Friday, 1 June 2012

Euro 2012 roundtable #2: Group A Preview




Euro 2012 Roundtable Episode 2

Group A Preview





Football football football football football football football.







I think that’s probably spoilers for what is ahead. In the last instalment, which can be found here, we talked about our hopes and fears and experiences. It was like Lord of the Rings, except shorter.




This time around, instead of qualification and that murky distance fiend known as The Future, we are focusing purely on Group A. And hopefully previewing it, though for the purposes I have enlisted some people who actually know what they are talking about, which is usually a bonus in these things. The ITV section will be carried out by yours truly. 




Who are we? Well, I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together. I’m Michael, I run this site. By run, I mean put random things up on blogger and try to feel important. This and many other innocent articles that are roughly like this one might contain several random plugs of my writing. Except right here, because I now feel pressurised to produce a great one. Ah well. 





Just kidding.



We also have Jon Arnold, writer, editor, football fan, music lover, the polymaths polymath. He casts his eye over the world game, and provides the literary parts of the discussion.



Gavin Mills lives in Estonia. He has a blog, which can be read here. Or would if I had a link to it on my hands. One will be edited onto the site later.



Gavin would like me to read out the following Disclaimer on his behalf

:

“I know nothing about world football. Pretty much all of the players that I will be mentioning will no doubt have played football in England.”


I wouldn’t worry. He’s sure to know more than ITV.



We are also delighted to see Dave Beattie, our Brian Glanville, back despite a busy schedule. His knowledge of the world game is second to few.



And, as always, we have a few European voices to add culture, understanding and perspective to proceedings.







Group A



Jon: Ah, Group A, the group of death… by boredom. Lots of good solid defences, not too many reliable goalscorers.



Michael: You might well think that. I couldn’t possible comment.





Thoughts on Poland as hosts?


Michael: I remember loving Polish football. It was 2004. They were in a World Cup qualifying group with England, Wales, the Northern Irish, Austria and Azerbaijan. Within this group, and ignoring the two England games, they were a joy to behold, as attacking football the likes of only the Czechs had shown me before swept everyone aside. They had two great matches with Austria, and thumped poor Azerbaijan 8-0 in a score line that flattered Azerbaijan. Thinking of it, Czech Republic v Poland in 2004 would have been the greatest event in the history of football. And thinking of how things developed from that point makes me so sad. Events within the England games, and the friendlies after, conspired to make the manager change his outlook. The attacking brilliance was shelved to make way for dour tactics. A disinteresting Poland lost to Ecuador in the World Cup and swiftly went home. They could have been so much more. They could have been a contender. Not for the Cup, perhaps, but for the hearts of men, like Nedved’s valiant Czechs had been. It was a personal watershed moment for the Poles, and they’ve not really recovered.. They had a unmemorable 2008 tournament, which finished with one point unfairly gained on the balance of play against co-hosts Austria: which itself wasn’t a patch on the 2004 game between the two nations.




But...do I get the inkling of things beginning to improve? In recent years (by recent, I might mean last year) Polish sides in Europe started to look more competitive. We saw Wisla and Legia both get to the last 32 in the Europa League this season (with Legia especially making me look a right fool as a pundit in the Playoff round!) and Lech did the same previously. Slask produced some nice performances before meeting the brick wall that was Rapid Bucharest in the final qualifying round before the group stage. They KO’d Scottish opposition, but looked good in the act anyway. And they’ve won the title, so will be in the Champions League coming up. So that’s 4 rising teams. This year sees a 5th, Ruch, whom I know little of, but have learnt by now to write off newer Polish sides in Europe at my peril. But to go from downbeatten to having four or five sides which can at least be competitive till Christmas in Europe is a worthy step forward.


We see this step forward in the national team too. Our one good keeper in 2008, Boruc, has been replaced by one better keeper in the Arsenal youngster. We have the Dortmund three, who are very good, and whose names I haven’t a chance of spelling correctly, let alone pronouncing. Amongst the lesser names, we notice the age average has gone down considerably, and they have a number of players playing in highly competitive leagues of high standard like the Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and the Russian league.



If we accept that facing higher standards every week will improve a player, then the number of Polish players increasing in these leagues, and the number of Polish sides starting to show up as permanent fixtures in Europe suggest that a proper Polish revival may be sooner than we might expect.



But what of 2012? Well, Poland might look weak. I wont say they look the weakest side in the tournament on paper, not just because its a fickle statement to make, but because they actually don’t even look the weakest side in their group on paper! A solid base to their side, and some interesting younger players, plus the advantage of playing at home and in a weaker group than the others, would give Poland more than a fighting chance of a tournament to remember.



The fear I have is that inexperience now will last long in the national psyche, and we wont see the Polish Summer recent history suggests is coming.





