Daring Dark Horses at Euro 2012
While all the superpowers of Europe prepare for the mega stage, there are some smaller nations which have the power to cause a huge upset. Debojyoti Chakraborty looks at the possible contenders who can shock the pundits at the UEFA Euro 2012
Speaking of Dark Horses, we try to analyse the teams which may not be entering the tournament as favourites but can propel their way through to the knock-out stages and beyond. These teams have a realistic chance of progressing as they are, in a way, helped by the draw at the Group stages. All they need is a bit of determination, good strategy…and some luck! So let us look at our own set of Underdogs.
Russia has a very good record at the Euros since winning it (then Soviet Union) in the inaugural edition of 1960. After going through a re-building phase since the inception of the country in the early ‘90s, Russia did well last time when they reached the semis and lost out to eventual winners Spain. This time also, the men under Dick Advocaat look set for a strong run in to the tournament.
Russia topped their Group during qualifying stages with ease. Though their opponents are relative minnows in Europe, Russia did put up a good show – especially in defence which let in only four goals, second only to Italy – and gained some valuable places in the UEFA rankings. That helped them get into the easiest Group in the finals. Russia have some good players who put their best foot forward while playing for their country. Hence, though Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko have struggled to break into the first team for their club teams in England, it will be no surprise if they turn the heat on in Euro 2012.
Advocaat is a shrewd tactician but there are quite a few challenges for him this time round. He is often criticised for favouring players from Zenit St. Petersburg, the club he coached previously. It will be interesting to see how he inducts the young and talented players like playmaker Alan Dzagoev and striker Pavel Pogrebnyak to the mix. Also, considering this could be the swansong for some key players such as defender Sergei Ignashevich, midfielders Konstantin Zyryanov and Igor Semshov, and possibly the dynamic duo of Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko, Advocaat would surely like to motivate them for a final hurrah.
Russia is playing all its matches in Poland. Ukraine would have suited them more considering the large Russian contingent there. They start their campaign against Czech Republic and will look to set the tone for the tournament. Against Poland, the hosts, their second Group match will be the toughest one. Advocaat might have an eye on this match from the start of the campaign. By the time they take on Greece on the last match day, the Russians could find themselves in a position where they can dictate terms and choose their quarter-final opponents. And that could be it. With an opponent from the Group of Death their campaign looks all but over. But the Russians won’t let it go so easy and they can look for inspiration in the Greek side of 2004. They should also benefit from the fact that half of the side plays for the Russian champion Zenit St. Petersburg.
Another Zenit player to feature in the Euro 2012 will be Portuguese defender Bruno Alves. His own country Portugal featured in the first ever Euro in 1960 but had to wait for a long 24 years for their next appearance where they reached the semis. They have done reasonably well since then with their best performance coming in the home turf as they reached the Final of Euro 2004 only to lose to Greece.
In the lead-up to Euro 2012, Portugal was stuttering with only one point from the first 2 matches of the qualifying competition, when Paulo Bento took over from Carlos Queiroz. Portugal scratched their way to the finals through a play-off against Bosnia and Herzegovina. They face an even uphill task being drawn in the Group of Death. But we have often seen teams which scratch their way into the tournament often go all the way beyond everyone’s expectations. And they have it all – ambition, determination and belief – as put in by their talismanic captain Cristiano Ronaldo. At 27, the best player of the tournament is in the form of his life and he enters the competition as the highest scorer for Portugal in the qualifying campaign with seven goals to his credit. Champions League semi-final berth to go with his personal glory of scoring for fun in La Liga; 2012 has been a memorable year for CR7 and he would like to cap it up with the Euro glory. He has some creative players hugging the touchlines in the forms of João Moutinho and Nani. If they can influence the game and take a lead, the Real Madrid pairing of Pepe and Fábio Coentrão can organise the back four, keep a proper shape and defend well.
The Selecção das Quinas start their campaign against Germany and even a stalemate would suit them. The second match against Denmark would be their big match as they not only would like to win it, but win it big to have a good goal difference. They will take a close look at the other match in the Group on the same match day as Germany and Netherlands lock horns. A bit of luck, results going their way and Portugal will feel they have a solid chance of progressing to the knock-out stages when they take on the Dutch side in their last Group match. Some records are yet to be set after the Battle of Nuremberg in World Cup 2006 which saw only 18 men finish the match and a total of 16 yellow cards. If Portugal can progress to the knock-out stages, they will face a much easier opponent in the form of Russia, Poland or Czech Republic. This is a definite winnable game and once you are into the semi-finals, anything can happen.
