 international matches and although they ultimately dealt with Bosnia and Herzegovina in the end, got into Euro 2012 through a close-fought playoff round.

    For all the talent in Paulo Bento’s team, Portugal have failed to net as often as they would have liked in recent months and a particularly poignant factor is that the nation have so far yet to score in 2012.

    Goalless draws against Poland and Macedonia suggest that even the tall and majestic figure of Ronaldo may not be enough to get Portugal out of the ‘Group of Death’ that comprises of themselves, Holland, Germany and Denmark.

    Ronaldo is set to captain his country in Poland and Ukraine and should anything come of the Euro 2012 tournament for Portugal, you can guarantee that the playmaker come winger come striker will be at the heart of it.

Republic of Ireland: Robbie Keane

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    As joint largest outsiders to win the tournament, the Republic of Ireland’s chances of making it past even the group stage are slim.

    However, just about everything the country stands for: integrity, fight and positivity, can be seen in their captain and probably their biggest threat on goal, Robbie Keane.

    The Republic of Ireland’s all-time top goalscorer, Keane played a predictable hand in his side’s qualification for the competition and despite his age, possibly remains as Giovanni Trappattoni’s most valuable player.

    The Boys in Green were surprisingly convincing in their qualifying campaign and regardless of the fact that they were forced into a playoff tie against Estonia, lost just one of their eight group qualification matches.

    Unbeaten in 2012 so far and with Shay Given between the sticks, the Irish defence seems to be one solid aspect of the team and with Keane leading the line, the Republic of Ireland have one of the most experienced strikers in elite world football at their disposal.

    With the more youthful likes of James McClean, Aiden McGeady and Shane Long around him, the 31 year-old may not have to worry about the physical aspect as much these days but as long as his football brain is in one piece, the former Tottenham hitman is a massive threat, even to the likes of group opponents, Spain, Italy and Croatia.

Russia: Alan Dzagoev

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    After reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2008, Russia are carrying a subtle sense of confidence heading into this summer’s tournament.

    The former Soviet Union state have lucked out in their group, drawing the Czech Republic, Poland and Greece and opening up the possibility of making it to the quarter-finals provided they top Group A as many are predicting.

    One player who wasn’t in the squad four years ago is Alan Dzagoev who appears to ignore all regular laws of football and has emerged as one of the primary driving forces for the national team.

    Surrounded by talent, the 21 year-old has already become a key playmaker for Russia and will feature in his first major tournament when he makes the short trip to Poland and Ukraine.

    The CSKA Moscow midfielder sits just behind the main forward line but one wouldn’t be blamed for mistaking Dzagoev for a striker at times.

    The youngster has been incessantly labelled as the future of Russian football and with a valuable line of striking talent ahead of him, Dzagoev will be a particular playmaker to watch out for over the next month.

Spain: Fernando Llorente

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    In a squad of 23, you could almost pin the title of ‘Most Important Player’ on half or more of the Spanish national team who will travel to Euro 2012 this summer.

    From No.1 to No.11, Vicente del Bosque has a star-studded line-up on his hands, many of whom played a role for either Barcelona or Real Madrid in this season’s La Liga title race.

    However, it’s a man from outside of both of those outfits that gets the nod in this particular race.

    Fernando Llorente has scored over 70 goals altogether in his last three seasons at Athletic Bilbao, moving past the standard ’20 goals-per-season’ module that strikers across the globe strive to adhere to.

    The 6ft 5inch forward is reportedly being tracked by a number of sides in both England and Spain but, for now at least, remains in his more modest surroundings of San Mamés.

    In 20 games for the Spanish national side, Llorente has netted a decent return of seven goals and will certainly get his chance to add to that tally in Poland and Ukraine after an impressive season under Marcelo Bielsa, leading Bilbao to the Europa League final.

    However, Llorente still isn’t an assured starter for Spain. So, “Why is he their most important player, then?” I hear you ask.

    Well, with David Villa out of the tournament through a broken leg, the striking options immediately become restricted for Spain.

    When you then consider the staggering form of Fernando Torres, the equation gets even simpler.

    Yes, El Nino did improve towards the end of the season and yes, he scored a vital goal or two near the climax of Chelsea’s Champions League-winning campaign but the jury is still out on the formerly prolific forward.

    With all this now in the formula, Llorente is assured to get his chance should his fellow strikers fail to perform and could even earn the starting berth.

    Given their depth in midfield, Spain are likely to line up in a 4-5-1 formation and the characteristic supply line is sure to come from the likes of Iniesta, Xavi, Fabregas, Silva, Alonso and others.

    With this improved ammunition behind him, Llorente’s chances of scoring can only improve and with such uncertainty up top for Spain, Euro 2012 could be the giant’s best chance of making it big in an international tournament.

Sweden: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

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    Competing in their fourth consecutive European Championships, Sweden have risen to become a stable fixture in the tournament over the last decade or so but nevertheless remain as big outsiders to progress.

    However, underdogs or not, the Scandinavians actually hold one of the finest records in 2012 out of all the Euro 2012 participants with four victories out of four this year.

    That ratio is in no small part down to the efforts of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has made it a habit of his to open the scoring for the Blâgult.

    The AC Milan striker has another, more narcissistic habit though: proclaiming that he is the best player in the world.

    As such, Ibrahimovic won’t be living up to the expectations of the world or his fellow countrymen as much as he will be his own.

    The 30 year-old former Serie A Football of the Year finished this season as the top scorer in the Italian top flight with 28 league goals as well as ten assists.

    With Johan Elmander carrying a foot injury, Sweden’s attacking options have been shortened before the tournament has even begun.

    Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be leading his fellow Swedes as captain at Euro 2012 but the vast majority, if not all scoring responsibilities rest neatly on his rather broad shoulders.

    Will this be the year that the forward proves his claims correct? Probably not.

    But with a creative midfield of Sebastian Larsson, Kim Kallström and Rasmus Elm behind him, he’ll have chances.

Ukraine: Andriy Yarmolenko

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    It’s the mark of a good striker to be able to score goals when there may be limited service on hand from which he can benefit.

    Thankfully for the Ukrainian team, Andriy Yarmolenko appears to be the figure ensuring that their supply line remains consistent and one of a very high standard.

    The Dynamo Kiev winger may be just 22-years-old but with 20 international caps already under his belt, Yarmolenko will be key if the co-hosts are to make it out of Group D.

    You might call it controversial that Shevchenko wasn’t the man picked for this ‘award’ but while the veteran may still be their most famous player and biggest crowd favourite, he isn’t the most ‘important’.

    Shevchenko has proven throughout his career that he is capable of goals as long as chances are there to be lapped up.

    Yarmolenko ensures that this will be the case.

    In his last nine games for Ukraine, the youngster has provided six assists, as well as gone on to score an impressive five goals of his own; a rather freakish ratio of production given his tender age.

    The Dynamo Kiev pair are sure to link up in front of their own fans this summer on more than one occasion but the difference in the decision is that without Yarmolenko, there would seem to be no Shevchenko.

    In short, the winger is Ukraine’s best chances of giving the Ukrainian crowd something to cheer about, whether it be from creating goals or scoring them himself.

    All scoring statistics come courtesy of: Transfermarkt.com and WhoScored.com.

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