Euro 2012: Three Odds-on Favorites and Two Darkhorses
Almost 40 months have passed since Fernando Torres, the in-form scourge of Europe at the time, fired Spain past Germany in a narrow 1-0 final to close the 2008 European Championships.
Much has changed since then. But as the saying goes, just as much has, inevitably, remained the same. Four years isn't that long in the grand scheme of things, after all.
Spain and Germany both booked automatic passage to next summer's championships, co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine, with superlative ease.
The '08 winners cruised through Group I, where their sternest competition came from a surprising Scotland team who, despite starting brightly, petered out by the close, finishing a disappointing third.
Spain had racked up 26 goals and conceded only five during their sterling run, which finished Tuesday with a 3-0 home victory over the Tartan Army.
For those who love an upset, or at least the hint of one—last December's chilly thriller between Spain and Scotland is worth a watch.
Germany made no mistake during their campaign, either, coasting to a perfect 10 wins in 10 matches, scoring 34 goals along the way.
The Netherlands, runners-up in World Cup 2010, were losers Tuesday in what was a meaningless final match of qualifying at the Rasunda Stadion in Sweden.
The Dutch had sealed their direct passage to Euro '12 on the backs of nine consecutive victories in Group E, playing some delectable collective football along the way.
Their rollicking 5-3 victory over Hungary in Budapest last spring teemed with goals. While it would be remiss to neglect to mention the 11-0 thrashing of San Marino a month ago, considering Finland beat the perennial minnows of European football 8-0, that scoreline's luster becomes a couple shades more corroded.
England and France are both back in the fold, having earned direct qualification, although in far less-convincing fashion. Still, it's good to see classic powers on the up-and-up.
La Furia Roja wasted little time in cementing their stature as FIFA's No. 1 team in the world, a distinction they earned upon winning Euro 2008.
Though they were briefly supplanted by Holland in August, they have since recovered their distinction—few would argue their merit, either.
Despite the considerable talent that has flowed through Spanish ranks over their prestigious history, that '08 title was the country's first in a major championship since the 1964 European Championships.
That title dispelled the long-held belief that, despite their prowess, Spain never could get it together when it mattered most.
Unsatisfied, Spain has embarked upon a furious run of form since 2008 that has seen them become the premier team in all of world football.
That 2010 World Cup title was the cherry on top of a spree of scintillating performances.
They have lost only three matches since the 2008 European Championships (0-2 to the U.S. in the '09 Confederations Cup, 0-1 to Switzerland in the first group stage match of the '10 World Cup, 1-2 to Italy in an August '11 friendly), while playing some of the most sumptuous passing football ever seen.
Labeled tiki-taka, it is a system geared toward maintaining possession, and the Spanish do it almost as well as club side FC Barcelona, who unsurprisingly boast six or seven players who are in the national side's first-choice XI.
That Barcelona midfield wheelhouse of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and the deeper-lying Sergio Busquets have been immense for Spain in recent years.
Fernando Torres, so disappointing in recent seasons, has some pressure lifted from his shoulders when on international duty thanks to David Villa, whose 50 goals for Spain are the most in history.
While Carlos Puyol's decline on defense might be cause for concern, the Spanish ooze with attacking talent. Their swarming pressing scheme, so thoroughly mystifying, is superb in recovering possession.
They will enter next summer's championships as favorites and, given their recent run of form, it'd be hard to blame that assessment.
Like Spain, there has been little turnover in the Dutch ranks since the 2010 World Cup final.
Erik Pieters has successfully taken over at left back from the iconic Giovanni van Bronckhorst, who retired after those finals, but the glut of Netherlands' attacking industry remains intact.
And that's a worrisome proposition for the rest of Europe.
Any side that can lay claim to the prodigious talent and veteran experience of Robin van Persie, Klaas Jan Huntelaar, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart and Dirk Kuyt will always be a contender for trophies.
Head coach Bert van Marwijk has concocted a formation that highlights those attacking players' best attributes, and has also been unafraid to integrate some of Holland's top young talent into the fold.
In allowing van Persie, used as a central forward with club side Arsenal, to roam in behind Huntelaar in a support striker's role, the Dutch manager has heeded the words of another national icon and former Holland stalwart, Dennis Bergkamp, who recently was quoted as suggesting that Van Persie would be best utilized in the role he currently occupies with the Oranje (ESPN Soccernet).
It is in that specific role that Van Persie's wily technical ability thrives. Dropping deep, the Dutch No. 7 is a menace in playing perfectly-weighted balls in behind the defense. Lest one forget his finishing abilities, Van Persie netted four against San Marino in September.
The Dutch defense has long been considered its most vulnerable area, but Pieters and fellow youngster Gregory van der Viel have solidified the outside back positions, and are reaping the benefits that accompany high-level continental matches.
Both excel at getting forward, and have shown rock-solid capability in tackling.
Everton center back John Heitinga has paired with a number of different players during qualifying, and while there is no "set" center back combination, Van Marwijk can choose from a number of serviceable options in Joris Mathijsen and youngster Jeffrey Bruma.
Sneijder's spotty fitness record is mirrored by those of Van Persie and Van Der Vaart, which is always a worry.
However, if all three are ready to go by next summer, this team could make a serious challenge (again) to Spanish supremacy.
