Spain favourites — but plenty of contenders
JUNE 9 — After the European Championships got under way yesterday with a draw between hosts Poland and Greece (the worst two teams in the tournament) and Russia’s easy win over the Czech Republic, we’re all set for a closely contested competition over the next three weeks.
Reigning World and European champions Spain start proceedings as marginal favourites with most bookies, and it’s difficult to dispute that conclusion.
Their midfield, in particular, is phenomenally talented, with Barcelona quartet Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Sergio Busquets augmented by Manchester City’s David Silva, Chelsea’s Juan Mata, Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso, Athletic Bilbao’s rising star Javi Martinez and Malaga’s speedy Santi Cazorla. That’s quite a bunch of talent.
However, Vicente Del Bosque’s troops aren’t without their problems. In particular, a lack of firepower could prove to be their undoing in the absence of injured David Villa, the leading scorer in their World Cup triumph two years ago.
The strikers at Del Bosque’s disposal are Athletic Bilbao’s Fernando Llorente, Sevilla’s Alvaro Negredo and Chelsea’s Fernando Torres, none of whom inspire much confidence.
Llorente appears tired after a draining season which ended with the disappointment of two cup final defeats, and Negredo has looked out of sorts in the warm-up games. That leaves Torres, who has been gradually showing signs of returning to his peak form after a difficult 18 months, to say the least, with Chelsea.
If none of those three shine, a viable alternative for Del Bosque is to employ one of his many midfielders as a deep-lying striker, similar to the “false nine” position occupied by Lionel Messi at Barcelona. Iniesta and Fabregas would be more than capable of filling that role, and they’re also fully conversant with the system of bamboozling the opposition defence with runners from midfield. It’s nice for Del Bosque to have such a dazzling array of options.
Another injury absentee for Spain is their inspirational captain, Carles Puyol, and their defence has looked far from watertight during the build-up matches — China had good opportunities to open the scoring in last week’s friendly in Seville, where Real Madrid keeper Iker Casillas had an unexpectedly busy first half.
Spain get their campaign under way tomorrow with an eye-catching fixture against Italy, whose build-up to the tournament has been overshadowed by the latest match-fixing scandal to beset Serie A. They’re also missing key defender Andrea Barzagli through injury, and looked extremely ragged in a worrying 3-0 friendly defeat against Russia last weekend — their only warm-up fixture.
It could go either way for Italy. With all the negative attention that has been surrounding them, it would be easy for morale to collapse and the squad to become riddled with quarrelsome sub-groups. On the other hand, they could also develop a more positive “us against the world” mentality and become a closer knit group than ever before.
There are encouraging precedents in Italian football history; they entered both the 1982 and 2006 World Cup finals on the back of similar match-fixing scandals... and promptly went on to win both tournaments. Will it happen again? A lot depends on their opener against Spain: a point or more could get the ball rolling and see them become a force to be reckoned with.
Three more teams who are perfectly capable of going all the way are France, Germany and the Netherlands, all of whom possess sufficient attacking firepower to defeat any opponent.
After a disastrous campaign in South Africa two years ago, France have been rejuvenated by new coach Laurent Blanc and come into the tournament on the back of a 21-game unbeaten run. Karim Benzema had a brilliant season for Real Madrid, and with Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri supplying the ammunition they will be a dangerous outfit.
Germany’s squad is based around the Champions League final team of Bayern Munich, augmented by Arsenal-bound Lukas Podolski and Real Madrid pair Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil. Germany are always well prepared for major tournaments, and we shouldn’t read too much into the defensive frailties shown by their “B” team in a recent 5-3 drubbing by Switzerland.
In the same group, the Netherlands possess more attacking options than any other team. Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart are all capable of winning games single-handedly, and if coach Bert van Marwijk can find the right blend there’s no reason why they can’t go one better than their runners-up finish in South Africa two years ago.
Finally, it’s impossible to discount any team containing Cristiano Ronaldo — the tournament’s most outstanding individual performer. Portugal have been unlucky to land in the “group of death” with Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, but if they can squeeze through that challenge they could go all the way.
Ronaldo has never really shone at international level — his record of 32 goals in 90 games is way below his scoring ratio at club level — but he’s far too good a player to go through his entire career without excelling in a major tournament. Maybe this will be his time.
And what of England? Unfortunately, I’m joining the majority of my countrymen in having very low expectations for Roy Hodgson’s team. France, Sweden and co-hosts Ukraine are all tricky opposition and it would be no surprise to see England go out without winning a game in the group stage.
Without the suspended Wayne Rooney for the first two games, it’s tough to see where England’s goals will come from — somewhat depressingly, set-pieces delivered onto the head of John Terry might represent England’s best chance of scoring.
But Hodgson will have his team well-organised in a disciplined 4-4-2 formation, and they should be tough to break down. Expect a similar approach to that displayed by Chelsea in their Champions League meetings with Barcelona and Bayern Munich... and we all know what happened then, so you never know. But lightning doesn’t strike twice, does it?
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.