Praise for Spain has been slightly grudging since they became the pre-eminent force in world football, as if they have been lucky to find themselves with so many Barcelona players at their disposal or hitched a ride to long overdue tournament success on the back of two of the biggest club names in Europe.
Perhaps because their World Cup win of two years ago was accomplished with a series of single-goal victories, practically acknowledging that fireworks and frivolity are best left to Barcelona and Real Madrid, Spain are not yet regarded as warmly as the greatest sides from Brazil or Italy, or even recalled as fondly as the Dutch teams famous for total football in the 1970s and for Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard a decade later.
Should the favourites win the 2012 European Championship, however, all that will change. It will have to, for no European team has ever won three successive tournaments. Not even the Germans, who as West Germany went into the 1976 European Championship in exactly the same position as Spain today, having added a World Cup in 1974 to their European title of two years earlier, only to lose to Czechoslovakia and an outrageously nonchalant penalty struck by Antonin Panenka in the first major final to be decided by a shootout.
Yet even had the 1976 event gone according to expectations and produced a German victory, it would still not have been comparable with what Spain are on the threshold of achieving. Penalty shootouts were so new in 1976 that Uefa had made provision for a replay in the event of a drawn final, but allowed the teams involved to decide how they wished to settle the match. That was a relatively simple matter in those days, because only four teams were involved in the final stages.
After the usual qualification cycle the finals would in effect begin with two semifinals, with the final three or four days later and the party over in less than a week. The Euros back then were neat, streamlined and impossible to confuse with the World Cup, but too short to be regarded as a proper tournament.
That was changed immediately after the 1976 tournament, and the Euros have subsequently grown to exactly half the size of the present World Cup, which with 32 teams in the finals is possibly too big for its own good. Although 24 participants might be better for a World Cup, 16 feels exactly right for the Euros, but make the most of it, for Uefa are upsizing from France 2016 onwards to a 24-team tournament. That will make qualification much easier and turn the preceding two years into a procession for the leading nations, bloating the tournament element and introducing mismatches and group-stage whipping boys.
The current strength of the Euros lies in that no such worries exist this summer. Look at the four groups and it is not easy to say which eight teams will qualify for the knockout stage, nor is it possible to identify a side that will struggle to win a game, even if it is easy to spot that Denmark face perhaps the toughest task. Poland and Ukraine are the weakest teams on paper, and one drawback of a jointly hosted tournament is that two lower-ranked sides make the final cut, yet both teams have an international pedigree and home advantage should never be underestimated.
Ukraine beat England the last time they faced each other in a competitive game and, despite the disparity in world ranking, if both sides need something from the final group match in Donetsk on June 19 it would be foolish to dismiss Oleh Blokhin’s team on the grounds that Andriy Shevchenko is too old or the strikers do not appear to have enough goals in them.
Maybe the host nations remain favourites to depart early, not that they will be going anywhere, but that is just about all that can be safely predicted of what should be a tightly contested group stage.
France and England will be expected to progress from Group D, for instance, though because they play each other in the first game a defeat could knock either side off course and put them immediately into a catch-up situation should the Sweden-Ukraine game produce a winner. No one who witnessed two woeful sets of displays at the last World Cup would sensibly suggest France and England ought to be favourites for anything, yet both teams have put new managers in place since then, with the French
revolution having had significantly more time to settle down than the English one.
A pleasant change
No one knows quite what to expect of England, which at least makes a pleasant change, since what the rest of Europe normally anticipates from the Three Lions is to arrive with a roar and depart with a whimper. Arriving with a whimper – and injury worries over Scott Parker really does reduce the midfield to what Harry Redknapp would have loved to have been able to call the bare bones, does not necessarily mean there will be a roar at the end, but at least England seem more relaxed than they were in South Africa two years ago and so more likely to do themselves justice. That is to say, they will probably make it out of the group but depart to the first decent team they meet in the knockout stage, which has been the script for decades now.
Like all good tournaments this one contains a genuine group of death, with either Germany, Holland or Portugal having to go home early from Group B, and Denmark having their work cut out not to finish bottom of the table with no points. Portugal have to be favourites to miss out, because Holland’s and Germany’s records in tournaments are outstanding. The Germans, as ever, will be fancied to go a long way, because even without stellar names they play tournaments so well and appear to be enjoying themselves again under Joachim Löw.
Yet Spain are firm favourites and Italy are on an upward curve again even if another scandal is emerging at home. The Italians won the World Cup in 2006 while the Calciopoli scandal was raging but it is not necessary to believe in omens to appreciate that a team that has Andrea Pirlo and a solid defence, one that qualified with two games to spare and a record 26 points, has a chance against anyone in Europe.
It is true that Italy appear to lack an outstanding and established goalscorer, though like Spain, who will have to do without David Villa, they have enough attack-minded players in other positions to be able to cope. Although the holders also have Fernando Torres, who on recent evidence is returning to something like his old self.
Goalscoring ability could well be the deciding factor in Group A, arguably the most level and difficult to predict of the groups. Greece found goals hard to come by in qualifying, the Czechs are still relying on Milan Baros, who top-scored at Euro 2004 and, though still only 30, has dried up a bit of late. Russia will be looking to Andrey Arshavin and the promising Alan Dzagoev to help out lone front man Aleksandr Kerzhakov, and only Poland, weak in other areas, offer an out-and-out goalscorer in Robert Lewandowski, prolific this season for the German champions, Borussia Dortmund.
Having declared it almost impossible to predict which eight teams will progress, you will now be wanting me to have a stab at it, so you can make fun of my selections after the event. Here goes. Best four: Russia, Germany, Spain, France. Next four: Czechs, Holland, Italy, England. Apologies to the Republic of Ireland, who drew the short straw by landing in Spain’s group but then found Italy and Croatia keeping them company as well. For what it is worth, England will struggle to get out of Group D. – © Guardian News & Media