Dave Beattie: Thoughts on Poland as hosts? I used to think that not very good teams hosting tournaments would probably at least get out of their groups - but Belgium, Austria & Switzerland provide recent Euro proof otherwise. And South Africa on the World stage of course (nearly forgot!)... I hope I'm pleasantly surprised but if they do emerge from this group I guess it will have more to do with the paucity of the opposition than anything else.








Jon: It’s good to see the major tournaments taken to countries which aren’t traditional footballing giants – there’s far less chance of the public being as jaded as if the tournament went on a rotation of the bigger nations. Hopefully that’ll mean a cracking atmosphere for the tournament. In terms of the tournament though it’s distorted the draw somewhat, with tournament performances from Poland and Ukraine meaning they don’t really merit their status as top seeds and distorting the draw a little. Poland’s lack of competitive football over the last couple of years means that their FIFA world ranking position probably isn’t a true reflection of their real team ability, but their terrible World Cup 2010 qualifying campaign doesn’t indicate it’s that false a position. A lack of recent tournament pedigree doesn’t encourage much hope either – a fine qualifying campaign for Euro 2008 was followed by a dismal performance in the finals.



Equally that lack of competitive games means that it’s incredibly difficult to accurately judge Poland though. We simply don’t know how they’re going to play in a competitive game as it’s over two and a half years since their last one. Results over the last year in friendlies suggest a spark of hope, with Argentina beaten, Germany held and three wins out of their last four games but then defeats to France and Italy suggest that better teams may take advantage of them. Results also suggest a series of tight games with goals at a premium. Given the likely tight nature of matches in this group that means their weakness in defence may cost them with slow centre halves and Wawrzyniak not exactly being a prime consideration for the best left back in the tournament. Fortunately for them, what looks a weak group gives them every chance of progress to the knockout stages, particularly as they’ve got the best striker in the group.





Keld, Denmark: Since The Dortmund trio (Piszczek, Kuba and Lewandowski), along with Szczęsny in goal, stand out as the best players, I expect Poland to be a weaker and slightly more defensive version of Dortmund. In order for them to get the most of Lewandowski, it will be crucial that the three other front players, especially the attacking midfielder (probably Obraniak), manage to position themselves right in the fast-break situations. Those are probably Poland’s biggest chance of scoring, but another Dortmund-characteristic, the high pressing, could be a dangerous weapon as well, albeit applied less frequent than by the German champions. There seem to be quite some shortcomings elsewhere in the team. The defence, at least in central and left positions, look shaky, but maybe the French ‘acquisition’ Damien Perquis could solve some of those problems.





Joao Diogo Reis:
I think that Poland is the group’s weakest team, perhaps the tournament’s weakest team. And I don’t think that playing at home will change it. This is the European Championship, not the African Nations Cup. Equatorial Guinea and Gabon benefited from home advantage to progress from the group stages a few months ago, but in Euro 2008 being hosts hasn’t helped Austria or Switzerland. 



Poland has a great history in the World Cups, but their Euro Cups history is poor. They just qualified once, 4 years ago, and the results were weak (1 draw against Austria and 2 defeats against Germany and Croatia). Their recent results in World Cups aren’t impressive either – two group stage eliminations in 2002 and 2006, with two wins against the USA and Costa Rica, and 4 defeats against South Korea, Portugal, Ecuador and Germany. Perhaps Poland should ask for an invitation to play the Gold Cup. 




There aren’t many players left from their Euro 2008 squad. If none of them is dropped from the final squad, they should be just 5: Piszczek, Wasilewski, Wawrzyniak, Dudka and Murawski.





Gavin: Despite the scary Panorama documentary on the BBC I rather like Poland (the country). I’ve been through it a few times now and our stays have always been rather pleasant. What can I say about the team? They have Robert Lewandowski! I think he’ll be the player to watch for Poland – I mostly say this because he had a very successful career for me at Southampton in Football Manager. It’s a shame that Ebi Smolarek isn’t in the squad because he was also a great play for me in Football Manager!





Michael: I am delighted to say, in timely fashion, we have a Polish perspective!






Pawel, Gdansk: Well, Polish football hasn’t been admired since very long time ago. It is widely agreed among Poles that our team seems to be worse than virtually every other participant of the tournament. Except for Greece perhaps. Who knows their players? They have so long and strange names… And except for the Czech Republic as well. The Czechs used to be very good, but it has changed… And Russia? All right, Russia may be stronger than ourselves, but it is not always so that a favourite wins. And this is, I believe, a perfect line of common thoughts in Poland about our chances in the Euro 2012 tournament. 




