It’s arrived! After the endless bluster over managers, injuries and omissions, we’re finally going to have some football to talk about. There may be dark mutterings over the suitability of Poland and Ukraine as hosts for the jamboree, but Euro 2012 is finally about to erupt upon our consciousness and there’s little doubt it promises to decorate our thoughts for much of the next month. All the expected qualifiers are there, little that can be described as makeweights, and plenty of scope to add to the rich memories that previous tournaments have bestowed. But who will emerge triumphant, who will light up the action and stir the emotions, and can England confound expectation and somehow prove more than the dismal interlopers they so often appear?
On the last point, the portents are not great. Selection has been ham-fisted. I don’t think it would have been tantamount to defeatism if Roy Hodgson had unashamedly picked a squad for the future. What would we have lost, save for a generation of failures whose only international legacy is one of crushing disappointment? If Terry had also been omitted, and there are plenty of reasons both ‘footballing’ and otherwise to justify that course of action, then the Ferdinand issue would have had less relevance. As it is, it has been allowed to provide just the sort of media sideshow that has scuppered previous missions. It is more pertinent to ask why Michael Carrick, Micah Richards, Adam Johnson and Dean Sturridge are watching the competition from home while such lightweights as Stuart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Martin Kelly enjoy the trip. And, yes, it is not lost that the latter three all represent the eighth best club in England. How Liverpool come to provide six members of the party is truly bewildering.
All that is now yesterday’s news. We have what we have and while Hodgson’s two preparatory friendlies have not been the easiest watch, England looked organised and difficult to break down. Maybe that’s the best we can expect, although I feel that Oxlade-Chamberlain might just be a Gazza-like ace up the sleeve if given half a chance. Certainly our Group D opponents should display greater craft and guile than did Norway and Belgium, but it is not the most daunting section. Sweden usually have the Indian sign over England but are no more than functional, while Ukraine will be hopeful that patriotic fervour will come to their aid if their recent defeat to Turkey is anything to go by. Shevchenko appears to be on a sinecure, and having struggled to trouble Premiership defenders in the past, his ageing frame should hardly concern them unduly now.
The biggest danger to England escaping the group stage may be the fact that the France game comes up first. ‘Les Bleus’ are a mercurial lot but seem more contented under the guidance of Laurent Blanc and have the quality to be serious players in the tournament. Newcastle fans need no introduction to the attributes of Cabaye and Ben Arfa, and there are plenty more familiar names, while the likes of Giroud and M’Vila are primed to make an impact. The French are definite dark horses and England could find the pressure ramped up on their remaining games should they lose first time out. The fragility of Gallic fraternité is such that the opposite scenario is equally likely; the game is pivotal to both nations.
Finishing top of the group should avert the possibility of running into Spain a touch too early. There are reasons to doubt the defending Champions, not least their players having been on a constant treadmill for several years without a full summer break. You lose a lot less energy with the ball though and it would be churlish to discount their chances. The loss of Villa and Puyol means they are possibly slightly weaker than in their recent pomp, and much will be expected of Llorente or Torres up front, but it is inconceivable for them to be usurped in Group C. Italy are wracked by scandal once more and while previous similar problems helped forge a unity which saw them to glory in both 1982 and 2006, it is a while since their performances justified their billing. Their game against Ireland threatens to tax the poor minion in charge of the highlights package; the Irish are a welcome addition but Trappatoni’s smothering caution has seen them bore their way to the top table and he’s far too long in the tooth to change tack. Croatia may be an overlooked outsider in this group. It could be Modric’s moment in the sun.
Every major tournament needs its ‘Group of Death’ but I don’t see Group B as the toughest to call. The young German side which embarrassed England in South Africa is now two years older, and that extra experience is key. Evergreen striker Klose is the only squad member over 30 while the likes of Ozil, Mueller, Khedira and Schweinsteiger make theirs a formidably creative midfield. There might be a slight doubt defensively and seven of their players featured in Bayern Munich’s Champions League final heartbreak, but the Germans have a lengthy winter break so fatigue should not be a viable excuse. Holland, so disappointingly brutal in the last World Cup final, appear to have reconnected with their footballing values and cut a swathe through qualifying. Their greatest danger is always themselves and, should they avoid the customary internal squabbles, they will comfortably dispatch the remaining group members, Portugal and Denmark. Both look one-man teams; we know plenty about Ronaldo but watch out for the Scandinavian prodigy Eriksen.
The remaining section will kick off festivities and looks tricky to predict, partially due to unfamiliarity. Russia ought to be strongest and their squad is drawn from a narrow pool of club sides, while Poland will be keen to impress. The Czech Republic probably should not have got past Scotland which hardly promotes confidence. Greece look about as worthy of investment as their economy but we all know what happened in 2004. Actually, let me make a confident prophecy: It won’t happen again and the two to progress will succumb at the first knockout stage.
It will be disturbing if the tournament is scarred by racism or hooliganism. Let us hope too that, as FIFA dithers on technology, there will be no crucial goal-line controversies. Tactically, may the most ambitious and imaginative win the day. Those who opt to ‘park the bus’ deserve to have it towed away and crushed. Spain have provided us with plenty to savour in recent times and if the dancing feet of Xavi and Iniesta want to stage a reprise you won’t find me complaining. But I think this might be a bridge too far. Germany have the style and application to steal their thunder, and wouldn’t it be nice if they were to cast off their national stereotype and win it with flair and verve? It is their time. The money’s down and the TV’s ready for a feast of football. Deutschland über alles for me.