With just days to go before the second largest international football tournament in the world, Poland and Ukraine are geared up to host their first ever European Championships. Financial crisis not withstanding, expect some feverish football from teams that will compete like they have everything to lose.

With the English premier league recently concluding in smashing style, thanks to the closest ever finish in EPL history, spirits are still running high- and plenty of fans will be hoping for ‘redemption’ in the form of their national team finally winning something important. For starters, they will be thanking their lucky stars that Capello left them only AFTER they qualified for the Finals- something they had sensationally failed to do in 2008.

In stark contrast, La Liga threw up a clear Champion- Real Madrid- and the Spanish capital will be pumped up and optimistic considering the fact that Spain are Defending Champions. Meanwhile, Italy is in deep trouble again- déjà vu all over again (2006)- with a fixing scandal threatening to end the sport temporarily. With most of the top teams and their coaches being involved in this unfortunate saga, the Italian National team find themselves in a similar situation as they did back in 2006 when their top team Juventus was suspended from top flight. But, as we know, there is nothing better than adversity to fire up the Italians, because they showed great strength and resolve to win the World Title that same year, under their inspirational captain Fabio Cannavaro. But that was 6 years ago, and this is European Pride at stake, a tournament where Italy haven’t really taken the world by storm. A Quarter-final loss on penalties to eventual Champions Spain in 2008, will give them heart, because when it counts, there is no defensive team more difficult to penetrate.

Marry Me Casillas!

Most of the German national team is still nursing deep heartbreak after Bayern Munich (with the maximum players in the national team) lost the ‘double’ within a shattering week of cup football. After losing the German Cup to Borussia Dortmund, they went on to lose the Champions League Final, the big one, on penalties to an ailing Chelsea side…at home, no less! Add to this the heartbreak of losing the 2008 European Championship Final to Spain, and you wonder why they say that German nerves are colder than ice.

The Groups are as follows-

Group A- Poland, Greece, Russia, Czech Republic

With the Polish team being largely a mystery of enigmatic proportions to the world (with new coach Franciszek Smuda), this group will primarily come down to who plays better on the day. Except Czech Republic (Peter Cech alone can’t win them a trophy), who as favorites in 2004 went on to lose to Greece in the Semis, we are aware of the power of Russia (semi-finalists in 2008) and Greece (2004 Champions)- who have really demonstrated nothing after that win. What will give the Greek team some confidence is the fact that they finished above Croatia in the qualifying stage- and find themselves in a manageable group without any ‘big guns’. This can be known as the ‘Group Of Life’, with the outcome hard to predict. Prediction: Poland (riding on home support) and Russia (riding on history) go through to the Quarters.

Prediction: Poland (riding on home support) and Russia (riding on history) go through to the Quarters.

Let’s fix this problem, boys.

Group B- Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Portugal

The Group Of Death. Three of these four teams could very well make the final four in any World Tournament- and a team like Denmark (not too bad on its own) will consider itself highly unfortunate to be in this group. The Oranje Army- the Dutch National Team- as brilliant and seamless as they were in the 70s and 80s with their ‘total football’ skills (with Van Basten and Cryuff leading the charge)- are now one of the chief perpetrators of Modern Football. This physically brutal but highly effective style got them to the final of World Cup 2010, where they lost to an inspired Spanish team- and with Van Persie in the best form of his career, and Robben and Schneider looking to replicate their formative years, this team could very well repeat their 1988 triumph. But to contend with Germany- consistent top 4 finishers in the last 4 UEFA tournaments and winner of ALL their 10 qualifying games- and Portugal (2004 finalists), a Golden Generation led by Cristiano Ronaldo- there will be a massive upset early in this tournament.

Prediction: Netherlands and Germany go through. Portugal, the European Brazilians, might once again fall victim to the high standards they set for themselves.

Group C- Spain, Italy, Croatia, Republic Of Ireland

Along with perpetual favorites Germany, red-and-yellow Champions Spain stand as clear favorites in 2012. World Domination since 2008 has resulted in Spain’s most successful era in their football history, after they underachieved for a good 50 years in all international competition (much like England). With players like Casillas, Xavi, Iniesta, Villa, Alonso and the out-of-favour Torres (the winning strike of 2008, you remember), it is hard to look past possibly the greatest team of this decade. A troubled Italian side will have to contend with them, and might very well finally fall victim to their domestic fixing feud. An Irish side led by Robbie Keane, that is playing their first Euro in 20 years, will be interesting opponents- because they have been a constant presence on the World Cup Stage. Finally, it might be ‘dark horses’ Croatia- who are easily the most compact ‘real team’ in Europe right now, without any major superstar- but led by a highly astute coach Slaven Bilic.

Prediction: Spain and Croatia go through. Italy will be left licking their wounds, and it might be a good 4-5 years before we see them back in top competition.

Oktoberfest comes early

Group D- Ukraine, Sweden, France, England

Though Shakhtar is Ukraine’s most recognizable team right now, it was FC Dynamo Keiv that was responsible for pulling the Ukranian national team through its most difficult years. And with their son and striker Shevchenko still at the helm of the team, a proud Ukraine team makes its European Championship debut in 2012. The ‘Vikings’, the Swedish National team, known to cause a lot of trouble to their English counterparts- are regular participants in World Tournaments- and are led by an inspired Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The French National team, a squad capable of springing massive surprises on the World Stage after their double triumph in WC 1998 and Euro 2000 followed by their subsequent dip in form after retirement of the legendary Zidane, are still in difficult times. Some stellar friendly form with recent wins against Germany, United States and Serbia- will give coach Laurent Blanc a degree of optimism heading into yet another Euro. Their disappointing performance in the previous Euro and World Championships (group stage exits for both), will be topmost on their minds- but their future looks brighter with them being official hosts of the 2016 Championships. England, Football’s Indian Cricket Team, again head into another Championship with an entire nation baying for blood, and start as favorites in this group. But late injuries to key players like Gary Cahill (a jaw fracture in their last friendly against Belgium), Gareth Berry and Frank Lampard have thrown their preparations into disarray, not to mention the arrival of new coach Roy Hodgson (still getting a ‘feel’ of things) and the exclusion of Ferdinand.

                                                                English Humble Pie

Prediction: Sweden and France go through. England, once again, might have to deal with their depressing fortunes, and might not even have time to mull over their injuries before they are knowkced out. Their first league game against France could very well spell doom.
So, there we are, 16 teams competing for Europe’s most prestigious prize- with 8 going through to the quarter-finals.
Be prepared for an exciting fortnight of International (finally) football, and a couple of earth-shattering upsets.

Who’s your favorite to win?

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