The truth is our team is not as bad as our current position in the FIFA ranking shows, but definitely we cannot consider ourselves as the favourite of any duel we would be part of. However, by being assigned to the group that is commonly thought as a weak one a faint hope has arisen. Our players are able to play well. Unfortunately, they also are able to make simple mistakes. Especially the defence line has failed to prove their quality. It is difficult to believe that our performance in the back will be satisfactory. Therefore a remedy must be found in the attack. And maybe it will. This time, unlike before previous tournaments Poland qualified into (Euro 2008 and WC 2002, 2006), we have some players that are not anonymous in Europe. Especially two players from Borussia Dortmund – Łukasz Piszczek and Robert Lewandowski – have had a very good season in club competitions. It is interesting to notice that the current defender Piszczek used to be a forward a few years ago and is known for his ability to score goals. The goal scoring ability of Lewandowski is beyond any doubt. He is our biggest hope for achieving good results. The third one from Borussia – Jakub Błaszczykowski (I feel really sorry for non Polish TV reporters who will have to pronounce his name ) – is our playmaker. He is really a brilliant player who can also score. Adding a goalkeeper to the group (especially if it would be Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczęsny) and we have one very good player in every formation. The rest of the team seems to be shrouded in mystery. It is difficult to rely on them, however I can imagine them perform well. Unfortunately, I can also imagine the opposite case… 


There is also an interesting subject connected to players that are not considered as Polish players by quite a noticeable part of the society. There are five of them who learned how to play in France or Germany. As far as I know, two of them even don’t speak Polish. While Ludovic Obraniak seems to have become rather accepted, the other four players (Damien Perquis, Eugen Polanski, Sebastian Boenisch and Adam Matuszczyk) are contested by some fans. And the curious thing is that our coach, Franciszek Smuda, had objected to the habit of giving Polish citizenships to players from abroad. Shortly after accepting the job as the national coach, he changed his mind completely. Probably the reason was the lack of qualified players (especially defenders) among Polish candidates for the squad. 



And one last thing – how Poles feel themselves as the hosts of half of the tournament. First of all, we have built four good stadiums. Good and really beautiful ones. That is something new for our country. We have always admired stadiums in England, Germany, France…, and now we have some as well. We have built new roads – as much as probably never before in the past, alas much fewer than was promised by the government. This is why many people are disappointed. There were lots of different works done in many other areas – airports, railway, hotels, etc. Virtually, every single task was conducted in the name of Euro 2012. And even if not everything has finished successfully (especially renovating railway tracks), I really believe that we have made a big step in the right direction. Poland is now a different country that it used to be in 2007, when the decision of hosting the tournament was made. 



I also suspect that many Poles consider our country as the better half of the tournament. I am far from such thinking, however there is a question to consider why most of the teams that are to play in Ukraine have chosen Poland as a place to stay. The Ukrainians are not happy because of that, and I am also surprised. Perhaps it is a question of fans for which Poland may seem as a safer country than Ukraine? And probably it is cheaper and easier to get to Poland? But will the German fans go to Gdańsk, English fans go to Kraków and Portuguese fans go to Poznań to be close to their teams instead of going to see the matches? I don’t know. 


I have never been to Ukraine. For Poles it is much easier to go to Germany or any other EU country than to Ukraine, however it is not that hard to do it. There is a general thinking that Poland is more “European” and Ukraine is more “Soviet”. However, some of my friends, who went to Ukraine for holidays, were quite happy because of their trips and felt safe there. 



I personally think that those of football fans who will visit Poland during the tournament will discover Poland as an interesting place on the map of Europe. All of the four host cities belong to major Polish towns. All of them have a very long history and are full of interesting places. Not only historical ones (however their beauty is undisputable), but also restaurants, pubs, clubs, and other places where people can have good time. I hope that the Iron Curtain (the mental one that I believe still leaves Poland outside Europe in many people’s minds from the “old Europe”) will finally rust this year. 



As you can see, I am rather optimistic about the tournament in Poland. Frankly, it is difficult for me to wait almost two weeks for the beginning. I already feel a tension. I am going to see the match between Poland and Russia with my 11-years old son at the new stadium in Warsaw. Most of the other ones – probably in TV. Some of them, maybe in a fan’s zone in Gdańsk. I really believe, June will be a holiday for Poland.



Michael: Pawel is a long time reader of the forums on Bert Kassies’ site who signed up to send me this message. Bar a few minor alterations (changes of adverbs, etc) I have left it as it was. I believe I am right in saying that all of the European fans who speak in these blogs have English as a second language. I try to imagine communicating in Polish or Portuguese or Danish (or in Danish terms, remembering how bad I was actually trying it!) and am rather awed!



Thoughts on Greece?


Michael: I was told Greece had a new attacking mentality in 2008. Boy, was I fooled! I admit a bias against defense minded teams. I also admit that neither attack nor defence is necessarily a better way of playing the game, its just a personal preference of mine. I expect very much what I’ve come to expect from Greece: solid defence, a few counter attacks. Win a game. Competitive within the group.





