The draw for next summer’s European Championships was held in Kiev last night and threw up some intriguing fixtures including the time-honoured ‘Group of Death’, which includes three of the top seven sides in the FIFA world rankings: Holland, Germany and Portugal. The draw has further delivered a number of mouth-watering first round fixtures, particularly England v France and Spain v Italy.
It would be impossible however to overlook the inauspicious opening to the tournament, which sees co-hosts, Poland, play the 2004 champions, Greece, on Friday 8th June. This fixture promises to be something of an anti-climax between two of the weaker nations in the Championships, but Russia v Czech Republic later in the day should provide more exhilaration.
Despite the lack of strong nations in Group A, Group B has inevitably been labelled as the now customary ‘Group of Death’ – Holland, Germany, Portugal and Denmark. Holland and Germany are expected to progress after the difficulties that Portugal have experienced in qualifying for recent major tournaments, which has led to disappointing early exits at Euro 2008 and last year’s World Cup.
Portugal may possess Cristiano Ronaldo, but the Real Madrid man has been unconvincing on the international stage and has not consistently shone since Euro 2004. The Germans were a revelation in South Africa last summer and are expected to build a strong challenge against the favourites, Spain; as are World Cup runners-up the Netherlands, who possess one of the most attractive attacking units in Europe.
Republic of Ireland were plunged into Group C with European and World champions Spain, Croatia and Italy, the country of Irish manager Giovanni Trapattoni’s birth. Ireland’s pragmatic playing nature will be tested to the full in two daunting fixtures against the Spanish and Italians, whilst, as England will testify, Croatia are not to be underestimated, even if they are a shadow of the team they were in 2008.
England were the last team to be drawn and pitted against co-hosts Ukraine, long-term adversaries Sweden and a revitalised French team.
At first glance Fabio Capello will have been relieved to have avoided the big guns in Groups B and C, but their placement in Group D does in no way guarantee progression to the knockout stages. England’s opening game against the French is a repeat of their showdown in Euro 2004, when two late Zinedine Zidane goals snatched victory from England’s grasp.
Despite France’s farcical participation in the 2010 World Cup, the side has been completely re-invented under the tutelage of Laurent Blanc, who has overseen an up-turn in form that sees them unbeaten in their last 17 games – including a comprehensive victory at Wembley last November.
Sweden may be one of the weaker teams in the draw, but there is no disguising their long-term tournament hex over the English. Although England recorded their first victory against the Swedes in a Wembley friendly last month, it has never happened in tournament football – including twice in recent years at the World Cups in 2002 and 2006.
Though Capello will be relieved to have been pitted against the technically weak Ukrainians, facing the co-hosts of a major tournament will be no easy feat. Ukraine are relatively untried of late given their absence to competitive football, yet it is remarkable what can be achieved by a technically poor side riding on the wave of national pride and expectation during a potentially life-changing summer – South Korea at the 2002 World Cup for instance.
England’s major problem next summer may well turn out to be the logistical nightmare of the vast distances that will have to be covered between group games. The England camp will be based in Krakow, Poland yet play each of their group matches in Ukraine. It remains to be seen how much of a negative influence this will have upon England’s fortunes, but it must be said that it presents a ready-made excuse should England fail yet again.
The Euros in 2012 are sure to deliver more excitement and drama than the mundane insipidity which pervaded the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. With the tournament lasting just three weeks, the entire group stage fixtures crammed into eleven days and the promise of big game fixtures and casualties in the first round it is sure to live up to the legacy of Euro 2008, widely regarded as the greatest football tournament of modern times.