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Spain, the enemy to beat at Euro 2012

Will anyone be able to beat Spain?

MANILA, Philippines – After last month’s nerve-racking UEFA Champions League final, top European football is back with Euro 2012, which kicks off Friday, June 8, in Poland and the Ukraine with defending champion Spain as top contender for the trophy.

Spanish full squad for Euro 2012 with manager Vicente del Bosque. Photo by AFP

But the World Cup champions in South Africa 2010, which four years ago beat Germany 1-0 in the final to clinch their second title, are now up against a more mature German squad, World Cup runner-up Holland and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal.

The four favorites, alongside Italy and England, are set to battle it out on the pitch in a tournament that has so far been overshadowed by racism and violence concerns in both host nations.

It is not that Poland and Ukraine are racist countries, but they do harbor a minority of radical fans known for their intolerance of black players, who may be booed at and provoked with monkey sounds, neo-Nazi chants and banana-throwing.

Mario Balotelli, Italian striker and star of EPL champions Manchester City, has already warned he will “kill” any racist hooligans he encounters, while Polish prime minister Donald Tusk assured fans that “nobody will be in any danger because of his race”.

Racist violence aside, Poland and the Ukraine see the tournament as an ideal opportunity for upgrading their infrastructure and showcasing both former Soviet bloc countries for investors and tourism.

Their teams should also look forward to just that, as neither are likely to qualify for the last 16.

For the second time in the history of the tournament, a total of 32 teams will compete for a spot in the knockout stage, for which the top 2 teams in each of the four groups will qualify.

Group A: Czech Republic, Greece, Poland & Russia

No thrills expected here, but the absence of a dominant team will make it an interesting group for the fans.

The Czechs, led by Chelsea keeper and Champions League final hero Peter Cech, are looking to pull off a decent performance with no expectation of making it beyond the quarterfinals, eight years after being runners-up to Greece, which presents no star players at all and will, as usual, keep defending, defending, and defending.

Poland, whose best-known player is the manager, former player Franciszek Smuda, has even less to offer, while Russia’s options depend on electric midfielder Andrei Arshavin, who led them to the semi finals in 2008 but has failed to live up to what was expected of him at Arsenal.

Group B: Germany, Holland, Portugal & Denmark

Anything can happen in the so-called “Group of Death”, which features Germany, the runner-up in the last tournament, Holland, the runner-up in the last World Cup, a very strong Portugal, and Denmark, a lesser power since the Laudrup brothers retired.

Joachim Low’s Germany, considered by many to be at Spain’s level, will again field a relatively young but experienced squad with Real Madrid playmaker Mesut Özil calling the shots with his magical left foot, and most of the same players that reached the semi finals in South Africa.

Holland is also planning to make few changes with regards to their excellent World Cup run, although EPL top goalscorer Robin van Persie (Arsenal) will presumably play on the left and leave Schalke 04’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar as sole center-forward.

Portugal is all about Cristiano Ronaldo, but Cristiano Rolando is all about himself; that is manager Paulo Bento’s main concern, unless fellow Real Madrid player and center-back Pepe gets himself sent off for trampling an opponent like he did with FC Barcelona’s Leo Messi and must exit the tournament early.

The above three will probably compete for two spots in the last 16, as the most exciting thing happening with Denmark will be their goalie: Kasper Schmeichel, son of Manchester United legend Peter Schmeichel.

Group C: Spain, Italy, Ireland & Croatia

Spain, the defending World Cup and Euro champion, is of course the enemy to beat, even if they will be missing two key FC Barcelona players through injury: striker David Villa and defender Carles Puyol.

Manager Vicente del Bosque will replace Villa with Athletic Bilbao’s Fernando Llorente or Chelsea’s Fernando Torres, while Puyol’s position will be occupied by Real Madrid skipper Sergio Ramos, who has completed an outstanding season after returning to the center of the defense with Real Madrid.

In theory, that should be enough to beat Italy, currently in a transition period after their World Cup win in 2006 and with their two strikers, Balotelli and AC Milan’s Antonio Cassano, more likely to end up squabbling over who should take a free quick then helping the team.

Italy will pass, though, because Ireland cannot seem to get Robbie Keane to score all the goals without any assistance, and Croatia is now a far cry from the glory days of Davor Suker and their third place in France 1998.

Group D: France, England, Sweden & Ukraine

Now with former player Laurent Blanc in charge and Karin Benzema from Real Madrid willing to prove he is as good as we all think he is, France can very well be a candidate for the semifinals, especially if he Benzema is assisted by Franck Ribéry (Bayern Munich).

France is looking much better than England, now under Roy Hodgson and missing Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney for the first two games through suspension, on top of Frank Lampard of Chelsea for the whole tournament after sustaining a thigh injury.

Both teams should advance to the next round unless they are upset by Sweden, if Zlatan Ibrahimovic, capable of the best and worst but never to be ignored, is in a good mood that day.

Ukraine, in spite of playing on home soil, is highly unlikely to cause any dissapointments to the top contenders in their group now that Andriy Schevchenko is out of the picture.

Sleepless nights ahead

As with the previous tournaments, Euro 2012 fans in the Philippines will suffer many sleepless nights if they want to watch the games live on Solar Sports, which is airing all the games for the first time.

Many bars that cater to the expat community will also show the matches, starting at midnight and 2.45 a.m. Manila time for the group stage and 2.45 a.m. for the knockout round before the final on July 1 (July 2 in the Philippines).

It is expected that the tournament will be followed by more Filipinos after the recent popularity of the Azkals, the national team whose good performance in the past two years has developed a new interest in football in the country. – Rappler.com

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