So the last round of qualifying group games have been played, the winners have been decided, those in second-place (except the best runner-up of course!) progress to the play-offs. The 2012 finals, to be played in Poland & Ukraine, are to feature 16 teams, made up of the two hosts, nine group winners, the best second-placed team, and the four play-off winners. I’m going to assess each group winner and the best runner-up, and see what chances they have at next summer’s football extravaganza.
Germany: One of two teams to keep up a 100% record throughout the qualifying phase, Germany’s youthful side look as quick and slick with the ball as they did against England on a balmy South African evening last summer. This night alone, showed that the next geneation of German football had arrived. Stars like Ozil, Muller and Khedira were born, with the first and latter gaining moves to Real Madrid as a result of that World Cup! Chances are that if Spain weren’t around, the Germans would be favourites for the title, as it is, they have a chance, especially after the experience gained by World Cup ’10 and Euro 08. The way in which they’ve blitzed their group, containing a revitalized Belgium, and Euro 08 semi-finalists Turkey, suggests that they’ve had no real trouble against some established sides. Verdict: Final
Russia: Russia were the surprise package of Euro 2008. They edged through a group containing eventual winners Spain, before knocking out the Netherlands in the quarter-finals stage, Andrey Arshavin, becoming a star in the process. Whilst the side were dumped out by the Spainiards in the semi’s, and failed to qualify for last year’s World Cup, they still have a tight unit of a side, with flair players such as Arshavin and Alan Dzagoev running the wings and setting up potential counter-attacks. Guus Hiddink has departed, replaced with fellow Dutchman Dick Advocaat, who knows his way about. So, all in all, the Russians have a strong set-up, but may well be classed as ‘second seeds’, meaning a tougher route to progress through. Verdict: Quarter-Finals
Italy: The Italians, fresh from World Cup embarrassment, gaining no victories from games versus Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia, have had to rebuild and start afresh. As a result, the likes of Cannavaro, Del Piero and coach Marcello Lippi all left the set-up. The team is still in a rebuilding phase, but went through the qualifiers unchallenged and unbeaten. Stars like Guiseppe Rossi and Juventus’ Pepe will look to assert themselves on the national side and provide the pace and width that last year’s ageing Italians needed. Verdict: Quarter-Finals
France: France, similar to Italy, went crashing out of South Africa at the first hurdle. It was a team in disarray, as the team revolted, and refused to train for ex-boss Raymond Domenech. Fortunately, Domenech has left the fold to be replaced by ex-international Laurent Blanc, a man who’s performed well in French club football, winning Bordeaux a league title. The new team is settled and happy, qualities that have been lacking from a French side in recent years. However, with fewer ‘talismanic’ players within the squad, the likes of Zidane, Henry long gone, the side with struggle to have a dominant impact on the tournament. If Ribery and Benzema, in particular, finally step up and access their true potential then they have c hance of the Semi’s at best. Verdict: Semi-Finals
Netherlands Holland are one of those teams. They look fantastic on paper, but don’t always play up to their names. Perhaps national football’s most under-acheiving side now after Spain’s recent dominance, the Dutch look good as ever, but will they actually turn up? With names like Van Persie, Sneijder and Robben, the side have pace and skill in abundance, they’ve cruised the group, a loss to Sweden in the final round of games, being the only blip. As a result, they have the be considered amongst Spain and Germany, and probably are in all fairness, the trait of unpredictability of the World Cup finalists, being the only thing in their way. Verdict: Semi-Finals
Greece: Greece shocked the world seven years ago, beating the hosts of Euro 2004, Portugal twice. Once in the opening match, once in the closing, the final. The result was huge for Greek football, however, the world turned in recoil as the awful football that was played, had really not gone down well. Ironically, the Spanish side of today have millions of admirers due to their awe-inspiring play. To be clear, despite finishing ahead of Croatia, I don’t expect Greece to get out of the group stage because, as seen in South Africa, they have no other way than that dire play, to go about playing. Once teams suss them out, they’ll have no chance. Verdict: Group Stage
England: Where to begin? Their best player suspended for at least their first game. A side that seemingly lack a style of play. Failiure to beat a team that even Wales managed to beat! All these, and Fabio Capello, are why many are writing England off altogether for next summer. And they’re probably right. A pretty awful World Cup has seen some changes, the likes of Darren Bent and Ashley Young finally being given runs in the side ahead of players like Frank Lampard, but will these be enough? As a team in general, England still have an alarming lack of pace, John Terry and Gareth Barry, part of the spine of the team, two of the slowest players I’ve ever seen in my life. So then, a sort of ‘throwaway’ torunament, England will probably, for once, be happy with the Quarter Finals at best! Verdict: Quarter Finals
Denmark: Firstly, I don’t really have a clue about Denmark. For a team with Nicklas Bendtner as their leading frontman, I’d be instantly worried. All jokes aside, the Danes are a puzzling team. They have no real stars, perhaps Ajax’s Erikkson, being the exception, yet finished ahead of the Cristiano Ronaldo-driven Portugal. They may well run on team spriit, but team spirit alone doesn’t get you far, as they found out last year in South Africa, failing to get out of the group stage. They may well prove me wrong, but I can only see the group stages. Verdict: Group Stage
Spain: THE team to beat, Spain are the overwhelming favourites and, at times, look unbeatable. They have similar qualities to Barcelona. They pass, they move, they close down well, they are very easy on the eye. However, in recent matches I’ve noticed that both clubs share one negative trait. Defending. Don’t get me wrong the best club and national teams at the moment, can defend, just not very well. A lack of pace in both teams in evident with the central partnership of Puyol and Pique being a strong, but not unbeatable one. If any team is to beat the Spaniards, then it is to be based on a defensive error and a lot of luck! For Spain are truly awesome, noone can pass like them, bar Barcelona, it is a joy to see them play and be good winners at the same time. Verdict:Winners
Sweden: The second Scandanavian team to qualify did so as best runners-up in the same group as Holland. Again, I don’t know a huge amount about the side, other than the huge reliance on Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The man is as talismanic as it comes and is becoming more and more consistent as his career progresses. They are always compact and seem to work well as a team, they certainly have the ability, with the likes of Sebastian Larsson and Kim Kallstrom supporting Ibra, from midfield. I can see them sneaking into the Quarter-Finals, depending on the strength of their group. Verdict: Quarter Finals
So that’s all the group winners covered, I’ll be assessing the play-off matches when the fixtures are announced over the next few days!