Euro 2012 Previews: Group A

6 Jun

 With the co-hosts Poland being granted 1st seed status, this group never promised to shower us with fireworks.  Can the mecurial Russians turn the entertainment dials up? Or will this be forever known as the most uninspiring group ever? 

Poland

1. Wojciech Szczesny, 12. Grzegorz Sandomierski, 22. Przemyslaw Tyton

2. Sebastian Boenisch, 3. Grzegorz Wojtkowiak, 4. Marcin Kaminski, 13. Marcin Wasilweski, 14. Jakub Wawrzyniak, 15. Damien Perquis, 20. Lukasz Piszczek

5. Dariusz Dudka, 6. Adam Matuszczyk, 7. Eugen Polanski, 8. Maciej Rybus, 10. Ludovic Obraniak, 11. Rafal Murawski, 16. Jakub Blaszczykowski (c), 18. Adrian Mierzejweski, 19. Rafal Wolski, 21. Kamil Grosicki

9. Robert Lewandowski, 17. Artur Sobiech, 23. Pawel Brozek

It’s been a long road since 2007 when Poland discovered they would be co-hosting the tournament. Whilst the news was rejoiced, there have been many issues, the obvious pitfall being the lack of competitive football in the ensuing period. Coach Franciszek Smuda has experimented with many players in a multitude of friendlies, and is finally finding a semblance of continuity in his picks. The issue is that there is a huge imbalance in quality in the final squad. Whilst the likes of Szczesny and the Borussia Dortmund trio of Piszczek, Blaszczykowski and Lewandowski, have competed well at the highest level this season, others are of a more mediocre stock. The hope is that the euphoria of the home backing will elevate players to a more competitive level, in order to back up the stars of the team.

The country has not been helped by the recent Panorama documentary which highlighted the problem with fascist ideologies which still exist amongst many hardcore Polish fans. Whilst isolated incidents don’t provide the full picture, it was worrying to see the lack of control which the stewards and police possessed.

 NOTABLE ABSENTEES

            Ireneusz Jelen’s transfer to Lillecame at an inopportune time and his lack of match action saw him left out. The three most familiar names who miss out are goalkeepers. Lukasz Fabianski suffered a shoulder injury otherwise he’d have acted as Szczesny’s understudy. Artur Boruc and Tomasz Kuszczak have both played for top club sides but are excluded due to clashes with Smuda, despite the latter dropping down a division with Watfordin order to prove his worth.

WILDCARD PICKS

            Pawel Brozek makes the cut, in spite of only 14 club appearances in the season. His loan move to Celtic didn’t pay off, and he is fortunate that there is a lack of serious competition for the forward roles. Rafal Wolski is an exciting winger who only made his senior international debut in May.

The controversial selections are those of the ‘plastic Poles’. Acutely aware of the need to up the quality in his side, Smuda scoured the continent for players with Polish heritage. Of those discovered, only Damien Perquis was not actually born in Poland, but there is still a feeling that the spots should have been saved for those whose allegiances couldn’t be questioned.

 PREDICTION

            It is difficult to predict given the new-look nature of the side, but a goalless draw with Portugal and a 2-2 with Germany in the past twelve months suggest that Poland can compete. They have found themselves in the group which it appears easiest to escape from, but the level playing field which that engenders means that it really is up for grabs.Russia should have enough individual expertise to come out on top, so Smuda’s side should settle for second place, a fine achievement in its own right. A quarter-final against old foes Germany would signal the end.

If they were a song they’d beUnder Pressure – Queen

Russia

1. Igor Akinfeev, 13. Anton Shunin, 16. Vyacheslav Malafeev

2. Aleksandr Anyukov, 3. Roman Sharonov, 4. Sergei Ignashevich, 5. Yuri Zhirkov, 12. Aleksei Berezutski, 19. Vladimir Granat, 21. Kirill Nababkin

6. Roman Shirokov, 7. Igor Denisov, 8. Konstantin Zyryanov, 9. Marat Izmailov, 15. Dmitri Kombarov, 17. Alan Dzagoev, 22. Denis Glushakov, 23. Igor Semshov