Gav: Greece have been in the papers quite a lot in the past year or two. Not for football though, so I’m a little in the dark here. *glances at Wikipedia*. They were shock European champions in 2004. I remember that! Somehow I doubt they’ll manage to repeat that this year. *glances at Wikipedia squad list*. I’ve heard of Giorgos Samaras!





Dave Beattie: Thoughts on Greece? I still haven't forgiven them for beating the Czechs in 2004. They always seem so defensive in tournament play that I can't help rooting for their early elimination.





Jon: If ever a country needed a tournament to cheer them up it’s the Greeks. The country’s economically knackered, has an imposed leader and they’ve just had an election which represented a vote of no confidence in the entire political establishment. Feel good distraction then please Mr Santos.




Santos has so far continued Otto Rehhagel’s trick of getting the nation to punch above its weight via one of Europe’s meanest defences. Greece’s qualification for this tournament has to rank as their finest, two goals in the last ten minutes of the final qualification game meaning they finished qualification unbeaten and took the group ahead of Croatia, at the time pushing their FIFA ranking back up into the top ten. The law of the footballing gods of course states that such a qualifying campaign is liable to be followed by a deeply disappointing tournament, an impression reinforced by a poor tournament record outside their extraordinary Euro 2004, twelve matches producing only one win and one draw. As with previous tournaments, don’t expect a great deal of fluent attacking football – there were only 19 goals in the ten Greek qualifiers.





Keld, Denmark: I bet every football fan, and at least the Football Manager gamers, have been craving to see a Greek central defence with Papastathopoulos and Papadopoulos. And it’s not just name-wise that defence will be the focal point for Greece; I see no reason why Greece will depart from the cautious approach that won them the EURO 04. There is barely any world-beaters up front, so they have hope for one of the mediocre strikers to do a ‘Charisteas’ and play the best month of his life.





Michael’s Note: I can almost hear the Greek fans crying at the negativity on display here, so, in timely fashion:




Joao Diogo Reis: Greece is getting better. Controversial statement, but I’ll try to explain. In the past, Greece rarely qualified to the final tournaments. There was only Euro 1980 and the 1994 World Cup. Twice they were eliminated in the group stages, with only 1 draw and 5 defeats. Then there was Euro 2004. And after that, they started to qualify for most of the final tournaments. They still missed the 2006 World Cup, but now they qualified for 3 major tournaments in a row: 2008-2010-2012. In 2008 they still lost every game (Sweden, Russia and Spain), in 2010 they got their first non-Euro 2004 win (against Nigeria, payback for the 1994 World Cup), and now they have the chance to progress from the group stages for the first time since Euro 2004. 


They have good memories of Czech Republic, and although they lost against Russia, they also have good memories of being in a group with Russia. 


They have a very experienced squad: in their likely starting XI, everybody except left back Holebas has been to at least one major tournament with them. Panathinaikos’ midfield duo Katsouranis and Karagounis stand out, veterans from the Euro 2004 team who also played in 2008 and 2010.







Thoughts on the Czechs?


Michael: They were my favourite side in 2004. Alas, Nedved continued the streak which lead to the tragic hero in him, and hobbled off injured in the Semifinal. But for that, there seemed no stopping the inevitable Czech mate. (My S5 history teacher hated the use of the word inevitable. On the rare off chance he is reading this, he will be fuming!) In 2006, Czech magic seemed on the rise again, with a thumping 3-0 win over the USA. It was a false dawn, as they were soon “Out Czechs in 2004”’d by Ghana, and then comprehensively seen off by Italy. In 2008, it was Jekyll and Hyde. Dull in the opener which they won, then they produced two thrillers which they lost! What I learnt then was that against teams with defensive outlooks, the Czechs, lacking the skills of Poborsky and co, tend to sieze up. Against better attacking sides, they can counter attack and get stuck in and just enjoy themselves. So in a group full of attacking , enjoyable sides, the Czechs will be a lesser but as enjoyable side.



*looks up the teams in Group A*



Oh dear.



I can’t muster much expectation for the Czechs here. I saw them twice in qualification. They were so bad at times, they need to cheat to take four points off Scotland, and believe me, you have hit rock bottom if you need to do that to prosper against us. Had the Scots shown up against the Czechs then history would be different – Montenegro would be here now! Ho hum.



Greece have a smarter defence than us or Lithuania, the Poles have more hunger, and the Russians will tear them to shreds. I don’t see them picking up many points, though I don’t see them being embarrassed either.






Keld, Denmark: Well, they can still field an experienced foreign-based team, but their squad seems to lack depth as most of the back-ups are inexperienced domestic based players. I would really fear injuries, as several key players have proven injury-prone. Their midfield looks strong with Jiráček, Hübschman, Plašil and not least Rosický, but the defence and, barring a Milan Baros return to Euro 04 form, the attack does not look convincing.





