Euro 2012: Contenders and pretenders | Soccer | CBC Sports

Euro CupEuro 2012: Contenders and pretenders

Posted: Thursday, May 31, 2012 | 12:00 PM

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Spanish midfielder Xavi Hernandez, centre, combines superior ball possession with a deft scoring touch. (Luis Gene/Getty Images) Spanish midfielder Xavi Hernandez, centre, combines superior ball possession with a deft scoring touch. (Luis Gene/Getty Images)

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If you are of Spanish, Dutch or German descent - congratulations! These three, from a field of 16, are surely the only nations which can entertain realistic hopes of Euro glory.
Let's be honest. This is where the heart gets to rule the head. There is no room for objectivity or calm analysis since this is about who we are and where we're from.

We have an obligation to cheer for the nation of our heritage. Regardless of whether we were actually born there, or have even set foot in that country, the European championship forces us back to the land of our fathers. We know it will all end in tears but we simply have no choice.

Things would be very different if free will was permitted. We would all follow a team which plays attractive, effective football and which has a chance to go all the way. If you are of Spanish, Dutch or German descent - congratulations! These three, from a field of 16, are surely the only nations which can entertain realistic hopes of Euro glory:

Spain

This nation is almost an irresistible favourite. The world and European champions have talent by the truck load and have proven, beyond all doubt, they have the nerve and temperament to succeed on the big stage.

The Spaniards have turned patience into an art form. Methodical in their approach, the defending champions put a premium on possession and are prepared to wait for the right time to strike. Rarely will Spain risk losing the ball by simply launching it into the penalty area. Rather the ploy is to retain possession and tempt the opponent out of position before upping the tempo and attacking at the critical moment.

If the Spaniards have a weakness, it is their reluctance to change. A more direct approach is completely at odds with their style but it leads to criticism of a lack of Plan B. Most opponents will attempt to 'park the bus' and hit Spain on the counterattack. It worked for Switzerland at the World Cup in 2010, and more recently, cost a Barcelona team containing eight Spaniards a place in the Champions League final.

Netherlands

Holland is nipping at Spain's heels. But for some wasteful finishing in Johannesburg, the Dutch could be entering Euro 2012 as world champions. There is every reason to suspect Holland will go deep into this tournament and perhaps make up for the heartbreak of 2010.

This club combines two essential ingredients necessary for success: flair and physicality to get the job done. Scoring goals should not be a problem with the likes of Robin van Persie, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder all proven big time players.

Curiously the Netherlands' recent Euro record is somewhat disappointing. It is 24 years since Marco van Basten's wonder goal won it for the Oranje, but no Dutch team has managed to return to the final. Most recently Holland, having dominated its group, disappeared without trace in the 2008 quarter-finals.

Germany

Could this be the year the Germans come of age? One of the abiding memories of the 2010 World Cup was a string of impressive performances by a German team yet to reach its peak. With one of two exceptions this is a new Germany playing the game very differently from its predecessors.

The traditional hallmarks of German teams have been power, discipline and stamina. Coach Joachim Low has shifted the emphasis to speed, creativity and flexibility with the current generation and achieved impressive results. He took them to the final of Euro2008, and third place in South Africa.

Miroslav Klose may be the old man but he'll be planning a suitable birthday surprise. The Lazio striker will turn 34 on the day Germany opens up against Portugal and the only item on his wish list will be a victory and perhaps a goal to ice the cake. The Germans are almost always a factor - expect nothing different and you won't be surprised.

The dark horses

Russia

Every tournament has a dark horse and Euro 2012 will likely follow tradition. We all remember Turkey's heroic run to the semifinals four years ago but Russia also made it to the final four. The Turks didn't qualify this time but Dick Advocaat's Russians are back for more.

They were fortunate to avoid any of the big guns in the draw and will be confident of advancing beyond the group stages once again. History could repeat itself in the quarter-finals where a meeting with the Netherlands could be in store. Four years ago the Russians sent the Dutch packing after extra time.

Ukraine

The dual hosts will be desperate to put on a show and Ukraine could just spring a surprise. Home advantage doesn't always work, as Austria and Switzerland found to their cost in 2008, but it can also transform also-rans into tough opponents.

Few active players have more international experience than Andriy Shevchenko. The 35-year-old is well past his prime but his international strike rate remains very respectable. Coach Oleh Blokhin has added several members of last year's Euro U21 team to the mix, and they'll be dancing in the streets of Kiev if Ukraine can reach the knock out stages.

On the decline

England

The penny is finally dropping in England. Despite the customary unrealistic hype surrounding the team's chances, some fans are beginning to understand. The English are nothing more than an average nation on the international stage and expectations should reflect their true standing.

England will do well to survive the round-robin stage. With Wayne Rooney suspended for the opening two games, he may come back too late to save Roy Hodgson's team. Neither Andy Carroll nor  Danny Welbeck are sure of their places at the club level so neither can be described as international class strikers.

At the other end of the park, things are so desperate Hodgson has been forced to call up a goalkeeper who has never played in the EPL or even close. Jack Butland's only professional experience has been at tiny Cheltenham Town - a team which plays in the fourth tier of English football.

Joe Hart will need wrapping in cotton wool on a daily basis.

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