Wow. This is truly the group of peril. We’ve got two of the best teams in the world, not to mention one of the strongest international rivalries, which is ready to be reignited on June 13th, the supposed best player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo and Denmark. It’s going to be a hell of a group with two of the aforementioned Ronaldo, Robin Van Persie, the much sought after Mario Gotze and, well, Nicklas Bendtner, the most highly self-rated player in the world, going home early from Ukraine.
Holland are strange team to decipher. For years the mentality of Total Football implemented by Cruyff and co in the 70s, was the only way to play. Now Spain have altered it to create their ‘tika-taka’ style, what does it leave Holland with? Well if the World Cup 2010 final was to believed, it seemed the Dutch had resorted to kicking lumps out of the vertically challenged Spaniards to get the ultimate prize in football, and it almost worked, Iniesta only saving Spain in extra time.
Since then, more of an emphasis has been on returning to a more attractive style of football, in order to win plaudits and trophies. It’s not as if they haven’t got the players to do it with either. Holland’s outstanding attacking talents read like this: Schalke’s 49-goal man Klass-Jan Huntelaar, Arsenal’s 50-goal man Robin Van Persie, balding winger Arjen Robben, the already bald Wesley Sneijder and Rafael Van der Vaart. Phew. It’s easy to see where the 37 goals in 10 qualifying games came from then.
However, the defence tells a totally different tale. Johnny Heitinga of Everton is their strongest defender, with Malaga’s Joris Mathijsen, not even first choice at the Spanish club, partnering him. If the defensive qualities came anywhere near to the Dutch attack, then I’d be betting on Holland immediately! The defensive deficiencies may provoke the more possession based style of play the public demand though, killing two birds with one defence. They should move out of the groups, barring injuries and the traditional ‘in-fighting’ the Dutch are famed for, but it looks like they could bow out at the Semi’s.
Ever since the 2006 home World Cup, when a new breed of Germans was implemented into the side, in came Phillip Lahm, Per Mertsacker and Lukasz Podolski. They reached the semi-finals against the odds, and by the end, were left with a new coach, Joachim Low. He expanded on the importance of youth emphasised by his former boss Jurgen Klinsmann, but added an attractive style of play, helped by the emergence of Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller and Mario Goetze. These were technically gifted players, the likes of which Germany hadn’t seen for a very long time, and the benefits of a boosted youth development programme, set up at the start of the millennium. It’s similar to what England are trying to set up now, with the long-building work that is St Georges Park in Burton. It’s not a quick fix, but as the Germans have proved, wait a while and the profits are there.
Back to this current crop of Germans though, and they have a huge chance of dethroning Spain, with some bookmakers they’re even favourites. Like the Dutch, they have attackers in abundance, with tournament specialist Miroslav Klose still leading the line, even at the grand old age of 34, keeping Mario Gomez, scorer of 40 goals for Bayern Munich this season, from the starting XI. Defensively, again, they don’t match the attacking talents, but still with Bayern’s Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng and Lahm, there’s a strong bond there already, something the Dutch don’t have.
Revenge will be on the minds of the Germans, having been knocked out of their last two major tournaments by Spain, and I think they just might manage it.
For your Cristiano Ronaldo’s, your Nani’s and Fabio Coentrao, the fact still remains that Portugal’s current centre-forward is Helder Postiga, a man who has just come off a relegation threatened season with La Liga club Real Zaragoza. It’s a team whose golden generation has most certainly passed, leaving around 4/5 players who fit nicely into some of the best teams in the world, and the others, like Postiga, who are there due to lack of talent. This is what is likely to hold Portugal back, as they attempt to take on the established ranks of the Dutch & Germans.
New manager Paulo Bento has helped turn around a struggling and unhappy side, dragging them through the play-offs and into the toughest group of the lot. He’ll be hoping the fact that star man Ronaldo, will adore his favoured left-wing spot and inspire the rest of his ailing team towards the Quarter-Finals. On the back of Ronaldo’s best ever goal scoring season, one wonders whether he’ll be able to produce in such tough games, with Nani the only other major creative force to help. It’s often been a criticism of his that he doesn’t show up for the big games, but, even I have to admit, the Barcelona game at the Camp Nou, disproved this theory. It may prove to be that Ronaldo can’t work his magic this time round, against just too strong opposition. However, you can be assured that if either of the favoured two drop any unexpected points, they’ll be quick to capitalize.
I may have had a couple of sly jokes at Denmark in the introduction, but they should be taken seriously in Group B, no matter how big underdogs they are. They reached Ukraine by topping a qualifying group containing their illustrious rivals Portugal, showing they have got something perhaps the Portuguese don’t: team spirit.
Whilst the star-studdered, stuttering side had a World Cup hangover, resulting in the sacking of then manager Carlos Queiroz, the Danes accelerated from the starting blocks, and never looked back, securing top spot with a fine 2-1 home victory against Ronaldo & co. Martin Olsen’s side will relish being the underdogs, especially considering their past history with the Euro’s, winners as late replacements for the defunct nation of Yugoslavia, but they will need a lot of luck to escape the Germans & Dutch.
Relief comes with the in-form Ajax playmaker Christian Erikksen, fresh off a title win, and rated as the best player to come out of Denmark, since the great Michael Laudrup. Leading targetman Nicklas Bendtner has struggled to fit into English football after a great initial start as a teenager at Birmingham, but it’s the opposite at club level, as he wins plaudits after plaudits. However, as English fans know, he has a tendency to just not bother in games, so much of Denmark’s success will rely on the big man. Liverpool’s rock at the back, Daniel Agger shores up a worryingly lacking defence, which may eventually prove to be their downfall.
Whilst the duelling Portugal and Denmark might try all they like, without a huge slice of luck, and more than just Cristiano Ronaldo dragging Portugal along, the sheer class and skill levels that exude from the squads of Holland and Germany should just be too much. Both look to have an easier route to the final than rivals Spain, as they face the winners and runners-up of Group A, by far the weakest group of the tournament.