Jon: In their relatively brief history the Czechs prompt fond memories from the Euros, reaching the final of Euro 96 in their first tournament and providing one of the all-time great Euro matches in 2004 when avenging a Euro 2000 defeat to the Dutch with a 3-2 win. And then of course, there’s the 1976 win before the split with Slovakia, including what’s officially the Greatest Penalty Of All Time from Panenka. Nedved, Baros Berger, Poborsky… great sides for a tournament they always seem more comfortable in than the World Cup. Sadly though, this isn’t a great side, a shadow of the imperious 2004 vintage which relied on a dubious decision against Scotland to make it through. Where do the goals come from? Baros is enduring a lean couple of years, Pekhart’s been deeply average in the Bundesliga and Lafata is a bully in the Czech leagues but still a small fish in the big oceanlike pond of international football. Cech can be a human roadblock – just ask Bayern or Barca - and there’s plenty of prettiness in midfield but you just can’t see where the goals are going to come from. Ultimately the key to the Czech’s fate would seem to be whether their fullbacks can provide the width to create enough chances.





Joao Diogo Reis: Unlike Greece, the Czech Republic is getting worse. Well, this is their 5th Euro Cup in a row, but they missed the 2010 World Cup, and in 2006 and 2008 they couldn’t progress from the group stages (win against hosts Switzerland followed by defeats against Portugal and Turkey in 2008, and also win against the USA followed by defeats against Ghana and Italy in 2006). 



Will this be the third consecutive final tournament where they win the first game and then lose the other two?
Well, if they win their first game against Russia (the group’s strongest team), they shouldn’t lose the following two. 




The Czech Republic had an easy qualifying path – not even close to group winner Spain, but good enough to finish ahead of Scotland, Lithuania and Liechtenstein, and then prevailed in a playoff against Montenegro.
Although they have more Euro 2004 survivors than Greece (Cech, Plasil, Rosicky and Baros), beside these 4, they only have 3 more players with experience at a major tournament (Sivok, Kadlec and Hubschman). From the rest of the team, stands out the Viktoria Plzen legion, who only recently is in the spotlight - they can use this tournament to be transferred to other teams, like Jiracek already did in December.






Dave Beattie: Oh - if only the Czechs had won in 2004 & all the other mid-ranking football nations had taken them as a benchmark for the future. But instead Greece won & so World Soccer's tactics headline for this new generation of Czech players is: "Defending in numbers while still getting forward to support the (lone) centre forward." Though on the positive side they have introduced a number of Plzen players into their squad recently & Plzen appeared - from their European adventures - to have some of the attacking vigour of the old Czech team of 2004 so maybe...






Gav: I rather liked these guys in Euro 2004. Mostly because at the time I really liked Milan Baros. It seems that 8 years later Baros is still in the squad, I like that. More importantly though, if my calculations are correct, this is the first squad to feature an ex-Saint in Nürnberg’s Tomas Pekhart. He joined Saints on loan from Tottenham for half a season. He didn’t make much of an impact (scored 1 goal) but he was great in Football Manager! With that wonderful strike partnership of Pekhart-Baros you can expect a lot of goals.



Thoughts on Russia?


Michael: How did they not make the World Cup?



Gavin: By failing to qualify.



Michael: Thanks. Russia dominated the playoff with Slovenia so much, that how they managed to conjure defeat from the jaws of victory I’ll never understand. It was positively Scottish. Combine that with Algeria’s win over an Egyptian side that ought to have made at least one World Cup at the bare minimum. Though England can thank their lucky stars: they nearly blew a group with USA, Algeria and Slovenia in it. Can you imagine how badly they’d have been thumped if the group opponents were USA, Egypt and Russia? Group of Death that never was.



Russia have always seemed a tournament away from dominating Europe. Always. I recently watched a marathon of Euros and World Cup highlights. For fun and research. The USSR/Russia/CIS produced brilliance, looked like world beaters, yet always came up short. Or sometimes, fell to pieces spectacularly. Yes, I’m looking at you, class of 1990. The World Cup squad of 1986 looked to have their hands on the trophy, then they met Belgium. Which, sorry Steve, will be the only Belgium reference in this piece.



Of course, back then we had Iron Curtains and Soviet National Anthems (sung in a barnyard nowhere near you this summer by Nikolai Volkoff) and Berlin Walls. That all came tumbling down.



Since then, Russia scored six goals in one game in a World Cup in 1994.



And here is their entire winning record in the World Cup finals of the 21st Century.



Beat Tunisia in 2002.



That’s all.



