As with every major group-oriented competition, this year’s European Championships draw has managed to conform to procedure and conjure up one stand-out group from the depths of the Ukraine Palace of Arts, Kiev. A group whose victors and top-two progressing sides come the end of the group phase is as clear as a smog-ridden Kiev morning, Group B is this year’s guilty quartet.
With the seeding for the draw placing the co-hosts automatically in to Pot 1, and thus placing the remaining nations in descending order according to UEFA’s coefficient rankings, each and every four-strong pot had its respective ‘big hitters’. With Spain and the Netherlands completing Pot 1, Pot 2 contained Germany, Italy, England and Russia, Pot 3 housed Croatia, Greece, Portugal and Sweden, with Pot 4 accommodating sleeping giants France, along with Denmark, Czech Republic and the Republic of Ireland.
As a result, the most improbable of draws for the neutral fan would arguably have been the quartet of Spain, Germany, Portugal and France. But where would be the fun in that? As things are, the group of death contains the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal and Denmark. Perhaps lacking the eye-watering prospect of four European heavyweights slugging it out for just two knockout-round berths, the group is, however, lent the dynamic and fascinating prospect of the inclusion of Denmark. Traditionally less feared than their French foes, the Danes are something of an unknown quantity, with the likes of Christian Eriksen and Lasse Schöne, now future team-mates, exhibiting all the star-quality needed in the centre of the park, at least, to compete on the big stage.
The hopes of a footballing nation are largely burdened upon young Eriksen’s shoulders, the young midfielder being lauded by Danish legend Jan Molby recently as “one of the hottest names in European football.” Molby’s faith in the Ajax play-maker went as far as to the suggestion that he could be “potentially, as good as [we’ve] had since Michael Laudrup”. With lots of promise and nothing to lose, the group of death they find themselves in will be as little a fear to the Danes as any of their Group B counterparts, and, with their 10th place on the FIFA World Rankings list, they may well spring a surprise or two this summer.
The ‘group of death’ being drawn.
Group B’s Pot 1 representatives are the Oranje of the Netherlands. Having finally delivered somewhat on their oft-untenable tags as contenders on the big stage at the 2010 World Cup Finals, the Netherlands will be the joint-favourites to progress from this group, along with Germany, one would expect. Bert van Marwijk has assembled a sound and reliable framework for the national side in recent years, and one certainly capable of getting results. A concoction of functionality and flamboyancy, van Marwijk’s now-perfected technique of combining experience with the gradual assimilation of youth in to his side has worked wonders. Not to mention the plethora of big-name stars they have at their disposal, each as capable as the last at producing a game-winning moment or performance. The spine of the team is second to none, with healthy competition for places in almost every position. Even in goal, Maarten Stekelenburg’s previous position as number one will face stern challenge from two of the Premier League’s finest performers between the sticks of 2011/12 in Newcastle’s Tim Krul, and Swansea City’s Michel Vorm.
The final third of the pitch is rich in attacking potency, the likes of Rafael van der Vaart, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie possessing the required firepower to strike fear in to even the most stoic of European defences. Expect goals and lots of them from the Dutch in 2012, with several spots on the highlight reel already set aside for their happy habit of the outrageous.
The Germans, as previously discussed in a recent piece, possess a similar style and resolve to that of the Netherlands, with their very own wily tactician at the helm in Joachim Loew, and an array of dependable pawns in their sides quest for glory. At any rate, the Germans are likely to be most people’s choices for the other qualifying spot come the end of the group stages, with it taking a braver man than myself to call the final rankings and intricacies of the standings themselves.
That leads me on to the fourth and final presence in the group, the envious Iberian neighbours of World and European Champions Spain, Portugal. Of course, the tendency when discussing the Portuguese is to fall in to line as it were, and mention the eminent Cristiano Ronaldo, long the subject of raging debate between himself and La Liga tormentor Lionel Messi, which I will, at this stage, earmark for another discussion on another day.
They are something of an unknown quantity this year, having not produced their usual line of wildly over-sold and disappointingly under-performing ‘stars of tomorrow’ of late, instead preferring the more unassuming role of the ‘maybe men’ of Group B. With just two Premier League players likely to be represented in the squad, and the Primeira Liga’s decline in quality, or at least publicity of late, the rest of the players will largely be performing to a new and fresh European audience in Poland and Ukraine, free of the shackles of cries to fulfil some perceived prophecy of overwhelming success.
As a result, history would dictate that Portugal are likely to fill the 3rd place spot in this fascinatingly hard to call group, with the potential, along with Denmark, to disrupt the moral order of things in the upper echelons of Group B, and really supply those that love an underdog with something to cheer.
It seems bizarre to refer to Portugal and 10th-placed World Rankings Denmark as underdogs, yet their group has given them the platform to go and perform in front of the supporting eyes of a continent, and really mix things up at what promises to be a momentous battle-ground in Group B’s adopted home of Ukraine from the 9-17 June 2012.