Every international football tournament has a Group of Death but Group B, the 2012 version, is hardcore and would appeal to even the most sadistic of punters. All four teams sit inside the top ten in Fifa’s world rankings. This is a truly fascinating group with three of the four teams capable of winning the tournament but very capable also of exiting at the first hurdle.
Group B will be situated in the Ukraine, split between two cities. Lviv is near the Poland – Ukraine border and indeed was once part of Poland. The Lviv arena is brand new and holds just over 32,000. Kharkiv is the Ukraine’s second biggest city, an industrial powerhouse, and its Metalist Stadium will host the Holland-Germany game on June13.
Whoever emerges from Group B will be strongly fancied to see off their Group A quarter final opponents – be it Russia, Czech Republic, Poland or Greece.
Let’s examine the make up of Group B;
Holland will begin their campaign in Kharviv against Denmark on June 9 with almost the identical team that came so close to World Cup glory in South Africa two years ago. Their formidable attacking prowess means that there are likely to be no places for Bundesliga top scorer Klaas Jan Huntelaar or Tottenham’s Rafael Van der Vaart.
Under the management of Bert van Marwijk the Dutch have won 23 out of their last 25 competitive matches, an outstanding record. Incredibly though van Marwijk is treated with hostility by sections of the Dutch football public, embarrassed at their team’s direct and often brutal style of play. Indeed their style of play was described by one of the leading exponents of ‘total football’, Johan Cruyff, as “anti-football.” Cruyff has been a regular critic of the team and their have also been negative comments from Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit.
Despite experimenting in recent friendlies van Marwijk will employ his favoured and familiar 4-2-3-1 formation. It is a fascinating mixture of the barbaric and beautiful with a no nonsense, physical defence, two butchers roaming the middle of the park and an awesome attacking unit.
Robin van Persie will play as the lone striker with the trio of Kuyt, Sneijder and Robben operating behind him and acting as his main supply line, guarded by the fearsome duo of Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong. It is the probable back four of Schaars, Mathijsen, Heitinga and Van der Viel which causes most concern for Oranje.
The Dutch cruised through a straight forward qualification group in impressive style, winning nine out of their ten matches and scoring more goals than any other team, thumping San Marino 11-0 and 5-0, Hungary 4-0 away and Sweden 4-1. Their only loss came away to Sweden after already securing qualification.
Van Marwijk’s team might not sit well with the Dutch purists but they nevertheless have an outstanding chance of emulating Gullit, Rikkaard and van Basten and delivering only the second major trophy in their history.
There are some very big ego’s in the Dutch team, as is always the case, and to date van Marwijk has done remarkably well to keep these in check. If van Persie, Robben , Schneider and co can continue to pretend to be friends for the next few weeks than the Netherlands will go very close. They are 7-1 to win the tournament but the best value for me lies in the winner-top scorer market. Holland and van Persie is a 25-1 shot, and this is a very possible outcome.
Hotly fancied to end their 16 year major tournament drought is Joachim Low’s young, exciting, vibrant German team.
World Cup runners up in 2002, European Championship runners up in 2008, and beaten semi finalists in 2006 and 2010, the Germans are never far away but this time around they are significantly stronger and look well poised to avenge their narrow 1-0 defeats to Spain in the previous two tournaments with the suspicion being that La Roja are ever so slightly on a downward curve.
Qualification for Euro 2012 was a cake walk, winning all 10 games in a group which included an emerging force in European football in Belgium and the tricky Turks. They scored 34 goals in the process, with only Holland scoring more but they had San Marino in their group, and have scored three or more goals in 11 of their last 13 competitive games.
Joachim Low has built a young, exciting, vibrant team – all very much his own doing having worked with these players since the lead up to the World Cup in ’06. There are only two players in the entire squad the wrong side of 30, with the average age of the team that lines up against Portugal on June 9 likely to be 25.
Manuel Neuer is a world class goalkeeper and their defence is predictably rock solid. Captain Phillip Lahm is highly effective at either right back or left back, although he is likely to play on the left with Jerome Boateng on the opposite side. Dortmund’s Mats Hummels and Munich’s Holger Badstuber are quality central defenders.
Schweinsteiger pulls the strings in the middle and is a real driving force in this team. His partner in central midfield is Real Madrid’s Sami Khedira with Podolski, Ozil and Muller providing a potent attacking force. In 23 year old playmaker Mezut Ozil, Germany have one of the potential stars of this tournament. Ozil has enjoyed a sensational season at Real Madrid providing 17 assists, more than Messi, or the combined total of Xavi and Iniesta. He also provided 7 assists in Germany’s qualifying campaign.
Miroslav Klose has an exceptional scoring record in major tournaments but the 33 year old Lazio hitman is likely to lose out to Bayern Munich’s Mario Gomez who will fill the lone striker position.
The Germans have plenty of options on the bench. Per Mertesacker has recovered from an ankle injury although he hasn’t played since February. 22 year old Bayern Munich midfielder Toni Kroos looks like the next big thing in German football and has 25 international caps already. Borrusia Dortmund’s 19 year old Mario Gotze is a superstar in the making but can’t yet find a way into the starting eleven, although we will certainly be introduced to his significant talents at some point. Monchengladbach’s Marco Reus is another fabulous young talent who will be hoping for some game time.
The only negative for Deutschland is that the nucleus of their squad is taken from Dortmund and Munich, with both teams enduring long, arduous seasons. When they line up against Portugal on June 9 in Lviv, six of the Bayern side who played in the Champions League final are likely to start so it will be interesting to see what effect that cruel defeat has had on them. Schweinsteiger and Gomez, their main source of goals these days, experienced a particulary traumatic evening.