They were swiftly setting themselves up to be Europes largest underachievers – hey, Spain at least used to pretend to be a contender – and 2008 started barely differently. Thumped by Russia, narrowly beating Greece, and then came the far more impressive Sweden who were expected to get the required result. Instead Russia annihilated them, and then beat the Flying Dutchmen in a Quarterfinal far more one sided than one taken to extra time usually is. And given the sickening amount of platitudes by everyone who ever lived about the 2008 Dutch side on the basis of a jammy performance against Italy and performing well against a French side who would have lost to the Scottish under 5 poodles football team, Russia earned my entire gratitude for doing so! Then came a thumping by Spain. Did I just sense déjà vu?



Truth be told, Russia’s 2008 was two good performances out of five games, but perception counts for more. After all, the English 1990 World Cup is a glorious myth now, and all anyone remembers is Platts 120th minute goal, the Cameroon game and the West Germany semifinal! Not the earlier stages where they were “Doing a Greece”. Though to be fair, didn’t everyone in 1990? Except possibly the Germans and the Italians. Damn those Germans and Italians, forever trying to dispel carefully indoctrinated stereotypes about their football! Damn them!



But yes, perception is everything. Russia got to the Semis, which is no small feat, and produced a memorable night in their Dutch mastery. Which gave everyone hopes for 2010. When, instead of teaching the English a lesson in football the Magyars would have been jealous of, they were watching at home, after a playoff elimination. How very typical!



In this campaign, they managed to finish ahead of Trappatonis Ireland, a strong Armenian side, and a lacklustre Slovakia (despite their 1-0 win in Russia!). Russia/Ireland was like Barcelona/Chelsea, only Russia didn’t have Messi and Ireland didn’t have Torres, so it ended 0-0. Somehow.



Here, given their strength in comparison to the rest of the group, and taking into account, the law of averages of Groups of Death, they could easily see off the Dutch again and be in the Semifinals before sweating too much. Which would give us the strange benefit of having a side in the Semifinals and us not knowing their true potential. If things go to plan, Germany and Spain will meet in the other Semi, meaning Russia in a Semi would face Italy/Sweden/England. If they give it their all, theres nothing to say this wont be a tournament Russia will remember for a very, very long time. The cards have begun to stack in their favour.





Keld, Denmark: This slightly improved Zenit-team should be the best team in this group despite small reservations about their central defence. I hope to see the Zenit front five (Arshavin, Kerzhakov, Denisov, Shirokov and Zyryanov) + 1 (Dzagoev? Izmailov?) play the same fantastic fluid football that saw Zenit win the Russian league by a big margin.






Dave Beattie: Thoughts on Russia? I loved watching Russia in 2008 - & Zenit around the same time in Europe. They were my hot tip as an outside bet for the tournament back then due to "the Hiddink factor". I'm generally not as convinced by "the Advocaat factor" but since he was in charge of the Zenit side I enjoyed watching so much maybe I should give him more credit.






Jon: Russia – It’s Dick Advocaat, you know what you’re getting – 4-3-3. This Russia side isn’t likely to be as much fun to watch as in 2008, having based their qualification on a solid defence. Advocaat’s wisely based his central defensive platform around the CSKA Moscow trio of Akinfeev in goals and Ignashevich and Vasily Berezutsky in front of him. It gives the middle of the Russian defence a head start on other international teams where communication and style often has to be built on the hoof. In front of them the big question mark is the form of 2008 talisman Arshavin – since his first half season at the Emirates he’s not played well for a good three years. But with a defence as tight as Russia’s has been under Advocaat it only requires a moment of inspiration from the likes of Shirokov or Dzagoev to win a match. For a side strongly fancied they haven’t been particularly strong in warm-ups though – a 1-1 draw wioth Uruguay might be no disgrace but following it with a 0-0 against Lithuania isn’t great. I write this before the friendly against Italy which should be a better indication of how they might fare.




And one last question… can a manager the squad already know is off after the tournament maintain his authority over the tournament?



Michael’s note: Vasily Berezutsky has a hip injury and will miss the 2012 Euros. Which is a shame for Russia. Also an interesting note on Advocaat leaving after the tournament: he was due to do the same in 2004, and led Holland to the Semifinals. Will history repeat?




Joao Diogo Reis: Just like Greece and the Czech Republic, Russia only progressed from the group stages once in their last 3 major tournaments (2002-2004-2008 for Russia, 2004-2008-2010 for Greece, and 2004-2006-2008 for the Czech Republic. Poland never did it in 2002-2006-2008). 



But while Greece, Czech Republic and Poland’s “last impression” was of failure (at Euro 2008… or in Greece’s case, Euro 2008+2010 WC), Russia’s “last impression” was of success – Euro 2008 semifinalist.
They kept a big part of that team, but they have also “refreshed” the team with some interesting players.
They also have the advantage that a lot of their players play for the same club. For instance, their midfield trio (Denisov-Shirokov-Zyrianov) is Zenit’s midfield trio. There are many players from Zenit or CSKA Moscow, who are used to playing together.







