The Oracle (rather, the bookie) has spoken. Spain have been anointed the overwhelming favourites to win Euro 2012, which kicks off on Friday. According to the latest odds offered by the British betting company Ladbrokes, La Furia Roja are placed at 11-4, followed by Germany (3-1), the Netherlands (13-2) and France (10-1).
England and Italy have been reduced to no-hopers, the odds on them winning in Poland/Ukraine being pegged at 12-1 and 14-1, respectively.
“Of course, we are favourites due to the fact that we are the reigning European and world champions and it seems that it is something we can’t shake off,” Spain’s manager Vicente del Bosque had told Reuters, in jest, in March.
Every tournament produces its share of heroes and zeros and this globally popular football fest could make or break the careers of some already established superstars or blossoming talent waiting in the wings. The strikers—Fernando Torres (Spain), Miroslav Klose (Germany), Wayne Rooney (England), Mario Balotelli (Italy), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden), Robin van Persie (the Netherlands), Karim Benzema (France), etc.—will undoubtedly hog the headlines for knocking in the goals. The goalkeepers could steal the limelight in the knock-out phase should the matches go down to a tie-breaker, as Petr Cech (the Czech Republic) did for Chelsea in the final of the Uefa Champions League versus Bayern Munich last month.
Top three? The Netherlands and Germany will give Spain a tough fight. Photo: Keystone/Laurent Gillieron/AP
But football often elevates iconic players the most, the ones who are “capable of inventing the game”—the schemer or playmaker who conjures that moment of magic which clinches the issue over 90 minutes of attrition. Over the decades, the Euro has been witness to several accomplished playmakers whose dexterous feats will live forever in the memories of football fans. Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini, Roberto Baggio, Zinedine Zidane, Paul Gascoigne, and Francesco Totti are some names that spring to mind.
Euro 2012 will again provide a platform for a host of players, some of whom might don the coveted No. 10 jersey, to write their own script. Playmaker, an all-encompassing term, generally means an attacking midfielder, the conductor of the orchestra, who dictates the flow of the game with his passing and vision, creating openings for goals and scoring some in the process, even from set pieces.
Gunning for a hat-trick of major titles (after their Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 triumphs), Spain will yet again weave their mesmerizing patterns via the peerless duo of Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta, with Cesc Fabregas most probably in the supporting cast. Spain play in the now trendy 4-2-3-1 formation, with Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets tidying up things in front of the defence. Although hampered by age and injury, Hernández is as effective as he’s ever been—he was voted “best creator” by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) last month. One big chink in Spain’s armour is the possible lack of a finisher as the incisive David Villa has been ruled out because of an injury. Can Torres, the powerful-in-the-air Fernando Llorente, Pedro Rodriguez or Alvaro Negredo rise to the occasion?
Germany. Photo: Gero Breloer/AP
Two teams that can make Spain see red, literally, are Germany and the Netherlands, who lost to them in the final stages in Johannesburg two years ago.
Germany have reached the final in six of the last 10 European Championships and breezed through the qualifying rounds (for this event) with an all-win record, scoring 34 goals and conceding just 7. Their key man to unlock ultra-tight rival defences will be 23-year-old prodigy Mesut Özil, who is already being hailed as the next “Zizou”. This son of Turkish immigrants is blessed with mesmerizing ball skills and even outstripped the incomparable Lionel Messi in providing assists in La Liga when Real Madrid finally dethroned Barcelona. As former international and youth team official Horst Hrubesch said in 2009: “We in Germany are prone to rave about foreign players. But we have our own Messi. Our Messi is Özil.”
One team with a reputation to redeem—it was sullied by their “muscular” World Cup 2010 campaign—is the Netherlands. Wesley Sneijder had explained that during the World Cup, saying, “Beautiful football is difficult against teams who don’t give you an inch of space.” But the former exponents of “total football” showed that their attacking prowess is still intact when they tallied 37 goals in 10 matches in their qualifying campaign. The industrious midfield general from Inter Milan, Sneijder has now returned to top gear, and if he keeps the supply lines to his awesome forward line ticking, there’s no stopping the Netherlands.
Italian veteran Andrea Pirlo ranks among the best in the business—I saw “the metronome” come off the bench (where he was consigned due to injury) and almost pull the Azzurri’s chestnuts out of the fire at the 2010 World Cup. The majestic deep-lying playmaker, who played a significant role in Juventus’ success story this season, can ping his passes with precision to set up the Balotelli-Antonio Cassano combo in the firing line. Pirlo will, of course, have the freedom to wander around, with Daniele De Rossi providing the defensive cover in the middle. Manager Cesare Prandelli has tried to foster a marginally more adventurous spirit as compared to the traditional reliance on defensive solidity and if the Italians can put the fallout of the match-fixing controversy behind them, they will prosper.
Spain. Photo: Denis Doyle/Getty Images
Another player to watch out for is diminutive Luka Modric, a consistent performer for Tottenham Hotspurs in the Premiership. Croatia coach Slaven Bilic has turned him into a deep-lying midfielder and saddled him with some defensive duties but also given him the liberty to glide upfield like a box-to-box midfielder, which calls for greater physical fitness. Croatia’s success will depend on how well the inventive Modric essays his new role. Striker Nikica Jelavic too will have to replicate his form at Everton now that Bayern Munich striker Ivica Olic is sidelined due to injury.
England have lacked a classical playmaker for long and the lad who could have filled the breach, Arsenal’s gifted 20-year-old Jack Wilshere, is on the injury list. In the event, skipper Steven Gerrard, a different sort of player, will have to man the engine room and turn things around with his momentous drive and all-round abilities. Rooney is suspended for the first two matches so Roy Hodgson’s wards will depend upon Danny Welbeck, Andy Carroll or Jermaine Defoe for their goals in their conventional 4-4-2 set-up. They certainly have a mountain to climb before they can get past the group stage.
Spain’s striker Fernando Torres will need to get past his poor form in this season’s club football. Photo: Alexander Klein/AFP
As Europe’s best player, Cristiano Ronaldo will undoubtedly be Portugal’s trump card. Though an out-and-out forward, coach Paulo Bento, who has been more attacking than his predecessor Carlos Queiroz, has given him a free hand to drift into midfield from his position out wide and influence the course of the game.
Other nations have their own stars waiting in the wings: France can boast of Samir Nasri and Yoann Gourcuff, (a “playmaker of real quality” and an “accomplished passer of the ball”); Denmark will unveil 20-year-old Christian Eriksen of Ajax (hailed as the new Michael Laudrup); Czech skipper Tomas Rosicky, who has just resumed training after an injury scare, is already known for his creative flourishes at Arsenal; while Poland’s French-born Ludovic Obraniak can team up with promising striker Robert Lewandowski for his shot at stardom.
Who among these, then, will steal the show?
Mario Rodrigues is a senior sports journalist based in Mumbai.
Euro 2012 groups
Group A: Russia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Poland
Group B: Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark
Group C: Spain, Italy, Croatia, Ireland
Group D: England, France, Sweden, Ukraine
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