With the exception of Lionel Messi, European footballers are up on a pedestal as simply the greatest collection of a continent’s players there is. With South American football going through a transition stage, it is countries such as Germany, Spain and the Netherlands, which come to the fore in the European Championship this summer. However they are not alone as England, France, Italy and Portugal will all be vying to become Europe’s number one team by July 1st.
In our books, every match in Euro 2012 is a must-see. But if you don’t have the luxury to watch every match, here are the 5 must-see Euro 2012 group matches that you need to mark on your calendar:
Germany vs. Portugal, Saturday, June 9, 2:45pm ET
Having made it to the final of Euro 2008, the Germans will look to go one step further this summer but Joachim Low’s men will have to emerge from the group of death. They begin their quest to get into the knockout stage by facing Portugal, the side who they controversially knocked out at the quarterfinal stage just four years ago.
The World Cup semi-finalists have matured considerably since that occasion with the likes of Mesut Ozil, Manuel Neuer and Mario Gomez establishing themselves as some of the best players in their position around the world. They steamrolled their way into this tournament with a 100% record in the qualifying campaign and the immense strength of this team from goalkeeper to striker accredits that this is possibly the best balanced side in the competition.
Cristiano Ronaldo was world player of the year in 2008 but could not prevent his country’s premature exit. However he was carrying an injury at the time and he has actually improved since then. The team is very much built around him and the flair brought on by the likes of Fabio Coentrao and Nani on the flanks should supply the Real Madrid man with plenty of chances. Pepe and Bruno Alves will hope to stifle the German threat and Ricardo in goal will compliment them.
However despite Portugal possessing possibly the best player in the world, it is hard to look past a victory for Die Mannschaft. With a sound rearguard and dominating midfield, it is difficult to envisage the Iberian men being able to grab a sufficient foothold on proceedings. Whether Mario Gomez or Miroslav Klose is up front is irrelevant as both are proven goal poachers who will provide enough firepower to see off their opponent’s.
Prediction: Germany 3-1 Portugal
Spain vs. Italy, Sunday, June 10, Noon ET
The last two World Cup winners will have the honor of opening Group C proceedings to this tournament with one team basking in the ultimate football glory while the other will be hoping to reclaim their title as a heavyweight on the international scene.
Spain is favorites to win the tournament from the outset and it is easy to see why. With more Champions League winners than any other team plus being defending European and world champions, they are truly the kings of the game. With Fernando Torres and Fernando Llorente back on form and David Villa possibly returning to fitness in time, it should be goals galore for the Spaniards this summer.
Embellished by a star-studded midfield of Xabi Alonso, Xavi and Iniesta, they will dictate the tempo of every game. An outstanding rearguard of Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Raúl Albiol, Gerard Pique and Alvaro Arbeloa will keep their concessions down to a minimum also. There is nothing else that hasn’t already been said about this legendary team and they will go into this match ultra-confident of getting the right result.
Italy, on the other hand, will be looking to restore some national pride after disappointing recent outings at the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2008. Cesare Prandelli has done a stellar job of steadying the ship after a few rocky years but they are still some way short of being able to compete with the best. Andrea Pirlo and Daniele de Rossi are still entrusted with the midfield patrolling but having never truly replaced Alessandro del Piero, Francesco Totti or Fabio Cannovaro, big holes remain at the heart of this team. They are understandably going through a period of renewal with several young players emerging but this competition may come too soon for the Azzurri players.
Italy will make this a difficult start to the group for the defending champions but Spanish perseverance and superiority squad should see them eventually wear their opponents down.
Prediction: Spain 2-0 Italy
England vs. France, Monday, June 11, Noon ET
The opening Group D match features two sides that is ready to put some very forgetful years behind them. England was trounced in the first knockout round by Germany of the World Cup while France embarrassingly finished bottom of their group. However both sides enter this competition with some optimism with new managers and new players in the hope of claiming unlikely silverware on July 1st.
A solid young goalkeeper in Joe Hart with Glen Johnson, John Terry, Joleon Lescott and Ashley Cole in defense should prove a formidable back-line to breach for any team. However it is in midfield they run into problems as question marks surround Steven Gerrard, James Milner and Scott Parker. Add that to Wayne Rooney serving a suspension for the opening two games and the Three Lions could have a tough time of breaking the deadlock.
Laurent Blanc’s charges are rejuvenated after the dismal reign of Raymond Domenech finally came to an end in 2010. Phillipe Mexes and Laurent Koscielny, Mathieu Debuchy and Patrice Evra will help Hugo Lloris in goal. The midfield of Franck Ribery, Alou Diarra, Yohan Cabaye and Samir Nasri with Karim Benzema up front will give them great firepower against any team.
Although both sides boast fine players in many positions, the weight of expectation could bring the quality of this game down and with it being the opening group game, it is likely to be a cagey, hard fought affair.
Prediction: England 1-1 France
Netherlands vs. Germany, Wednesday, June 13, 2:45pm ET
One of the fiercest rivalries in international football takes place in the Metalist Stadium in Ukraine as two teams who got knocked out by Spain at the final two hurdles of the 2010 World Cup lock horns. History says Germany have the edge with three wins, two draws and two losses on the seven occasions they have met. However player for player, this could be one of the most titanic battles ever between the two nations.
The Dutch boast a solid, if unspectacular back five, but it is with their midfield and forwards that will decide if their summer campaign is to be victorious. Robin van Persie is undoubtedly the hottest striker in England at the moment and he will take some stopping in this game but it is with the multiple threat of Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Rafael van der Vaart that will wreak havoc among defenses.
The aforementioned German side will depend on their midfield and strikers to do the business but, it is their defense and goalkeeper who will be most important in this match-up. Manuel Neuer will need to carry on his inspirational club form for another few weeks to deny the dangerous duo of van Persie and Robben. He will be aided by a back-line of Mats Hummels, Phillip Lahm and others and Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira will try and reduce the influence of Sneijder to a minimum.
Both teams are very balanced in that they have deadliness up front, a mixture of flair and tough tackling in the centre and are accompanied by sturdy defenders at the back. There won’t be a great deal of chances in this game and with possibly dire consequences if either team lost, neither will be going all-out for the win.
Prediction: Netherlands 1-1 Germany
Portugal vs. Netherlands, Sunday, June 17, 2:45pm ET
The final group game for either of these teams will be pivotal to deciding their futures in the competition. With Germany favorites to top Group B, it is likely to be one of these outfits to advance as the runner-up.
The Portuguese will once again be depending on the brilliance of Ronaldo to see them through this tumultuous tussle which is a rematch of their last 16 encounter at the 2006 World Cup – a feisty encounter which saw a record number of yellow and red cards dished out. Paulo Bento will be hoping to stifle the multiple threats offered by the Dutchmen by deploying Miguel Veloso and Raul Meireles in deep midfield positions to provide a basis for the win.
Meanwhile the Netherlands will be confident of progressing as they have a better all-round team than the Portuguese. Instead of depending heavily on van Persie which the Portuguese are likely to do with Ronaldo, they have several attacking outlets through Robben, Sneijder and more, and there are enough match-winners among this team to claim a victory. Although question marks remain over the reliability of goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenberg, Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel will enforce a miserly defense to reduce the threats of Nani, Ronaldo and Danny to a minimum.
The luxury of several truly world class playmakers and forwards should be enough to see the Dutchmen through this game but don’t expect the Iberian men to go down without a fight.
Prediction: Portugal 1-2 Netherlands