Euro 2012 is around the corner, with 16 national teams heading to bases in Poland and Ukraine ready for the big kick on Friday. And while we’re firmly Manchester United focused here at Rant, we’ll be covering the tournament in full: current and former Reds on show, with luck some outstanding football, and a big old trophy to be won! Spain defend the tournament won in Austria and Switzerland – Fernando Torres scoring the only goal of the game as La Roja beat Germany in the Vienna final. Indeed, Spain remain the bookies favourites four years on, although Germany, Holland, Italy and France will each harbour some hope. England – not so much.
In Rant’s team-by-team preview we assess each side’s chances, pick out the key players and recall some favourite moments.
Group C – Croatia, Spain, Italy, Ireland
Vatreni qualified via the play-offs beating Turkey 3-0 on aggregate over two legs after finishing second behind Greece in qualification. Goalscoring has been Croatia’s major concern, with midfielder Niko Krancjar top goalscorer in qualification. Former Arsenal man Eduardo will be supported by the prolific Nikica Jelavić during the tournament, but can the Everton man transfer club form to the international stage for the first time with Ivica Olić injured?
Last five matches: Turkey W 3 – 0 | Turkey D 0 – 0 | Sweden L 1 – 3 | Estonia W 3 – 1 | Norway D 1 – 1
FIFA Ranking: 8
Nickname: Vatreni (The Blazers)
Manager: Slaven Bilic – the former West Ham United defender has led his country since 2006, remaining in charge despite plenty of offers from club football. It’s been a mixed period with Croatia making it out of the group stage at Euro 2008, before failing to qualify for World Cup 2010. Bilic will step down after the tournament to take charge of Russian club Lokomotiv Moscow.
- Luka Modrić - the Tottenham Hotspur man remains Croatia’s metronome in midfield. Critics point to Modrić’s poor goalscoring record for a creative player, but the midfielder’s ability to pass, move and dictate play marks him out as a potential tournament star
- Darijo Srna (c) – the experienced defender will lead his team into the tournament with more hope than expectation. Key to Croatia’s ability to remain defensively sound during the tournament
- Nikica Jelavić - can the Everton forward transplant an outstanding season to the international stage? He may need to with Bayern Munich man Olić out of the tournament
United interest: Sir Alex retains an ongoing interest in Modric, although he is unlikely to ever bring the 26-year-old to Old Trafford.
Random fact: the country’s top goalscorer Davor Šuker played twice for Yugoslavia before Croatia’s first official international match in 1990.
Defining Euro moment: Šuker’s wonderful lob over Peter Schmeichel in Croatia’s 3–0 win over reigning champions Denmark in 1996.
The Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 winners retain a core group of players from Barcelona and Real Madrid that make Spain many pundits’ favourites once again in 2012. There is undoubted quality in-depth, with a passing system that is hard to combat. But will David Villa’s injury blunt Spain’s cutting edge, especially against teams that will inevitably park the bus? Perhaps the final tournament for Spain’s Golden Era.
Last five matches: Costa Rica D 2-2 | 5 – 0 W Venezuela | Serbia W 0 – 2 | South Korea W 1 – 4 | China W 1 – 0
FIFA Ranking: 1
Nickname: La Roja
Manager: Vicente del Bosque - World champion, twice La Liga winner, and twice Champions League winner, del Bosque’s record is almost unsurpassed. Perhaps key, however, to del Bosque’s success with the national team is to have adopted wholesale Barcelona’s tiki-taka style and tactical system, and changing very little from Luis Arogones’ Euro 2008 winning side. Arguably faces his greatest challenge in the past four years with a Spanish team missing key players.
- Xavi Hernandez, Barcelona, midfielder – still the midfield master, who’s near perfect passing sets the tone for the Spanish team. Injury and potential burn-out after four years of near constant football are a worry, but still essential to Spain’s chances this summer
- Andreas Iniesta, Barcelona, midfielder – Spain’s cutting edge from midfield, who’s goals may be key in David Villa’s absence. Can play central or wide depending on del Bosque’s formation
- Fernando Torres, Chelsea, forward – it has not been the greatest 18 months for the £50 million Chelsea forward, but better form and two cup competition victories have boosted Torres’ confidence at a crucial time. Must find goalscoring touch if Spain is the retain the title.
United interest: Gerard Piqué – the former United youngster has gone on to many bigger and better things with Barcelona. What could have been.
Random fact: The national team did not play a full international match until 1920 when Spain beat Denmark 1–0 in the Olympic Games.
Defining Euro moment: Fernando Torres’ 33rd minute strike in the final of Euro 2008 to beat Germany 1–0 in Vienna.
