So the EURO 2012 has finally arrived upon us and the tournament proper kicks off with hosts Poland playing Greece in Warsaw on Friday night, in a three week event shared with the neighbours Ukraine. The flavour of this move so far into Eastern Europe will be tested over the coming days with already some murmurs of potential racism issues, as well as violence, some of which has detracted England followers from making their normal overseas pilgrimage.
But that deficit in football migrants will be more than made up for by the estimated 40,000 Irish fans that are on the move to Poland this week – set to enjoy the first major tournament since the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan.
And the fact that the Republic of Ireland are one space removed from the aptly named Group of Death - with England, Germany and France – is hardly consoling when faced with the combined forces of Italy, Spain and Croatia in Group C. But the fans won’t mind once Trapattoni’s men cause the mandatory early upset, as happened in the old Neckarstadion in EURO 1998 against England. Or against Italy at the Giants Stadium in the opening game of the USA 1994 World Cup.
With Croatia the first match, such a thought is not unimaginable, as is the encounter with Italy – where few experts would be able to offer any clear affirmation of the possible outcome. And the likelihood that it might be against Spain might stretch the imagination a little too far. However the conventional wisdom is that Spain are a fading force and the weight of seizing an unprecedented third major title might just prove too much for Del Bosque’s army. Albeit their qualifying record for EURO 2012 proves otherwise given eight wins out eight and achieved with the basis of the squad that won Euro 2008. Then adding the World Cup two summers ago.
Perhaps the only difference being that the lightning speed that wasin Austria and Switzerland has dimmed somewhat and is still sidelined with injury. A big loss for Del Bosque as the Barcelona man was Spain’s top scorer throughout the qualifying campaign with seven goals. Although the likes of and play their role more often than not, as do and Iniesta from set pieces.
It would therefore hard to believe that a side made up of the added resources of Casillas, Arbeloa, Ramos, Alonso, Albiol, Pedro,, Mata and Busquets would be easily beaten, given the mythical status they have obtained in recent years. Nor would it be credible to think that every team can undo the tika-taka, as Chelsea and Real Madrid showed in the Champions League and La Liga respectively.
Clearly teams no longer stand off the ball baffled, as they did in the past, and the Spanish system when confronted with an eleven player defense can fail – and does fail – when used without the release that a Torres or Llorente can provide. But if there is one team that could undo Spain on the day, it would be Italy which could then decide the outcome of Group C.
These two teams meet each other first on Sunday in Gdansk a few hours before Croatia play the Republic of Ireland in Poznan.
However it is the world cup runners-up in South Africa, Holland, that seem to be arriving to this European Championship very much under the radar. Suspiciously so, given they only lost their last match in the qualifying phase – to Sweden. Indeed, had Bert van Marwijk not chosen to use his son in law, Marc van Bommel, so negatively in the Soccer City Stadium that July day, the Dutch could have tested the Spanish mettle a lot more. And perhaps even won the 2010 final on the day.
How the Netherlands choose to contest this time around will be indicative of their mindset as van Marwijk is still in charge and van Bommel is still a key component in the Dutch midfield. On paper at least, with the likes of Jan Huntelaar,, , Rafael van der Vaart and Robin van Persie in their ranks, Holland have a chance to repeat their EURO 1988 victory. After all it was a one with Russia that undid their ambitions in the St Jakob Park in Basel four years ago – just when the Clockwork Orange looked to be on their merry way to the finals.
This time though they have some work to do in Group B to hold off the challenge from Portugal, Germany and Denmark, if they are to pass through to the quarter- finals. But all very doable all the same.
If England play unburdened with public expectations then a quarter-final place must await them, probably alongside France as there is little to suggest that Ukraine are immovable force. Or that Sweden are the power of the golden days of 1992 and 1994 – then amongst the top four teams in the world. With a side desperate to amend for the debacle against Germany two years ago, and the dominance of Premier League teams in the Champions League over recent years, the Three Lions could prove the surprise team of the tournament. It is long time since so many expected so little in a major football tournament. Which bodes well for Roy Hodgson.
But think its time to set the clocks and watch Holland go one step further than their last final.