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Too close to call

Spain is the odds-on favourite to rule Euro 2012, but Germany, France, Netherlands, Portugal and Italy are certain to contend

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"THE Euro will be harder to win than the World Cup." So said Andres Iniesta on Friday, and he should know.

The 28-year-old playmaker scored the winning goal of the 2010 World Cup final as Spain beat the Netherlands in extra time, and two years prior he was part of the Spanish side that overcame Germany to win Euro 2008. He was named to the all-star team in both tournaments.

Speaking to Sport Mediaset in Madrid, Iniesta stated his belief that previous championships are always "easier than what is coming," and that titles are always more difficult to retain than to initially win. "Remembering is very nice," he said, "but I like to live in the present."

At Euro 2012, which begins Friday, June 8 in Poland and Ukraine, as many as six teams have a legitimate chance to lift the trophy in Kyiv on July 1. Spain are the favourites, and we'll know in a month just how hard their 2008 championship was to defend.

Here's a breakdown of the event as I see it:

GROUP A: Poland, Greece, Russia, Czech Republic

Poland in a sentence: A trio of Borussia Dortmund players--right-back Lukasz Piszczek, winger Jakub Blaszczykowski and striker Robert Lewandowski -- will have a lot to do with Poland's fortunes in a winnable Group A.

On the hot seat: Wojciech Szczesny. The Arsenal goalkeeper had a breakout season at club level and will have to transfer his form to the European Championship if Poland are to make any kind of noise in the knockout stage.

FIFA ranking: 65

Forecast: Poland should fully expect to progress from the group, although the prize for finishing first will be a quarter-final match with one of Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark or Portugal.


Greece in a sentence: It should surprise no one that a commitment to team defence and a familiar back four -- three of whom play their club soccer at Olympiacos -- will make Greece a difficult side to break down at Euro 2012.

On the hot seat: José Holebas. The 27-year-old left-back was born in Germany to a Uruguayan mother and Greek father and only made his Greece debut in November. But he has quickly become an important player in the national team, especially on the counter-attack.

FIFA ranking: 14

Forecast: The defenders truly are the stars of this team. They even contributed six of Greece's 14 goals in qualifying. Still, there's not probably not enough firepower here to get them out of Group A.


Czech Republic in a sentence: There aren't a lot of goals in this side, but Czech Republic are a tricky team that can lull an opponent into a false sense of security before eking out a win--as they did against Montenegro in the qualification playoff.

On the hot seat: Tomas Rosicky. What goals the Czechs do manage to score will likely have the Arsenal playmaker's fingerprints all over them.

FIFA ranking: 26

Forecast: The Czechs have twice been to the knockout stage since the breakup of Czechoslovakia, but it won't happen this time.


Russia in a sentence: Russia's active fullbacks will be vital at Euro 2012, as their mostly centrally minded midfielders won't offer much in the way of width.

On the hot seat: Andrei Arshavin. He'll play in the hole behind a lone striker and along with Alan Dzagoev will be one of his side's few creative influences.

FIFA ranking: 11

Forecast: Russia are nearly unbreakable defensively and have some proven players in attack who can bang in the goals. They should progress from this group.


GROUP B: Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Portugal

Netherlands in a sentence: They have some injury worries ahead of the tournament but in Arjen Robben, Ibrahim Afellay, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart, Robin Van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar possess an assortment of attackers that makes them instant contenders.

On the hot seat: Wesley Sneijder. A minor injury worry, he had a poor season with Inter Milan and will be looking to get back to his playmaking best in Poland and Ukraine.

FIFA ranking: 4

Forecast: A lack of mobility in the deep midfield positions will have the Netherlands battling for second spot in the group.


Denmark in a sentence: Denmark are a physical side who take their chances in front of goal and in Morten Olsen are on just their fourth manager since the 1970s.

On the hot seat: Christian Eriksen. The Ajax playmaker is one of the hottest prospects in Europe and plays right in the middle of Olsen's 4-3-3 formation.

FIFA ranking: 10

Forecast: If this were any other group Denmark would have a good chance at progressing. That said, they'll play some watchable soccer.


Germany in a sentence: Germany play the 4-2-3-1 to perfection and in Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Lukas Podolski and Mario Gomez have an attacking quartet that only Spain can compare with.

On the hot seat: Bastian Schweinsteiger. If he plays, he'll no doubt be a big contributor in any success Germany have. The Bayern Munich midfielder has battled fitness issues much of the season, however, and is a major doubt ahead of Germany's opening match against Portugal.

FIFA ranking: 2

Forecast: If it all comes together, Germany could well be European Champions on July 1. There are some question marks in defense, however, that opponents will no doubt look to take advantage of.


Portugal in a sentence: A true tournament darkhorse, Portugal play a high-risk, high-reward brand of soccer that could either see them contend or crash out early at Euro 2012.

