Remember that childhood joy elicited by opening a Kinder Surprise? You made the purchase, ate the chocolate and waited excitedly to see what toy was in store. Believe it or not, but there is the slightest chance that Euro 2012 will have a similar theme.
Indeed, whilst Germany, Spain and Holland are hot favourites to win the footballing event of the summer, a number of surprise contenders could be on the verge of sending shockwaves through Europe.
The Germans possess indomitable strength in depth, the Spanish an array of world champions and the Dutch a strike force worthy of any era. But if history has taught us anything, it is that none of the 16 participants can be dismissed as no hopers (expect maybe England).
So who exactly can challenge the much favoured giants of the European continent and fill their fans back home with pride? There is a small fortune’s worth of outside bets.
Tournament football is all about hitting form at precisely the right time. In Michal Bilek’s Czech Republic side, we have a prime example. The Czechs started qualifying with a home defeat to Lithuania and the undertakers had begun to prepare the national coach’s coffin. Media and fans alike were out in full force, trying to guarantee crucifixion for a man unable to find a win in his opening four games. But though the view from the Czech Republic is still one of faint pessimism, the current side finds itself in a completely reversed situation. Unbeaten in five games at the time of writing, the Czechs managed to finish their qualifying campaign on a distinct high (a 4-1 away win against Lithuania and a straightforward dispatching of Montenegro in the play-offs).
Despite a lack of goals (totalling just 12 in qualifying compared to Spain’s 26 in the same group), the Czechs have an abundance of talent in a squad capable of achieving considerable progress in Poland and Ukraine. The team blends debutants with experienced pros. Take veteran striker, Milan Baros, who suffered a baron 11 month period; things are now looking good for the Galatasaray man after successive goals against the Republic of Ireland and Israel. Of even grander stature and experience, goalkeeper Petr Cech – now a Champions League winner – will be difficult to beat for any of Europe’s leading forwards.
And in Tomas Rosicky stands another central figure. If fit, the Arsenal man will likely dictate play from an advanced midfield position. Everything will go through Rosicky in a 4-2-3-1 formation that coach, Bilek, believes will offer the perfect balance between attack and defence. Winners in 1976, bronze medallists in 1996, now Czech Republic may well enjoy a successful championship in 2012.
Czech Republic final squad: http://www.uefa.com/uefaeuro/news/newsid=1803249.html#rosicky+makes+czech
Winners after not even initially qualifying in 1992 (they were late entrants at the expense of war-torn Yugoslavia) the Danes know what it takes to go all the way against the odds. In ’92, they had one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time in Peter Schmeichel; his contribution was invaluable. 20 years later and Schmeichel’s 25 year old son, Kasper, has been drafted in as a replacement for the injured Thomas Sorense. You wouldn’t blame the superstitious for detecting some sort of omen.
Outfield, Denmark are in the process of developing a new generation. Young Christian Eriksen of Ajax will be the lynchpin in a probable 4-3-3, signalling Denmark’s lack of fear in the face reputable opponents. Bendtner will likely spearhead the attack, and his performances in a Danish shirt have been far superior to any he ever delivered in an Arsenal one.
Though, considerable youth is counter-balanced by the plentiful experience of Dennis Rommedahl, Christian Poulsen, Lars Jacobsen and Daniel Agger. This fine mixture saw Denmark top a qualifying group containing the likes of Portugal and Norway; they will meet Portugal again in the ‘group of death’, alongside Holland and Germany.
Recent friendly defeats to Russia and Brazil may have dampened spirits, but with nothing to lose in a group containing two of the tournament favourites, Denmark could prove underdogs whose bite is much deadlier than their bark. Indeed, with their youthful exuberance and fearless attacking displays – all products of the solid leadership of their coach of 12 years, Morten Olsen – Denmark could well defy expectations.
Denmark final squad: http://www.uefa.com/uefaeuro/news/newsid=1801758.html#duo+complete+denmark+squad
Much like their Scandinavian neighbours, Sweden have embarked upon a new policy of unwavering attacking football. With a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic pulling the strings, Sweden’s creative potential seems unbounded. On his day, Ibrahimovic has the self-belief to challenge any of his fellow Group D nations single-handedly. Likely to be flanked by Rasmus Elm and Sebastian Larsson in a 4-2-3-1 formation, the AC Milan man is currently flourishing in an attacking midfield role – particularly excelling in Sweden’s 3-2 win over Iceland.
Recent friendly wins have also come at the expense of Bahrain and Croatia – neither of which were at home – whilst qualifying produced an astounding 31 goals from 10 games. In fact, Sweden were only bested by Holland, eventually qualifying as best runners-up. The view from home expects progression from the group (if Ibrahimovic turns up) and defeat in the next round, especially when Spain are potential quarter-final opponents. Yet, with their attacking intent and considerable talents like Kim Kallstrom, Andreas Isaksson and Johan Elmander, the Swedes must be respected.
England and France may be favourites to qualify from Group D, but both nations have tactical quibbles to address going into the tournament. Were Sweden to upset co-hosts, Ukraine, in their opener and achieve a favourable result against either of the Western European nations (remember, England have never beaten Sweden in a competitive fixture) the knockout stages would beckon. And Spain may seem an intimidating prospect for the Swedes thereafter, but Sweden could do no worse than to remember their own star man, Ibrahimovic, can intimidate a fair few himself.
Sweden final squad: http://www.uefa.com/uefaeuro/news/newsid=1796991.html
Other Surprise Packages
The most open group in Euro 2012 is undoubtedly Group A. Along with the Czech Republic, any of the three other Group A sides can progress far enough with momentum on their side. Dick Advocaat considers his Russia team dark horses for the tournament and their engaging run to the Euro 2008 semis (as well as winning the first ever European Championship in 1960) proves they are a country with the required pedigree. Greece, too, have shown their ability to unite a nation – winning the competition in 2004. They topped their qualification group this time around and the Greek media are quietly optimistic about their chances of group progression at a time of economic meltdown; beyond that – who knows. After 2004, anything can happen.
More outside possibilities lie within Group B, where Slaven Bilic will spend his last tournament in charge of Croatia (he will join Lokomotiv Moscow next season) and Giovanni Trapattoni will steward a steely Republic of Ireland side. Spain and Italy are the logical choices to qualify from this well-contested group, but Croatia have a promising record against the Italians and boast a variety of attacking options: Ivica Olic of Bayern Munich, Nikica Jelavic of Everton and Eduardo of Shakhtar Donestk. Not forgetting Luka Modric, of course. Meanwhile, under the management of the legendary Trapattoni, Robbie Keane and co. of Ireland have the potential to ruffle a few feathers.
And finally, there are the hosts. It would be the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters if either Poland or Ukraine were to go all the way. The chances are slim, but what’s that to stop anyone. Robert Lewandowski and Andrei Shevchenko will play key roles for their respective countries and the motivation of playing in front of their home fans could provide just the galvanisation they need.
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