Just like Portugal, Croatia also came through the pain and anxiety of play-offs and started the tournament as one of the well drilled teams. Croatia, as a part of Yugoslavia, had an impressive record at the Euro championships where they reached the Final of the tournaments twice in the first three editions. They have failed to emulate their form ever since and this time too they are entering the tournament as rank outsiders.
Croatia was widely tipped to top their Group in the qualifying campaigns where they were drawn against the likes of Greece, Israel, Latvia, Georgia and Malta. But they were beaten comprehensively by the Greek side at home and a shock defeat by Georgia led them to the qualification play-off. In that match though they regained their composure and thrashed a well drilled Turkey side to advance to the finals of Euro 2012. Under the supervision of coach Slaven Bilic, the Croats are well organized, tactically sound and they are expected to run their socks off for the whole 90 minutes. Amongst a group of strong and determined individuals, they have a lynchpin in Luca Modric, a rising star in Milan Badelj and a target man in Ivica Olic.
It is their impressing run of form which sees them in the eighth place in UEFA rankings, one above their Group opponent Italy. They have been drawn in a difficult Group but one has to remember in major tournaments none can be termed as a pushover team. Croatia start their campaign against Ireland and they have to win this game for a realistic chance of progressing. They will also keep a keen eye on another match on the same match day involving Spain and Italy. Spain is almost certain to progress but Croatia can target Italy for a possible berth in the quarter-finals. The draw also favours them as the Croats will next be against the Azzuri in what could decide the quarter-final berth. Once into the knock-outs, they are most likely to face England or France. Neither of them are quite threatening in their current forms. So, the big match is against the Italians on June 14 which could well seal Croatia’s fate.
The last team in this feature is Sweden, who defeated Croatia 3-1 in a friendly in February. Sweden boss Erik Hamren will be very pleased with his efforts so far steering Sweden into the finals of a major tournament in his very first assignment. He will take heart from the fact that Sweden have progressed through the Group stages from a very similar setup in 1992 – the Group featured England, France and Denmark – which was their first appearance in the Euro stage, that too as a host.
Sweden qualified for the finals behind Netherlands as the Group runner-up. But they put up a strong display at home in Stockholm to beat the formidable Dutch side. Hamren favours a defensive 4-2-3-1 formation and even if heavily criticized at home for this, he has delivered some good results in the run-up to the competition. Like any Scandinavian side, Sweden is well organized, tactically sound and their physical aspect of the game is a major strength. Their game will definitely revolve around the charismatic front man Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With some more potent weapon at disposal, Hamren might have considered adopting an attacking brand of football with the mantra: “Attack is the best form of defence”. But does not look like so!
Sweden are lucky to get their campaign rolling against Ukraine. This is one match where they would like to win handsomely. Following that is a match against England. The 3 Lions have been struggling for form and consistency; without much time for the newly appointed manager to stamp his authority and influential Wayne Rooney up front this is Sweden’s best chance to get one up against the disjointed English side. Even the last encounter against France is not a daunting one – the French are going through a transition phase and are nowhere close to their dominating best of the late ‘90s. So their recipe for success would be to thrash Ukraine and get at least 2 points from the remaining two matches. If Sweden can make it through to the quarter-finals, they could face the reigning European and World Champions Spain and that will be curtains for them. So there is added motivation for the Swedes to top the Group and a few games going their way can make their dream come true. If that happens, Swedes would be up against the struggling Azzuri or another underdog in the form of Croatia. This is quite a decent opportunity for them to feature in the last four and then, as they say, anything can happen.
So we are done with our own dark horses. Some of them face a trickier tie compared to others. While a dominant opponent from Group B – Germany, Netherlands or Portugal – might just be Russia’s hope for a last four berth, Portugal can spring in a surprise from the Group of Death and there is no reason why they cannot go all the way. Sweden seem to have the brightest chance of shining through as they are fitted against misfiring European giants whereas the Croats have to dig deep to salvage any pride out of this year’s competition.