On the hot seat: Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portugal captain and recently-crowned Liga champion scored seven goals in nine internationals in 2011.

FIFA ranking: 5

Forecast: If they can replicate their playoff performance -- where they annihilated Bosnia-Herzegovina -- the semifinals or even the final could be in the cards for Portugal. They'll battle with the Netherlands to progress from the Group of Death alongside Germany.


GROUP C: Spain, Italy, Republic of Ireland, Croatia

Spain in a sentence: They are world and European champions for a reason and enter Euro 2012 as the odds-on favourite to defend their title.

On the hot seat: Fernando Torres. Manager Vicente del Bosque prefers to use a lone centre-forward and with David Villa sidelined he'll likely pick Torres, who finished the season strongly with Chelsea, for the role.

FIFA ranking: 1

Forecast: Xavi, Iniesta, David Silva, Iker Casillas--the Spanish squad is loaded with match-winners, although an injury to Carlos Puyol leaves a hole in the centre of defense. Even so, they will fully expect to contest the final on July 1.


Italy in a sentence: You can never rule them out, but Italy's pre-tournament preparations were rocked by another match-fixing scandal and an earthquake that forced the cancellation of their first tune-up match.

On the hot seat: Andrea Pirlo. He was reborn at Juventus last season and alongside club teammate Claudio Marchisio will organize a midfield likely to be among the best in the tournament.

FIFA ranking: 12

Forecast: Christian Maggio, Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Federico Balzaretti could well constitute the best defensive corps at Euro 2012, but to contend one of strikers Mario Balotelli and Antonio Di Natale will have to replicate their club form at international level.


Republic of Ireland in a sentence: Manager Giovanni Trapattoni -- winner of league titles in four countries -- deploys a consistent 4-4-2 and has his side believing they can win any match they play in.

On the hot seat: Robbie Keane. The Los Angeles Galaxy striker scored eight goals in 10 internationals in 2011 but picked up a slight knock before the competition.

FIFA ranking: 18

Forecast: They'll be a tough out, but a berth in the last eight is probably too much to ask.


Croatia in a sentence: There are some issues in defence, but few sides play as fluently as Croatia, who will be looking to build on their quarter-final showing of four years ago.

On the hot seat: Luca Modric. You could make the argument that the 26-year-old playmaker is as singularly vital to his team's chances as any player at Euro 2012.

FIFA ranking: 8

Forecast: Darijo Srna and Mario Mandzukic will play on either side of Modric in support of a lone striker. If the goals come, there's no reason why Croatia can't progress from Group C.


GROUP D: Ukraine, Sweden, France, England

Ukraine in a sentence: No side comes into Euro 2012 with as many questions as Ukraine, whose manager -- Oleh Blokhin -- has used no fewer than 43 players in the past 12 months.

On the hot seat: Andriy Yarmolenko. One of the top scorers in the Ukrainian league last season, the 22-year-old, left-footed attacker will be one of the young players to keep an eye on at Euro 2012.

FIFA ranking: 50

Forecast: They came into their final tune-up match unbeaten in six but simply don't have the quality, especially in defence, to see them out of their bracket.


Sweden in a sentence: The Swedes gave the Netherlands a run for their money in qualifying and have enough offensive weaponry to put up a scrap in the knockout round.

On the hot seat: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swedish captain is coming off a career season at AC Milan and, at 30, seemed to noticeably mature as a player.

FIFA ranking: 17

Forecast: Centre-backs Olof Mellberg and Daniel Majstorovic are both in their mid-30s, but Rasmus Elm will add an element of youthful vigour in a side that should make it out of Group C.


France in a sentence: Manager Laurent Blanc has rebuilt Les Bleus into a contender and in Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery and Yann M'Vila has the star power to go a long way at this competition.

On the hot seat: Franck Ribery. Often criticized for his international performances, the Bayern Munich winger scored in back-to-back pre-tournament matches against Iceland and Serbia.

FIFA ranking: 16

Forecast: France should win Group D, after which they'll face the Group C runner-up in the quarter-finals. If the defence holds, there's no reason why they can't get to the last four at the very least.


England in a sentence: Some of manager Roy Hodgson's squad selections were curious to say the least, although with Wayne Rooney suspended for the first two matches and no proven goal-scorer available to replace him there isn't much expected of this England squad in the first place.

On the hot seat: Andy Carroll. The Liverpool striker scored just four Premier League goals last season but was surprisingly given the number-nine jersey by Hodgson.

FIFA ranking: 7

Forecast: Chelsea won ugly in the Champions League and England's only chance at Euro 2012 will be to copy that template. An early exit awaits.


Readers are invited to join the writer at Carlos and Murphy's for the opening day of Euro 2012 on June 8. The restaurant will be making a beverage donation to Winnipeg Harvest throughout the tournament.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2012 ??65532

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