This month the United States begins the two-year qualification for the 2014 World Cup, one of the greatest tournaments in all of sports. If two years seems like a long time to wait to watch a big tournament, we have good news for you. This Friday Euro 2012, the European soccer championships, begins in Poland and Ukraine. When it comes to great international soccer, the Euros may be as exciting and entertaining as the World Cup. Some of the world’s greatest players and teams will be there, including Spain, winners of World Cup 2010 and Euro 2008.
You’ll be able to watch every single match in the United States, so we’re here to get you ready with previews of each team. The 16 countries are divided into four groups, with each team playing the other three teams in their group. The top two teams in each advance to the quarterfinals where it becomes win or go home. Today, we break down Group A. Come back Tuesday to take a look at Group B, then Wednesday for Group C and Thursday for Group D.
GROUP A (Czech Republic, Greece, Poland and Russia)
Of all the groups in this year’s tournament, this one may be the biggest snoozer. None of the teams is exceptionally strong or play an attacking, offensive style of soccer. However, because they are so evenly matched, and because co-host Poland plays in this group, it will be fun to watch nonetheless. Here’s our breakdown of the teams, which begin play on Friday the 8th.
Nickname: Lokomotiva (The Locomotive)
World Ranking: 27
Last decade, you could count on the Czech Republic making a solid stand at any major international competition. It had a strong core of talented strikers and midfielders, including one of the world’s best players Pavel Nedved, who led them to the semifinals of Euro 2004 and to the World Cup in 2006. Those days are in the past. The Czechs scored less goals in qualifying than any team that made the tournament (12 in 8 games). Though they have one of the world’s best goalkeepers, Petr Cech of the Champions League-winners Chelsea FC, the Czechs may be heading home early.
Nickname: To Piratiko (The Pirate Ship)
World Ranking: 15
In 2004 Greece shocked the soccer world by winning the European championships when no one thought they had a chance. How did they do it? By playing really boring, defensive soccer that’s not very fun to watch. The team’s style of play hasn’t changed much since. They’ll sit back in their end of the field and slowly move their way up the field on offense. If their stingy defense can keep other teams from scoring, the Greeks will stand a chance. But if they concede goals early, they don’t have many options on the offense to try to get the goal back. As ugly as it is, Greece has only lost one match since the 2010 World Cup, but don’t expect many goals.
Nickname: Bialo-Czerwoni (White-Red)
World Ranking: 62
Had Poland not been one of the hosts of the tournament, and thus the recipient of an automatic berth, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t be playing in Euro 2012 at all. Outside their core three players, striker Robert Lewandowski, midfielder Jakub Blaszczykowski and defender Lukasz Piszczek, the team is pretty light on talent. Despite that fact, some experts are picking the hosts to finish in the top two of this relatively easy group, riding the home crowd’s support to victory. For that to happen, the team’s best striker, the 23-year-old Lewandowski, who plays for the German league champion Borussia Dortmund, will need to put the ball in the back of the net. Poland can find encouragement from their solid form in friendly matches this year, earning a draw with Portugal and notching victories over Latvia, Slovakia and Andorra.
Nickname: Sbornaya (Selection)
World Ranking: 13
Though they didn’t have the toughest qualifying group, Russia still took the top spot, scoring 17 goals (sure, it’s inflated by smacking down tiny Andorra 6-0) and allowing only four. At Euro 2008, Russia made it all the way to the semifinals, beating powerhouse Holland in the quarters before getting ousted by eventual champs Spain. Unfortunately, that same team couldn’t qualify for World Cup 2010, so they’re looking for redemption at this year’s Euros. If their game last week is any indication, they may find it. Russia played Italy for it’s final tune-up and thumped them 3-0. The Russians also have the advantage of a lot of them playing together for club teams back home, so they’ll mesh well together.
Games you need to watch
To be honest, there aren’t many games in this group where you NEED to drop everything you’re doing and get to a TV to watch. However, Poland vs. Russia at 2:45 pm EST on June 12th would be the one to see if you want to catch the best matchup of Group A.
Russia will win the group and Poland will ride the wave of home support to a second place finish, allowing them to move on to the quarterfinals. Where they’ll likely be crushed.
Photo courtesy of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland/Flickr