Gav: My Russian neighbours. Without trying to mirror political/social standings, the Russians seem to be the most insular team of the group, with only 3 players plying their trade outside of Russia. I really liked Yuri Zhirkov in some tournament or other when Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko were drawing a lot of attention. Zhirkov seemed to be the one that supplied the balls that gave Arshavin and Pav that high level of attention.



Michael’s Note – Some tournament or other was, I think, given the small clues Gav gives us, Euro 2008. Was that really four years ago? The calendar says yes.






Your player to pick from each?


Michael: I shall try not to be too obvious in here, though that leaves me open to looking very foolish. But then foolish is my natural state. SO here goes. Beyond the Dortmund lot and Brentford’s Hall of Famer, I recall that Rybus had looked good during Legia’s Europa League campaign. He now plays for Terek in Russia, is 22 and is mostly used as a substitute by Smuda, but could be one to watch if he comes on late. He’s also quite fiery, gave away some free kicks against Sporting I seem to recall. For Greece, Georgiadis isn’t coming, sadly, so watch out for him in future tournaments. That was my pick. Damn. There is not many unknowns in the Russian squad now, bar perhaps Dzagaev, but Izmailov might be lesser known. And for the Czechs, Darida. If he is good enough to chase veterans out of the final squad, he must be quite good.





Jon: Player to watch – An obvious one here, but so much depends on Robert Lewandowski. He’s the only Polish striker worthy of an international place and if he doesn’t fire then it’s tough to see where Poland are going to find goals from. Big weight on his shoulders but he’s been magnificent for Dortmund this season and the nerve he demonstrated in backheeling the decisive goal against Bayern shows that the focus of Poland’s hope may not be entirely misplaced. The Parma bound Ninis has missed a large chunk of the season, so whether he can bring his playmaking ability or if he’ll benefit from the fresh legs of not having played so many games is the real question – his finish to the season suggests he could be the spark that could see the Greeks through. (For the Czechs) Much as I hate to pick English league players, it’ll be Rosicky. He may not be a great goalscorer or even play the crucial pass that often but he’s capable of controlling a game from an advanced position and he’s a wonderful intelligent passer of the ball. Off the pitch Roman Shirokov’s lack of diplomacy is liable to be as entertaining as Mario Balotelli – on the pitch Russia will be hoping his good Champions League form carries over into the tournament. But I’m really looking forward to seeing Alan Dzagoev, who’s likely to be cutting in on the right side of the front three. He’s been around for a good few years now but is still only 21. He came within an inch of earning his team a draw against Germany on his debut, was praised by his manager… and still considered it a flop. He’s got high standards.



Joao Diogo Reis:

 Szczesny – Poland’s campaign depends on his performances. He must be extraordinary for Poland if they are going to do something in this tournament.
Holebas – the “new face” in Greece’s team, who hasn’t participated in the qualifiers.
Gebre Selassie – Other “new face”, the only player from the new Czech champion Slovan Liberec in their Euro 2012 squad- and with a name that doesn’t sound Czech at all. It’s the kind of name that you’d associate with a marathon champion, not with a Czech football player. His father is Ethiopian.
Dzagoev – Russia’s top scorer in the qualifiers, with 4 goals, he is only 21 years old, and this will be his first major tournament.



Michael: If the man we call Torn (hi Chris!) is reading this, he will appreciate all the praise of a man who will one day be in the Brentford FC Hall of Fame for his glittering half a season there, Szczesny. A one time Brentford loanee at a Euros? Whatever next!


Keld, Denmark:
Jakub Blaszczykowski has had a fantastic season in Dortmund, and made sure that the fans quickly forgot about Mario Götze’s injury. The right midfielder is strong despite his small size, and possesses a great, powerful shot from distance.
Sotiris Ninis has been the next big thing for several years, but he hasn’t impressed me on the international stage yet, so I instead look to the Greek goalie. Michalis Sifakis if fully fit, otherwise Alexandros Tzorvas, will have to deliver some great performances for the Greeks to go through. Something they have been lacking since Nikopolidis’ performance at Euro 04.
Rosický is the obvious choice and will be central after his great season in Arsenal, but you can’t go past a Czech player named Theodor Gebre Selassie. The Slovan Liberec player is set to start as right back, from where his incisive surges forward will be important.
Russia will need Roman Shirokov to complement Arshavin and Kerzhakov as a goal threat. He scored five times in this season’s Champions League, so he will know how to deliver on the biggest stage.
As an opening game, will Poland/Greece be as bad as Switzerland/Ukraine?



Dave Beattie:
Poland - Szczesny might have to be on hot form if Poland are to progress. From a more positive perspective if Poland are to be a force going forward: captain Blaszczykowski - if people don't just call him Blas they really should - appears crucial.

