Home Team Decisions
Eoghan McMonagle, brings up the tidbits of the two host nations of upcoming Euro 2012.
So the UEFA European Championship 2012 is fast approaching and it promises to be a very interesting competition. The favourites are well-known, with reigning champions Spain and a very strong Germany being mentioned along with perennial contenders Holland. Into that mix are thrown teams like Italy, England and France who may have fallen on hard times over the last few years but still have the players and the tradition to go all the way. But what of the joint-hosts, Poland and Ukraine? Are they there to simply make up the numbers or can (at least) either of these teams use home advantage to mount an unexpected challenge?
Poland have the honour of kicking-off the tournament when they face Greece on June 8th. So I shall start by looking at them. Drawn in Group A alongside Russia, the Czech Republic and the aforementioned Greece, they might just fancy their chances of making it to the quarter-finals. None of these teams are among the front line contenders for the title and this promises to be a very closely contested group.
Russia will be favourites to advance. They are, according to the latest FIFA rankings, the highest ranked team of the four and quite comfortably surpassed Ireland in the qualification group to top it. The Czech Republic are not quite the force they once were, having struggled in their qualification group but managed to clinch a play-off spot and dispatched Montenegro easily to reach the final tournament. The Greeks, however, will be very hard to beat and were highly impressive in qualifying – topping a group containing Croatia, that too remaining unbeaten.
As hosts, Poland did not have the rigours of a qualifying campaign to go through, being automatically seeded in Group A. They might have struggled to make it through as in the qualification campaign for the 2010 World Cup, Poland were truly awful. They finished 5th out of 6 teams with only lowly San Marino behind and Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czechs and even Northern Ireland ahead of them. Not exactly inspiring stuff! It begs the question as to whether Poland would actually have made it to Euro 2012 if they had had to qualify for it – the answer is probably not.
So can they turn their form of the last few years around and actually be competitive in front of their own people this summer? It will be interesting to find out – certainly the benefits of playing in front of a home crowd should lift a team, especially with the passionate support the Polish fans are known for. However, lack of competitive football during the qualification campaign for Euro 2012 may put Poland at a disadvantage. No amount of friendly matches can come close to the white-hot intensity of qualification for, or playing in, a major international tournament.
Much will depend on how Poland start the tournament – a result against Greece with the eyes of the footballing world on them in the first game will raise their confidence and really get the fans behind them. A point against Russia in the next game after 4 days would then put them in good shape for the final group game against the Czechs on June 16th. A tough ask but not impossible. Given how tight I expect this group to be one win may be good enough to go through. Poland’s recent record may not be particularly impressive but this is a new start and it’s a chance they might just take. In summary then, the Poles are a good outside bet to make it to the quarter-finals but there, I think, the adventure will end against the mighty Germany, Netherlands or Portugal.
So how about the Ukraine? They are still relative newcomers to international tournaments having only ever qualified for one – the 2006 World Cup. Their performance there was encouraging as they made it to the quarter-finals before being beaten by eventual champions, Italy. However, since then there has been very little progress – Ukraine failed to qualify for Euro 2008 and lost out to Greece in a play-off to get to the 2010 World Cup. The “”Golden Generation” of the early to mid 2000’s, drawn from the excellent Dynamo Kiev team of the same period, never really fulfilled its potential – can the class of 2012 fare any better?
As joint hosts, Ukraine will have the same advantages and disadvantages as those mentioned above for Poland. The passionate and numerous local supporters may go some way to offsetting the lack of match sharpness due to the absence of competitive football over the qualifying campaign. I fear for Ukraine however, that they have some extra issues to deal with, chief among which is the quality of the group in which they find themselves in. Ukraine begin their campaign against Sweden on June 11th, they then face France before finishing the group against England on June 19th.
That is a really tough series of games – the Swedes nearly always perform well at international level and often punch above their weight. They are a seasoned and well balanced team and have the unpredictable, but potentially brilliant, Zlatan Ibrahimović up front. The Swedes came second to the Netherlands in their qualification group but actually managed to beat the highly fancied Dutch in their final group game. France have been through a couple of bad years at international level having gone out at the group stages of both Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup but topped their qualification group for Euro 2012, losing only one game in the process. There is a growing sense that France have straightened themselves out and with players like Karim Benzema and Franck Ribéry they could go a long way at Euro 2012. England always seem to be less than the sum of their parts and this is, I believe, a fairly weak England squad. That said, they still possess some excellent players and it is unfortunate for Ukraine that the only game of the group stages which Wayne Rooney will be eligible for is the final game against them (Rooney is suspended for England’s first two matches).
So how do Ukraine compete with these heavyweights? The short answer, from my point of view at least is, they can’t. I don’t see the quality in their squad to sustain a challenge in Group D. The team is almost exclusively based in the Ukrainian league, which I do not believe is providing the highest standard of football at the moment. The fact that they still rely so heavily on the 35 year old Andriy Shevchenko in attack is a serious concern. I hope for Ukraine’s sake that they can raise their game and give a good account of themselves come June – but it will be very difficult for them and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them come bottom of the group.
Being the hosts of a major tournament can and should provide a major boost to the chances of the home nations – but only if they have sufficient quality to take advantage. It would be good for the tournament as a whole if one or both of the host nations can do well – Poland may just have enough to emerge from their group but I think Ukraine are seriously up against it.
Poland: 2nd in Group A behind Greece, eliminated in quarter-finals.
Ukraine: 4th in Group D.