THE WORLD Cup may be seen as the ultimate prize but the European Championship is actually a tougher tournament. The quality of player is very high so teams have to hit the ground running because if they don’t, they can find themselves out before the knockout stage.
This all makes the competition, which starts today when Poland host Greece, very tricky to predict, but for me there are four teams that stand out, who are well equipped to reach the last four and who would be disappointed if they didn’t.
Germany would normally be right up there but have fallen back slightly following Bayern Munich’s Champions League final defeat, a friendly loss to France and a 16-year wait for a trophy. They boast so much creativity in the likes of Mesut Ozil and Toni Kroos – with Chelsea recruit Marko Marin not even in the squad – have a great goalkeeper in Manuel Neuer and experienced centre-backs. If there is a weakness it is at left-back where Holger Badstuber’s deficiencies may see Philip Lahm deployed there and Jerome Boateng played on the right, while striker Mario Gomez is either red hot or really cold.
France are on a brilliant run which, when you consider their World Cup debacle just two years ago, is remarkable. They have a really good balance, Yohan Cabaye is crucial in the playmaker role, Franck Ribery is back scoring again and Karim Benzema has come through a difficult spell and proved himself at Real Madrid. The only worry is their back four, who were given problems by Estonia recently, when they really shouldn’t be. If they are solid France could do very well.
Holland are virtually the same side that reached the World Cup final two years ago and, in Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie, Klass-Jan Huntelaar and Arjen Robben, have the best front four at the Euros. Again, there are problems at the back, with John Heitinga prone to switching off, but their attacking talent is so great, with all of the four bar Sneijder coming off the back of outstanding seasons.
Lastly, Spain, the holders in search of an unprecedented third major trophy in a row are sure to be there or thereabouts, although I suspect they will find it extremely difficult. Their players are that little bit older, teams are more familiar with them and they have suffered a huge loss in Carles Puyol, who is not only a superb defender but also one of their few leaders. Likewise, without David Villa I feel they have lost some cutting edge. We don’t know whether Fernando Llorente can lead the line in a big tournament, however a strong Fernando Torres, if selected, could take Spain far.