Greece - Sotiris Ninis seems to have been the next big thing in Greek football for many, many years now. At 22 it's time he delivered - injuries permitting at least.

Czech Republic - Another "injury permitting" pick here: Tomas Necid of CSKA Moscow. A very exciting attacking player from the bits & pieces I've seen of him playing for CSKA Moscow. If he isn't fit - AND the coach plays more than one striker for a sufficient amount of time a left field pick would be Tomas Pekhart - who was at Spurs for a while after doing well in the 2007 U20 World Cup (the Czechs reached the Final).

Russia - Arshavin has often disappointed at Arsenal but I still remember his performances in 2008 fondly. He could be the key man again assuming he's one of those players for whom the national shirt has recuperative powers. For a young emerging talent though: Alan Dzagoev of CSKA Moscow could be the one.









Gav: Player from each? Lewandowski, Samaras (thanks to my ignorance-o-meter), Pekhart and Zhirkov. Of those four I suggest you cheer Pekhart the loudest.



As an opening game, will Poland/Greece be as bad as Switzerland/Ukraine?


Gav: Is that a rhetorical question? I think this will be a good game. Poland will have the host power behind them and will beat Greece 3-1. You read it here first.






Michael: Now that’s the kind of glass half full optimism I like to see!





Joao Diogo Reis: Both teams should be cautious – it’s Greece’s style and Poland doesn’t have the quality or the audacity to play adventurous. Greece already defeated the hosts in an opening game once, they can do it again. Only this time, I don’t expect these two to meet again in the final. Well, I wasn’t expecting it in 2004 either.





Jon: Well it’s not the match the organizers would have chosen, but then the hosts being stuffed by the likes of France or Italy would’ve also been a damp squib to start.

 

Still, if it is that bad at least it’ll all be uphill from there!





Pick of the group? (The match you think will be must see of all of them)



Michael: Based on my mutterings above, Russia/Czechs!






Gav: The pick of this group has to be Czech Republic vs Poland. 6-2 to the Czechs.





Dave Beattie: Russia v Czech Republic - hopefully.





Joao Diogo Reis: Greece vs. Czech Republic – it will probably be the fight for the second spot.











Who will qualify?


Michael: Russia and Poland. I think Greece will run them close, and the Czechs will finish bottom, but have at least one point from their non-Russian games. 




Alan Kader: Russia and Czech Republic 

 



Joao Diogo Reis: Russia and Greece 





Dave Beattie: Who will qualify? Russia + the Czechs - hopefully playing some attractive stuff. I would be delighted if Poland can surprise me though. 

 



Gav: Czech Republic will top the group with ease. Their striker partnership of Pekhart-Baros will light up the tournament. 6 foot 4 ex-Saint Pekhart winning the ball for Baros. Expect lots of goals!


Michael: For those keeping score at home, the Czechs just lost to Hungary. World beaters.

Jon: This is the bit we come back after the group stages are over and wonder what the hell we were thinking isn’t it?





Michael: Almost certainly! 





Jon: Russia have solidity and potentially the goals to see themselves through so I’d plump for them to win the group, albeit unimpressively and for the Greeks to bore their opposition to death. Look for a few Lewandowski goals to take the Poles to an honourable third, not far off from qualifying.





Keld, Denmark: Russia and Poland





That makes it

Russia 6/7

Czechs 3/7

Poland 2/7

Greece 2/7





The Jon Arnold/Michael S. Collins Bonus Question for Thoughts on Their Qualification/Formations/Other Useful Stats People Might Want to Know?



Keld, Denmark: Łukasz Piszczek was in 2011/2012, according to whoscored.com, the best right back among the top five leagues.




Jon: I shall gloss over the Czech qualification campaign, mention of it may annoy the esteemed owner of this blog!




Michael: *mutter mutter sufferin’ succotash*




Jon: Suffice to say any verdict would feature the words ‘not’, ‘very’ and ‘impressive’, losing three of their games (though admittedly two were to the World and European champions). By contrast the other three teams qualified losing just one game between them (though admittedly Poland didn’t win any games to qualify either…). And yet a group with two qualifiers who lost one game between them is seen as weak and dull…




Michael: It’s because they’re too good for us, I think. This is clearly the Group of Win.




Jon: If Russia finish second in the group they’ll probably end up playing Germany in the second round on the anniversary of the day that the Second World War started for Russia. Vladimir Putin wants this to happen, so bank on it.




Michael: Politics on my page? Really? That must be a first.



Jon: *Paddington Bear stare*





Gav: Erm, did I mention Tomas Pekhart has played for Southampton? 



Michael: I don’t believe you did. 


Gav: Well, he played for Southampton. 


Michael: Cool. No Thistle players are at Euro 2012, though we did have the Faroe Islands goalkeeper at one point. *cries* 






And that does it for Group A.