There is a moment before every major football tournament where I put my knowledge of football to the ultimate test by sticking my neck out and making some outlandish predictions for which I could be brutally mocked. Today, I do that for the European Championships which kick-off in Poland and Ukraine.
The winner should be either France or Germany, with Russia a possible surprise winner.
Germany and France are most likely to meet in the semi-final. The winner of that semi-final, more likely France, will probably play one of Spain, Holland or Russia in the final. This is how I view the favorites for the title, in order of likelihood of their winning:
France have a fantastic team filled with some of the best players in Europe. Benzema is probably the most in-form striker in the tournament, and should be top contender for top scorer. He’ll have the excellent Ribery, Nasri and Cabaye behind him. In defense they have a very good backline with Rami, Mexes and Clichy. These players together form a core that is arguably stronger and in better form than any other team in the tournament. Add to that a great team-spirit and togetherness bringing these players together under a popular coach, and you have the makings of success.
Germany are second favorites. Gomes, Schweinsteiger, Ozil, Khedira, Muller, Podolski, Lahm and Neuer are the core of an excellent team that is very familiar playing together and has the unique benefit of being the only German team, and we all know what that means in football. They play beautiful passing football and are a joy to watch when they click well. But they are defensively slightly suspect, and after Bayern’s defeat in the Champions League final (as well as the German league and Cup) a lot of their players might not be in the best mental shape for this tournament. They are in the group of death, against Holland and Portugal and Denmark. It is not inconceivable that they might get eliminated in the first round, with the Danes and Dutch always super motivated to defeat their neighbors.
Russia are my tip for the surprise of the tournament. The team does not have any real excellent players, but together they are a very solid team, and that counts for much more in international tournaments. They are coached by the Dutch genius Dick Advocaat and they have been under special fitness coaching by another genius Dutchman, Raymond Verheijen, which has them going into the tournament in the best shape of all other teams, if their form in the friendly games is any guide. This is the last chance for a good generation of Russian players which played very well in 2008, defeating the excellent Dutch and losing to eventual winners and world champions Spain in the semis. They somehow failed to make the World Cup in 2010, and so will be desperate to succeed in their last chance together at a major tournament. This is a solid unit that has been playing together for years. They will be motivated for this. Add to that the fact that seven of the probable starting eleven play together in Zenit St. Peterburg. Finally, they will be playing very close to home and will have enormous support in the stadium. Don’t be surprised if they win it all.
Holland still have a great team, but they are not as good as they were in the last world cup or European championship. Their defense is suspect, and Robben has proven over and over again that he is not a big game player and will always choke when it really matters. They have two excellent strikers in Robin Van Persie and Klaus-Jan Huntelaar, but are unlikely to be able to field them together. The great Sneijder has had a terrible season at Inter and is out of form, but he might be saving his best for this tournament. If they do well, it will most likely be due to van Persie, van der Vaart and Sneijder. But they could be easily undone by Robben, by the barbarity of central midfielders van Bommel and de Jong, by their suspect defense, or the extremely negative tactic of coach Bert van Mawrijk. The tragedy of this team (and there’s always a tragedy in Dutch football) is that such a great generation of wonderful players are being coached by such a mediocre and negative coach, at a time when Dutch coaches are some of the most successful and respected in the world.
Spain, on paper, have the best team in the world without a doubt. But football is not played on paper, it is played on pitches with real players. In reality, this current Spain team is a shadow of its former self. Two of their most important players, who were absolutely essential to their world cup and European cup wins are missing: striker David Villa and defender Carles Puyol. They have the best midfielders in the world, but at the end of the season all of them looked very tired and out of form. This is natural, for the amount of games that these players have played for Spain and the clubs is incredible. It is the price of success that Xavi, Iniesta, Silva, Mata, Fabregas, and Pique looked dead at the end of this season and are unlikely to reproduce their best form this tournament. They still have a lot of strength in depth but they’re unlikely to drop their underperforming players and find suitable replacements that work together as well.
England are terrible. They never fail to disappoint and even with the very low expectations this year, they will still likely disappoint. They could easily get knocked out in the first round, but if they don’t, they will be knocked out in the second round.
Italy are almost as bad as England. The team is distinctly lacking in quality, with only Buffon, Balotelli and Pirlo the real world class players. Coach Prandelli seems to have simply failed in building anything like a coherent team in two years in charge. His attempt to change Italy into an attacking team has only worked in the sense of weakening them defensively. They have no shape or coherence going forward, and their only hope of scoring seems to be long balls from Pirlo for Balotelli to finish. They’re a mess at the back. They need a proper defensive midfielder, or a third center-back to play behind Pirlo, but that would mean sacrificing an attacking midfielder, and Prandelli doesn’t look likely to do it. With Pirlo as the deepest midfielder, and their wing-backs’ proclivity for going forward, their center-defenders and keeper will have an awful time. They should be eliminated in the first round by Spain and Croatia.
Croatia could be another surprise team. They’re a solid team that has been playing together for a while and is united behind a popular smart young coach, Slaven Bilic. Modric is one of the best midfielders in the world, and if he is in form, a big if, they will sparkle. Jelavic, Rakitic, and Srna are all excellent players and this could be their year to make their name.
Winner: France, Germany or Russia
Final: France – Russia
Semi-finals: Germany-France and Russia-Spain
Quarter-finals: Germany-Poland; Russia-Holland; France-Croatia; Spain-Sweden
Robin van Persie