10. Andrei Arshavin (c), 11. Aleksandr Kerzhakov, 14. Roman Pavlyuchenko, 18. Aleksandr Kokorin, 20. Pavel Pogrebnyak

In July 2008, I wrote a piece (cleverly entitled ‘Russian Revolution’) centred upon the side which had taken that summer’s European Championship by storm. Following on from Zenit Saint Petersburg’s victory in the UEFA Cup, the Russian national team recovered from a slow start in the group stage to shock the favourites Holland in an enthralling quarter final. Star players were emerging throughout the side, and I fancied that many would find themselves making big money moves to Western Europe. ‘An exodus’ is how I put it. I extolled the virtues of Igor Akinfeev (still at CSKA), Aleksandr Anyukov (still at Zenit), Dmitri Torbinsky (still at Lokomotiv) and Vladimir Bystrov (still in Russia, but now at Zenit). Now I wasn’t all wrong, as Zhirkov, Bilyaletdinov, Pogrebnyak, Pavlyuchenko (‘missed a number of chances when it seemed easier to score’) and Arshavin (‘Arsenal seems his most likely destination’) all made moves to more illustrious leagues, but all but Pogrebnyak ended last season back in the motherland. All this means that Russia enter Euro 2012 as an unknown quantity. They possess many recognisable players, but nobody is quite sure how they will perform when it comes down to it.

NOTABLE ABSENTEES 

            Vasili Berezutski would have been in Dick Advocaat’s starting eleven, but he was forced to withdraw due to a thigh injury, a blow which could benefit his twin brother. Bystrov and Torbinsky both miss out despite possessing tournament experience, as does Sergei Semak whose international career is probably now complete. Two promising young fullbacks, Georgi Schennikov and Sergei Parshivlyuk, lose out to more experienced colleagues.

Diniyar Bilyaletdinov is the most surprising omission, as he had been a regular in the squad. Pays the price for an unconvincing six months at Spartak since his return toRussia.

WILDCARD PICKS 

            Rubin Kazan skipper Roman Sharonov is handed an unlikely chance to redeem himself on the international scene and erase a red card picked up at Euro 2004 from his memory. The uncapped Kirill Nababkin is another interesting inclusion. 21 year old forward Aleksandr Kokorin gets a chance to taste the environment after a decent season.

The most intriguing selection by Advocaat is that of Marat Izmailov. He will travel to Poland ten years after his first appearance at a major finals. He is a winger of undoubted individual ability, but he has a suspect temperament and suffers from dramatic dips in form. Has hardly set the world alight in his five years in Portugal, so Advocaat must have spotted something which he feels can bring something different to his squad.

PREDICTION 

            Being placed in the easiest of the four groups should allow them to grow into the tournament, and express themselves to a certain extent. The problem is that their quarter final opponent will come from the ‘Group of Death’ and so that is where Russia will exit.

If they were a song they’d be… Unpredictable – Jamie Foxx

Greece

1. Kostas Chalkias, 12. Alexandros Tsorvas, 13. Michalis Sifakis

2. Ioannis Maniatis, 3. Giorgos Tzavelas, 4. Stelios Malezas, 5. Kyriakos Papadopoulos, 8. Avraam Papadopoulos, 15. Vasilis Torosidis, 19. Sokratis Papastathopoulos, 20. Jose Holebas

6. Grigoris Makos, 10. Giorgos Karagounis (c), 16. Giorgos Fotakis, 18. Sotiris Ninis, 21. Kostas Katsouranis, 22. Kostas Fortounis, 23. Giannis Fetfatzidis

7. Giorgos Samaras, 9. Nikos Lyberopoulos, 11. Kostas Mitroglou, 14. Dimitris Salpigidis, 17. Theofanis Gekas

 Eight years after Greece shocked Europe by winning Euro 2004 with their rigid, never-say-die attitude, the outlook is much less bright. Yes they negotiated a tricky qualifying group, finishing two points clear of Croatia, but that doesn’t hide the issues. They only managed fourteen goals in their ten group games, scoring more than once only four times. And fresh in the minds of many is their dismal showing at Euro 2008, when they passed the ball along the backline incessantly, even when they needed to score. Otto Rehhagel is no longer in charge, but the majority of the squad is the same. No adequate replacements have been found for the old heads of Karagounis and Katsouranis, so they will plough on.