Pundits and spectators alike must have been shaking their heads in bemusement upon watching Germany during the World Cup 2010.
Who were those guys?
An infusion of youth had revolutionized the national system, with the talented Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller, Sami Khedira and Tony Kroos playing big roles during Die Mannschaft's swashbuckling run to the third-place game.
It was Ozil and Muller who particularly captured the hearts and minds of viewers, launching upon counterattacks with pinpoint precision and making opponents (see: England) pay dearly.
That ruthless quality has not faded into the months of the 2010 summer, with Germany's 3-1 victory Tuesday against Belgium a perfect indication of the side's intent heading into next summer.
They had already sealed direct qualification ahead of the Belgium match, but they cruised to impressive victory all the same.
This side has top-tier talent at the most important positions on the pitch—keeper Manuel Neuer is considered one of the best in the world, and the Bayern Munich goalie has the perfect concoction of talented youth and classy experience on the pitch.
Their perfect qualifying record notwithstanding, this is a side that has been built magnificently by Joachim Low to contend for a long time.
Having spectacularly missed out on the 2008 championships thanks to a sputtering qualifying campaign, where late losses to Russia and Croatia proved insurmountable, England have successfully booked passage to Euro '12—their second consecutive major tournament under Fabio Capello.
The iconic Italian skipper was brought in after that failed '08 qualifying campaign, with the considerable task of returning the Three Lions to prominence.
He has superbly navigated England through two qualifying campaigns—they breezed through the World Cup '10 edition, and finished first in the Euro '12 campaign as well—but that ignominious showing in South Africa has yet to leave many fan's minds.
England's players looked sapped of energy and off the pace during that tournament, coming off the backs of yet another grueling Premier League campaign. In crashing out so spectacularly to Germany in the Round of 16 (4-1), many wondered whether anything had really changed at all.
In response to that showing, the question has arisen whether it might behoove the FA to institute a Christmas break during the Premier League season—a decision utilized by so many of the other top leagues around the continent (Mirror Football).
For the time being, a two-week respite has yet to be implemented, meaning that England's players will head into Poland and Ukraine next summer fatigued once again.
Capello has begun to include some of England's top youth talent into the fold, in effect weeding out some of the elder statesmen of the squad that proved to be disappointments in 2010.
Jack Wilshere played a key role in qualifying for Euro '12, and fellow starlets Adam Johnson, Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck, Phil Jones, Ashley Young and Andy Carroll have all been drawn into the national camp.
Placing Tottenham Hotspur mid Scott Parker, by no means a youngster, in a holding role similar to the one he enjoys club-side has looked like a masterstroke from Capello.
The former West Ham man has looked calm and assured in his positioning and distribution, and has likely made that position his own.
The Three Lions' fortunes will once again reside with their talented but enigmatic striker Wayne Rooney, whose petulant red card against Montenegro on the last day of qualifying will be cause for concern. Will he be able to control his temper next summer?
Rooney has come out and apologized for his antics, which is a very good sign of the Manchester United star's intent, ahead of what will be a tournament of vital importance for him.
England will by no means be favorites ahead of next summer's championships, but they have improved and, given the right group, could make a serious run.
Another side who have instituted wholesale changes in recent years, France were literally left to start from scratch after a disastrous showing in World Cup 2010. Their players had mutinied, their coach had looked bereft of any shred of authority and their fans had grown disillusioned with the horror show.
Into the fracas stepped Laurent Blanc, a member of the '98 World Cup and '00 European Championship-winning sides, charged with the task of resurrecting a once-proud federation that had slipped dangerously close to the precipice of irrelevance.
The former Bordeaux manager wasted little time in marking his imprint, calling up players that had either been neglected by predecessor Raymond Domenech or had fallen out of favor.
Though the beginning was rocky (consecutive losses to Norway and Belarus to start his tenure), Blanc has since guided Les Bleus on a 15-match unbeaten run that saw them emerge at the top of their European qualifying group.
He has brought in a number of France's top youth (and elder) talent, and has integrated them seamlessly—something Domenech could never seem to do. Yann M'Vila has become one of the stars to watch with his superb displays in central midfield, and Yohan Cabaye, one of the Premier League's signings of the summer with Newcastle, has looked excellent in his holding distributive role alongside M'Vila.
Tuesday's 1-1 draw at home against Bosnia and Herzegovina, which sealed passage to next summer's championships, was hardly convincing, but Blanc's charges showed a resoluteness that had been almost nonexistent in previous years.
Despite going down 1-0 in the first half, they found a way to earn the necessary result to avoid a dangerous playoff qualification.
That match looked eerily similar to the horror-show '09 World Cup playoff return leg against Ireland for the first half, when the French players' technique had deserted them.
Blanc's halftime speech made its mark, however—he challenged his side to seal direct passage and prove their critics wrong—and Les Bleus found a reserve of resourcefulness that proved decisive.
France have always possessed a multitude of individual talent but, under Blanc, they have begun to hone it into the form of a collective unit, displaying some of the vintage passing movement that once marked the historic sides of more than a decade ago.
Like Italy, there is a long way to go yet for this side, but they are headed in the right direction.
They have the talent to beat anyone (2-1 against England at Wembley in Nov. '10, 1-0 against Brazil in Feb. '11)—now, the trick will be going out and doing it in Poland and Ukraine.