Indeed this young group of players has endured plenty of disappointment in major tournaments in recent seasons. However with the celebrated German psyche it is reasonable to assume that come July 1st in the Olympic Stadium, Kiev, the tables will have turned.
Germany have reached finals and won tournaments with ageing, workmanlike teams (Euro 96, World Cup ‘02,) and so with a genuinely talented, cavalier, powerful, progressive team they represent a frightening prospect.
The odds of 3-1 on Germany to win outright are fair and I would advise anybody with a spare few hundred euro’s to invest in a German win. Thomas Muller at 25-1 to win the golden boot is a much more attractive proposition than the 7-1 price of Mario Gomez. Muller scored 4 times in the last World Cup and is likely to play every game whereas Gomez may not. The Uefa Player of the Tournament has historically been awarded to a member of the victorious team. Xavi in 2008, Theo Zagarakis in 2004, Zidane in 2000 and Matthias Sammer in ’96 so the pattern is obvious here – pick the main man on the winning team to be player of the tournament. Ozil at 16-1 is therefore a cracking bet.
Significantly Denmark qualified for Euro 2012 as winners of a tricky group which also included Portugal, Norway, Iceland and Cyprus, winning all their home games with their only defeat away to Portugal. It is worth noting that the Danes qualified for World Cup 2010 by winning a group that contained Sweden and Portugal again, taking 6 points off their Scandinavian rivals and 4 points off the Portuguese. They then failed to emerge from a pool with Holland, Japan and Cameroon, losing 2-0 to the Dutch and suffering a disappointing 3-1 defeat to Japan in their decider.
All of Denmark’s group games are in Ukraine, with two games in Lviv against Portugal and Germany and their Holland match being played in Kharkiv, which is at the north eastern tip of Ukraine. So their decision to base themselves in the north west of Poland seems odd. The Danes will face a lot of travelling and even more should they progress, although their base is only 70 miles from Danish soil so perhaps they have planned for a quick getaway.
20 years on from their greatest ever success, Denmark are a solid, effective unit in the astute hands of Morten Olsen, a Danish legend with over 100 international appearances. In his 12 years at the helm, Denmark have qualified for two World Cups and this will be his second European Championships. Olsen has always rigorously opposed the traditional 4-4-2 system and so his team will have a familiar look about it with an emphasis on using his speedy wingers in a 4-2-1-3 formation.
Their have been some injury worries to contend with. First choice goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen was a late withdrawal due to a back injury to be replaced by Kasper Schmeichel, son of Denmark’s 1992 hero Peter, although Sorensen’s position is now likely to be filled by Man United’s second choice keeper Anders Lindegaard. There are the usual fitness concerns over captain Daniel Agger, who is crucial to the Danish cause. The Liverpool centre half, however physically fragile he might feel, is the rock in this Denmark team and will have an important baby sitting job to do alongside 23 year old Simon Kjaer who has endured a torrid season at Roma.
The vastly experienced Christian Poulson is their leader and has enjoyed a fine season at Evian, one of 4 players in this squad who earn their living at the French club. His central midfield partner will be William Kvist who has had a good season in the Bundesliga at Stuttgart. Dennis Rommedahl is a familiar face and still going strong at 33 years of age and 115 international caps later. Rommedahl along with his Brondby team mate Michael Krohn-Delhi will provide the width in which Olsen likes to build his teams around. Nicklas Bendtner will be unrecognisable to Premiership fans as the team’s talisman. Although still very much the glamour boy of the team, he is a different proposition when playing for his country and has an impressive record of 18 goals in 47 caps. Denmark will rely heavily on his contribution given that they have no alternatives at striker.
20 year old Christian Eriksen, currently at Ajax but destined for bigger things, is a star in the making. He’s already played 76 times in the Dutch league and made two substitute appearances in the last World Cup. He will operate in the hole behind Bendtner and this tournament could potentially be the moment when he announces his arrival on the big stage.
Overall Denmark are a well oiled machine with an effective blend of youth and experience. Their world ranking of 10 makes a mockery of their status as the weak link in this group. It’s tough on them – their reward for topping a tough group is this stinker of a draw. Ironically though they have a better team than when they won in 1992. Given that teams will take points off each other, it is not inconceivable that the Danes will find a way into the quarter-finals. That said, they found Holland to be at a different level altogether two years ago and not much has changed since then. Germany also should be too good for them, but Portugal certainly won’t be.
Denmark, along with Ireland, are the outsiders at 100-1 to win this tournament. They are 16-1 to win their group, 4-1 to qualify and 8/13 to finish bottom – none of which I would advise as I expect them to finish third. So when it comes to Denmark perhaps the best bet is Bendtner to be their top scorer at 7-2. It’s hard to see many goals for the Danes and so any they do get are likely to come via the Sunderland striker.
This is the fifth consecutive Euro’s that Portugal have qualified for and no team has contributed more to the competition during this period. Quarter-finalists in ’96 losing to a freak goal from the Czech Republic’s Karel Poborsky, semi-finalists in 2000 losing out to a golden goal from a golden player in Zinedine Zidane, beaten finalists in 2004, at what should have been their coronation as kings of Europe, when Greece stunned the football world, and beaten 3-2 in the quarter finals in 2008 by Germany, it is a huge disappointment that Portugal’s golden generation never delivered. Now in 2012 their hopes rest on a one man golden generation in Cristiano Ronaldo.
It is far too simplistic an argument to dismiss the chances of any team in any tournament as a one man band, but if that accusation were to be levelled at any side it would surely be Portugal.
Their journey to Ukraine was unconvincing, opening with a 4-4 draw at home to Cyprus and then suffering a 1-0 defeat to Norway, which saw manager Carlos Queiroz lose his job to be replaced by Paulo Bento. Results improved with the only blemish being a 2-1 away defeat and a poor performance to boot against Denmark.
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