NOTABLE ABSENTEES

            Goalkeeper Dionisis Chiotis is overlooked despite his heroics for APOEL Nicosia in the Champions League, whilst Panathinaikos custodian Orestis Karnezis doesn’t travel either. Two of the old guard, Loukas Vyntra and Angelos Charisteas, also miss out. The former’s versatility could have been useful, whilst the latter’s legendary status wasn’t quite enough to nudge him on to the plane. AEK’s defensive prospect Kostas Manolas is one for the future.

 WILDCARD PICKS  

            Jose Holebas only became a Greek citizen at the tail end of 2011 but could find himself in the starting eleven. Kostas Fortounis and Giannis Fetfatzidis are two of the new generation who will provide options off the bench if coach Fernando Santos wants to liven things up.

            Young Panathinaikos star Sotiris Ninis burst onto the scene as a teenager but his progress since has stalled. Still capable of the flashes of brilliance which once caught the attention of Europe’s top clubs, he’s the one player in the side who is capable of inspiring the rest with his talent.

 PREDICTION 

            Their safety first approach is acceptable when facing superior sides, but in Group A they will need to be much more proactive to proceed. Another first round exit awaits, and serious rejuvenation of the squad will have to follow. Tough times ahead.

 If they were a song they’d be… Being Boring – Pet Shop Boys
Czech Republic
 1. Petr Cech, 16. Jan Lastuvka, 23. Jaroslav Drobny

2. Theodor Gebre Selassie, 3. Michal Kadlec, 4. Marek Suchy, 5. Roman Hubnik, 6. Tomas Sivok, 8. David Limbersky, 12. Frantisek Rajtoral

9. Jan Rezek, 10. Tomas Rosicky (c), 11. Milan Petrzela, 13. Jaroslav Plasil, 14. Vaclav Pilar, 17. Tomas Hubschman, 18. Daniel Kolar, 19. Petr Jiracek, 22. Vladimir Darida

7. Tomas Necid, 15. Milan Baros, 20. Tomas Pekhart, 21. David Lafata

Czech Republic have arguably been involved in the most exciting game in each of the last two European Championships. 2004 saw the epic see-saw battle with the enigmatic Dutch, and in 2008 a late collapse saw them eliminated at the hands of the jubilant Turks. The current side lacks a little of the flair with which they impressed in the past, and in truth qualification was far from straightforward. They were confident and efficient in dispatching Montenegro in the playoffs but the same can definitely not be said of their group stage performance. They dealt manfully with Spain in both meetings, but when faced with their main rivals for second spot,  Scotland, they were extremely lucky. In the first meeting in Prague, they struggled to a 1-0 victory and were lucky that Craig Levein famously decided to play without a striker. The rematch was a highly controversial affair and the Czechs sneaked a 2-2 draw thanks to a highly contentious penalty, won by a blatant dive, and the referee’s failure to award Scotland what looked like a more sure-fire claim just moments later.

 NOTABLE ABSENTEES

            Libor Kozak is a decent target man who has struggled for opportunities with Lazio since the arrival of Miroslav Klose. Tomas Kalas, Ladislav Krejci and Vaclav Kadlec are names who you may hear much more of in the future, and it’s a shame Michal Bilek didn’t see fit to give one of them a shot. Daniel Pudil didn’t recover from injury in time.

            Elsewhere, old heads Jiri Stajner and Zdenek Pospech may well call time on their international careers after being ignored.

WILDCARDS

            Theodor Gebre Selassie is the first player of colour to represent the Czech Republic, a testament to the increasing entry of different cultures into Czech society. Viktoria Plzen’s Vladimir Darida was a late replacement for Pudil, and can gain valuable experience for the future.

            Petr Jiracek has experienced an astonishing rise to prominence at the age of 26. A beneficiary of Viktoria Plzen’s title-winning success, he now plies his trade in the Bundesliga with Wolfsburg and is a vital cog in the national side.

PREDICTION

            The target has to be safe passage to the knockout stage, and it is a realistic prospect, particularly if Tomas Rosicky can show the sort of form which has saved his Arsenal career. However, I feel that a final day showdown with Poland could be crucial, and home advantage will see the Poles through.

 If they were a song they’d be… Man I Used To Be – K-OS

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