For as much attention as the World Cup gets, it's the Euro Cup that most close observers of the game relish watching. Fewer countries means fewer pretenders, a group of death that actually assures a major contending country won't survive the group stage and a crop of players that can truly be considered the best in the world all make this easily the best soccer tournament on the planet.
These aren't the top 10 players at Euro 2012 but rather 10 players who can make a difference for their country in the opening round at this tournament.Ashley Young - England
With Wayne Rooney suspended for the first two games of the Euro group stage, stemming from a needless reactionary foul back in October, much of the Three Lions' offensive expectations will fall to the shoulders of this Manchester United man.
Young, by no means, is considered a prolific scorer but compared to his projected striking partner, Liverpool's Andy Carroll, the Englishman is practically Bobby Charlton. Young is going to need to find a way in behind the defences of France and Sweden and as a naturally positioned attacking winger; he is equipped to do that. If his coach, Roy Hodgson, allows him to run at defenders, he just may create enough chances to get England through until Rooney's return.Bastian Schweinsteiger - Germany
Battered and (ego) bruised from a grueling Champions League campaign with Bayern Munich, this centre-midfielder will be looking to recapture some of the magic he showed at the World Cup in 2010.
Credited as the man who shut down Argentina's Lionel Messi in the World Cup quarter-finals, Germany will once again be looking to his leadership in the middle of the park to power Germany's engine past the group of death. The myth that Germans don't miss penalties may have been shattered but there is no mystique around what led Germany to a perfect record during Euro qualifying - Schweinsteiger will have to be at his best to contain the attacking prowess presented by Portugal and the Netherlands.Mario Gomez - Germany
A man who has become synonymous with glorious misses in massive games isn't exactly the man you want to be channeling your offensive hopes.
But for Gomez, who is coming off a pair of spectacular flubs in the Champions League final and an equally awkward miss that nearly sent the Germans out in Euro 2008, he will find himself front and centre for the DFB-Eleven in a coming out party of sorts. In years past, Gomez has played second fiddle to the Miroslave Klose - the only player to ever score four or more goals in three consecutive World Cups - but at 33-years-old Klose is on the downside of his spectacular career and Gomez is now being tapped as his great successor. It won't be an easy go for Gomez who will have to contend with the likes of Portugal's Pepe in the opening round but if he's ever going to step out of the Klose's shadow, now is the time.Robin van Persie - Netherlands
A country in transition and one that is no longer the team that came within an inch of winning
the World Cup 2010, the biggest question for the Dutch leading into this Euro Cup is whether van Persie will be able to continue his English Premiership run of form on the international stage. The EPL's Golden Boot winner, who is just hitting the prime of his career, will be heavily relied upon to be the finishing touch in a side that is more aging vets than young cadets. Van Persie can drop deep to receive the ball but he has found most of his success being the main striker in Arsenal's 4-3-3 system. If the likes of Wesley Sneijder aren't on form in the midfield and van Persie is forced to play a more withdrawn role, it will greatly impact the Dutchman's ability to get his chances on net.Mario Balotelli - Italy
'Why always me?' Yes, Mario why always you? Known for his calm touch on the ball, as
much for his theatrics off it, Balotelli has epitomized the problem child persona that defines so many young stars in the world football today. So much of a distraction has he proven to be, that there were wide expectations from the Italian media this young phenom would be left out entirely from the national side - one that, due to injuries, could roundly use his finishing services. But with his inclusion, the Italians have opted to walk the daggers edge and are hoping that the fireworks he sets off are on the field and not in their proverbial home.Peter Cech - Czech Republic
Where Peter Cech leads, the Czech Republic follows. Always in the conversation as one of
the world's top goalkeepers, Cech will be called on to steady an unproven backline. The Czechs have lucked out in the opening round - drawing Greece and Poland, a pair of clubs who are just as likely to park the bus as any - but that won't make it any easier for the man credited with leading Chelsea to its recent Champions League title. If he can command his box and organize his back four into something or an organized defence, the Czechs could find themselves spirited off to the second round.Pepe - Portugal
If football was played off in the wilds of this world, Pepe would be akin to the game's natural
predator. He stalks strikers around the pitch looking to land a tackle that punishes. He is never one to be afraid to leave a foot in, or some studs up, on a tackle. And while "strikers fear him" is a phrase too often used to define a physical defender's play, in this case, having been credited with shortening several promising careers, it might actually be true. He will make a meal of Germany's Mario Gomez or the Netherland's Robin van Persie if given the opportunity.Samir Nasri - France
He made no bones about being left out of the French World Cup side in 2010, calling it a
"slap in the face." But after a pair of successful league campaigns, Nasri is now being looked upon to lead France into the next generation of football. He hasn't shied away from that role either, calling out his more experienced teammates this past week after some less than stellar performances during their tune up games. Nasri will need to find some cohesion in attack with Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema if France hopes get to past a group that looks to be wide open.Zlatan Ibrahimovic - Sweden
Without underplaying Sweden's chances too much - there is Zlatan Ibranhimovic and then
there is everybody else on Sweden. Far and away the best player on the squad - perhaps, ever - Sweden's fate is largely linked to whatever magic the AC Milan striker can produce. It won't be easy for the slender Swede as the sole focus of their attack but if they can get the ball to his feet, with time to turn, he may be able to duplicate the success they had when they put down Croatia 3-1 in a friendly earlier this year.Andrey Arshavin - Russia
In two years, Russia's captain and the man known as the Little Russian has gone from the
next big thing in world football, to something of an afterthought. There have been those who have even suggested that the former Arsenal man could actually impede Russian's progress from the group stage if he's in the lineup. Since he made bank as Arsenal's most expensive purchase ever, most of that criticism has stemmed from a nonchalant attitude towards his football and one that has led him into more nightclubs than starting roles on the pitch. Russia's hopes aren't pinned on this once sensation but it wouldn't hurt them either if he found a renewed interest in his game or showed some of that scoring prowess from his early days at Arsenal.
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