Euro 2012: England vs. France and Must-Watch First-Round Matchups

Louis Hamwey@thecriterionmanAnalyst IIIJune 2, 2012

OSLO, NORWAY - MAY 26:  Ashley Young of England celebrates his goal with Steven Gerrard during the International Friendly match between Norway and England at Ullevaal Stadion on May 26, 2012 in Oslo, Norway.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The European club season has been over for two weeks, but if you are like me the incredible high with which it ended has you in one of the worst football withdrawals you have ever experienced. Fear not, fans, as we are less than a week away from arguably the most talented international tournament the game has to offer!

The UEFA European Championship gets underway Friday, June 8 with co-host Poland facing off against Greece for Group A. However, this matchup will be watched by many as mostly a formality, kind of a mild sedative to help rid ourselves of the hangover caused by the absence of the game.

We will have to wait 24 more hours before we get the good stuff!

Here are a few of the matches you are not going to want to miss as each team gets the ball rolling in their quest for European glory.

Germany vs. Portugal

June 9, 2:45 p.m. EDT, Arena Lviv

Germany and Portugal are both expecting to make an impact at this summer’s tournament. Arguably two of the more talent-laden sides in the tournament, this early treat pits some the world’s very best against each other right off the bat.

The Germans are a heavy favorite, and anything less than winning it all will be regarded as some sort of failure. This team that was considered young and inexperienced back in South Africa is now more or less in their prime and ready to start making an impact.

WARSAW, POLAND - FEBRUARY 29:  Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal in action during the International Friendly mach between Poland and Portugal at National Stadium on February 29, 2012 in Warsaw, Poland.  (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

They are led by Bastian Schweinsteiger, their engine in the midfield who makes the whole machine function. His ability to hold the ball and posses it is vital to the success of the team. But it will really be an offensive-minded approach the Germans take to their matches.

With Bayern Munich forward Mario Gomez in the best form of his life, he will surely be a formidable opponent for the Portuguese to contend with. Not to mention that he will now be getting service from one of the best attacking midfielders in the game, Mesut Ozil.

Portugal, on the other hand, is a team of underachievers. With the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Joao Moutinho and Fabio Coentrao, there is no reason they should find themselves in 0-0 draws to Macedonia, but that is what tends to happen.

For whatever reason, Ronaldo has never been able to replicate his club success on an international level. The magic he works never comes out in Portuguese jersey, and he becomes almost an average player. If he ever wants to reach that echelon of all-time greats, he needs to start making it happen with Portugal.

It should be a tight affair, but open in play. Both sides' liabilities come in the back, and the attackers will look to make the most of that. In the proverbial group of death (Group B), neither side can afford taking anything less than three points from the opening match, but also don’t want to risk having to climb from the bottom to advance. 

Spain vs. Italy

BERN, SWITZERLAND - MAY 30: Fernando Torres (L) of Spain stands with his teammate Sergio Ramos as they listen to their countries national anthem during the international friendly match between Spain and Korea Republic on May 30, 2012 in Bern, Switzerland.
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

June 10, 12 p.m., PGE Arena

A battle of styles is what his early match will amount to as pre-tournament favorites Spain will attempt to pass their way through defensive juggernauts Italy.

Spain is looking to win their second straight European Championship and become the first team to win one on either side of a World Cup title. There is little reason to doubt that they cannot achieve this unprecedented feat as the core of the team that won in 2008 and 2010 is still together ,but more experienced and with even better youth.

There is no one player that you can look at and suggest he is the one who must step up for a Spanish victory. The team game plan is to make sure that is not the case, spreading the ball and making everyone a threat to score. They are one of the most unselfish national teams that has ever been assembled, and in this day of mercenary transfers, it is incredible that they are able to maintain this kind of cohesion.

On the other side, Italy is having to deal with major off-field issues as well as preparing for the match. Yet another match-fixing scandal has been uncovered, and the team faced the public embarrassment of authorities showing up at their training ground to arrest players.

However, this could provide further motivation for a side who underperformed in South Africa, finishing an embarrassing last place in their relatively easy group. The Italians will surely not want to repeat that and could take on an “us vs. the world” mentality to get them through.

That kind of determination is going to have to come into play against Spain as responsible defending and smart positioning is the only way to stop their attack. But if anyone can do that, it is the nation that made defending popular.

For those who really enjoy open play and back-and-forth action, don’t expect too much here. But if you enjoy excellent tactical football and countering styles of play, this is the match for you.

France vs. England

June 11, 12 p.m. EDT, Donbass Arena

The incredible thing about France and England is that whether they go out in the first round or win the whole thing, neither would be considered a hugely unexpected result. Many of the game's current stars are on these sides, and the rich history both posses has fabricated a feeling that they should be favorites no matter what reality may suggest.

This is a time of redemption for France. The troublemakers of 2010 who embarrassed the nation are out, and a youthful crop of hungry prospects have come in to replace them.

A side that was once known for its fierce attack led by the likes of Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane has changed the formula a bit and become defensive-minded. In a run of undefeated matches dating back to August 2011, France has conceded more than one goal only once.

However, they will still rely on the men up front to make sure they get the full three points. Karim Benzema is just finished a stellar season with Real Madrid and will have to be sure-footed in finishing. Other attacking players such as Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri and even Florent Malouda will have to be on their game as well, providing support and finishing their own chances when afforded them.

PARIS, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 11:  Franck Ribery of France in action during the International Friendly between France and USA at Stade de France on November 11, 2011 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

With England, it seems to be more of the same. Controversy preceded the tournament with the resignation of Fabio Capello a few months back and just intensified as his replacement Roy Hodgson picked a squad that has not made many very happy.

Furthermore, injuries have already taken out key midfielders Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard, leaving the position lacking talent and depth. Hodgson will also have to deal with Wayne Rooney missing this match and the subsequent one for kicking a player in qualifying.

Without three preferred starters, the way England gets off the ground is of the utmost importance. Players who were expecting to be mere backups or role players will have to now become the ones that make things happen.

Steven Gerrard will be the most important player out there, expected to engineer chances from the middle without any real supporting passers. And whether it is Andy Carroll, Jermaine Defoe or Danny Welbeck, whoever gets the start up top will have to overcome their horrendous goal scoring records from this past club season and fill in the boots of arguably England’s best player.

This kind of game has ugly written all over it, but will likely be the most fun to watch. Emotion will be high as anything less than a win will be taken as an insult by the fans.

What games are you looking forward to?

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