Italy ran away with a qualification group that boasted very little quality – the Azzurri beat Estonia, Serbia, Slovenia, Northern Ireland, and the Faroes. Just two goals conceded in the process suggests the Italy of old, but this is little more than an Italian cliché with Serie A undergoing an attacking renaissance. Can Italy win it? Logic says probably not, but Cessare Prandelli has the team winning again after the disaster of the 2010 World Cup.
Last five matches: Serbia D 1–1 | Northern Ireland W 3–0 | Poland W 2–0 | Uruguay L 0–1 | United States L 0–1
FIFA Ranking: 12
Nickname: Azzurri (The Blues)
Manager: Cesare Prandelli – the experienced journeyman coach is now in his seventh major job. But Prandelli has fashioned an Italian side that has regained some pride after the disastrous 2010 World Cup where the Italians finished bottom of the group. Prandelli hasn’t won a thing in his career bar two Serie B titles – and that’s very rare for an Italian national team manager.
- Andrea Barzagli, Juventus, defender – an outstanding central defender who has just completed a superb season for Juventus at the back. Key to Italy’s tight defence during qualification
- Andrea Pirlo, Juventus, midfielder – the deep-lying play maker around whom all Italy’s tactics are based, and whom is key to Italy’s success. Premature injury would surely end Italy’s hopes
- Antonio Di Natale, Udinese, forward – ageing striker who has not always been appreciated at international level, but scored plenty of goals for Udinese in last few years
United interest: nothing to see here, especially after Giuseppe Rossi was ruled out of the tournament through injury, although Mario Ballotelli – the player all Reds love to hate – is in Italy’s squad.
Random fact: 1968 is the only time that Italy has won the tournament, beating Yugoslavia in the final. However, this was a three game tournament in which Italy just once, and scored only three goals!
Defining Euro moment: Despite ’68 the defining modern moment came in 2000 when David Trezeqguet lashed home a golden-goal for France to win the tournament.
Republic of Ireland
Words by Jonathan Cooksey, whom you can follow of Twitter here!
Despite having failed to qualify for 13 out of the 14 Euro Championships since its inception in 1960, Ireland had an impressive qualification campaign winning six of 10 games, drawing three and losing just once to eventual group winners Russia. Ireland scored 20 goals and conceded just eight times on the road to Poland and Ukraine, with the team’s vast experience at the back a vital component of the achievement. Shay Given, Richard Dunne and John O’Shea remain pivotal figures, and under Trapattoni, Ireland have employed an offensive strategy based around counter attacking football – a tactic that is unlikely to be abandoned in games against Croatia, Italy and Spain.
Last five matches: Estonia W 0-4 | Estonia D 1-1 | Czech Republic D 1–1 | Bosnia and Herzegovina W 1–0 | Hungary D 0-0
FIFA Ranking: 18
Nickname: The Boys in Green
Manager: Giovanni Trappatoni – replaced Steve Staunton as manager in February of 2008, following a disappointing spell under the former Liverpool defender. Under Trappatoni’s guidance Ireland impressively completed a 10 game 2010 World Cup qualification campaign unbeaten, missing out on a spot in South Africa thanks to that Thierry Henry handball. That is all behind the Irish now though, with the team qualifying for a first Euro Championship in 24 years.
- Shay Given, Aston Villa, goalkeeper – with a 122 international appearances, making him Ireland’s most capped player of all time, the shot-stopper is one of the cornerstones of this Irish team. Given is as reliable as death and taxes for club and country even as he approaches his 37th birthday. The Aston Villa player also donates his international match day fees to charity – one of footballs genuine good guys*.
- Richard Dunne , Aston Villa, defender – much like his Aston Villa teammate, a central figure in the Irish defence that in qualification maintained an impressive 5 clean sheets. The teams “modus operandi” is based around Trapattoni’s counter attacking style. One he must help employ if they are to have any hope of escaping the “group of death”.
- Robbie Keane, Los Angeles Galaxy, forward – Ireland’s all-time top scorer with an impressive 53 goals in a 117 appearances. Ireland will need the USA-based striker to carry the sort of form demonstrated in qualification where Keane bagged seven goals – the same tally as Ronaldo – in a team that often struggles to create chances
Defining euro moment: Ray Houghton’s sixth minute winning header against England at Euro ’88. Oh how the Guinness must have flowed!
United interest: While Paul McShane and Darron Gibson are in the squad, it’s United’s old ‘handyman’ John O’Shea whom Reds should cheer on. Despite being on the end of much criticism in his last few years at Old Trafford, and bearing an uncanny resemblance to “Max & Paddy’s” mongrel child, O’Shea offered United fans many special moments in nearly 400 appearances – the nutmeg on Figo nutmeg and that chip against Arsenal at Highbury. Magic!
Random fact: Kevin Doyle committed more fouls in qualification than any other player with 28.