Manager: Guus Hiddink
Euro 2004 Performance: At the last Euro Championships, Russia played in Group A but failed to progress after losing twice and winning their last match which had no meaning. Although they were in arguably the toughest group at that tournament, the taste of defeat always runs sour, so they will be looking to show their Russian pride at the start of this weekend.
Euro 2008 Qualifying Performance: In qualifying, Russia was in Group E, the same group that saw England fail to reach the finals. Finishing on 24 points, Russia crept their way into the finals, and will be looking to prove that they really are a better side than football giants England, as they want to show they deserve their place.
Key Attacking Player: Andrei Arshavin showed last month in the UEFA Cup Final why people instill so much belief in him. He controlled the game completely for his side FC Zenit St. Petersburg, dictating pace and play. However, Arshavin will miss the first two games of the group stage, as he was red-carded in the last match of qualifying. At that point when he returns, he can only hope Russia still has a chance to qualify to the knockout rounds.
Key Defensive Player: Aleksei Berezutski might be entering his first major tournament at the national level, but that does not mean he will not show the same fortitude he has for CSKA Moscow over the past few seasons. After receiving the captaincy for the first time in March, he will look to use his leadership knowledge to keep the back line together. Four years ago, it was the lack of goals and poor defense that led to Russia’s exit from that tournament. For a strong tournament this year, Berezutski needs to keep that backline locked down.
Breakout Player: Pavel Pogrebnyak may be in his mid-20s, but the striker has been in the form of his life the past campaign, tying as top scorer in the UEFA Cup with none other than Luca Toni. However, in the defeat to Serbia last Wednesday, Pogrebnyak suffered a knee injury that could leave him out of the squad. This would be a major blow to Russia as he brings energy and tenaciousness every time he touches the pitch. Hopefully, his injury will not be serious and he will be geared for action when Russia kicks off next Tuesday.
Predicted Group Finish: Fourth
Russia really does have a strong squad, but their lack of strength at the back will fail them, as keeping the ball out of the net has always been their weakness. With Arshavin in amazing form, he will need to give some brace for Russia, even if it is only for that final game. With him missing the first two though, it’s difficult to find a player in their squad that resurge and assume the role of controlling midfielder. Not only does Russia have injury woes, but their group is one hardest to predict, as class is located all around.
Manager: Luis Aragones
Euro 2004 Performance: Like their group mates Russia, Spain failed to progress to the knockout phase, but only after going through a tiebreak with Greece. However, Greece was allowed through to the next round, as they both had the same goal differential, but Greece had netted more goals than Spain. That problem will certainly be fixed come this tournament.
Euro 2008 Qualifying Performance: Spain finished atop Group F on 28 points, with a record of 9-1-2. Their nightmare from the last Euros also seemed answered as they tied in the group for most goals scored. David Villa led the team with 7 goals scored.
Key Attacking Player: Fernando Torres has proved to be one of the most lethal strikers in all of football. In his first season at Liverpool, not enough could be said to how nearly single handedly on many occasions looked to be salvaging the team’s season. Scoring 33 times through the campaign is what Spain will want to see, as they are looking to finally live up to the hype that is associated with Spanish football through the eyes of enthusiasts around the world.
Key Defensive Player: Carles Puyol is a name that every football fan knows. Everyone knows of his ability to clear, to lock down, to start counter attacks, etc. It will be interesting as to how he interacts with the assumed partnership with Sergio Ramos, the Real Madrid brick wall in defense. With the tournament so short, mistakes cannot be allowed, so it is crucial for the ball to be kept out the net. This has failed Spain before, but hopefully this year, a new chapter is finally written.
Breakout Player: David Silva might not be the youngest player at this years tournament, but his presence will defeinitly be called upon. Although he may be limited to appearances from the bench, he is the kind of player that can regenerate a squad and reinvigorate all the players on the field. His strike against Chelsea in the previous Champions League campaign is a testament to what this kid can do. Inevitably, players like Villa and Torres will get tired, so having the firepower such as David Silva will certainly not hurt Spain.
Predicted Group Finish: First
You would have to assume that Spain would be a good favorite to win this group and progress decently deep into the tournament, but every major tournament, something always happens, whether on or off the pitch. Prior to the ’06 World Cup, Aragones was placed on high scrutiny after he made racist comments on the training pitch in reference to Thierry Henry. That incident left a gushing whole in the Spain squad, and although they performed decently, it marred their World Cup. In terms of their play, they have all the tools, but sometimes having all the tools still doesn’t get the screw in the hole. The thing that’s been missing with Spain has been chemistry: chemistry that Portugal has or even Germany. I want Spain to do well this year because of all that flair in their side, but whether they can put it all together leaves me doubtful.
Manager: Lars Lagerback
Euro 2004 Performance: At the 2004 Championship, Sweden finished atop Group C on 5 points, level with Denmark. Unfortunately, Sweden’s hopes were soon dashed in the first round of the knockout phase as their match with the Netherlands went to the dreaded penalty shootout, where they would lose 4-5 on penalty kicks. That disappointment spells redemption quite clearly to the Swedes.
Euro 2008 Qualifying Performance: In qualifying, Sweden finished second in Group F behind group mate Spain on 26 points. With a record of 8-2-2 with 23 goals scored, their defense will draw the biggest question marks when the first ball is kicked next week.
Key Attacking Player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic over the past few seasons has shown his appetite for goal leaves other teams with nothing but an empty plate. For Inter Milan, he continues to be one of the most menacing forces in Serie A and the Swedish fans hope he can translate that ability into the national squad.
Key Defensive Player: Olaf Mellberg may be best remembered for that infamous Aston Villa, Birmingham game in which his throw-in found its way into the back of his own net, but surely he has moved on from that and into a class defender. His move to Juventus is testament to this and his solid defensive skills will be called to action.
Big Surprise…: Henrik Larsson has amazingly come out of retirement at the request of Lagerback to give it one last go at a major trophy. Larsson has had one of the most illustrious careers a footballer can achieve, and knowing that this will no doubt be his last tournament will just be a bigger motivator for the Swede. His experience and leadership will be a great locker room builder for the Swedish squad, and should translate to on the pitch success.
Predicted Group Finish: Second
Sweden is another team that is full of firepower. Players like Kallstrom, Ljunberg, and Elmander will all be crucial in how deep their success will run. Again though, qualifiers are one thing, but major tournaments are completely different. I do not know if Sweden can carry over the same chemistry they had through qualifying into the tournament. And the news of Elmander sustaining an injury is another worrisome thought. As one of the leaders in qualifying, his presence is crucial for triumph for Sweden.
Manager: Otto Renhagel
Euro 2004 Performance: After entering the tournament as one of the teams with absolutely no expectations placed upon them, they left a month later as European Champions. Their sit-back-and-wait tactics brought about that wretched play all enthusiasts of soccer hate to see. However, their defensive tactic ultimately prevailed.
Euro 2008 Qualifying Performance: In qualifying for this year’s tournament, they finished on 31 points with a 10-1-1 record. Their similar tactics once again proved to sit down other team’s offense, as they let up only 10 goals, while scoring 25 goals.
Key Attacking Player: Fanis Gekas is like most of the Greek players in emerging later in their careers. Leading the squad in goals in qualifying with five, including a hat trick against Malta. His break into the national squad with the belief from Rehhagel is what will give him the confidence needed to keep up his prolific form for his country.
Key Defensive Player: Traianos Dellas is a towering defender who earned All-Star honors at the last Euro Championships. Although he never performs well at the club level, his consistent performances for the national squad are what keep getting him the caps he wants. His height will make the other teams attacks off the ball be resorted to counter-attacks or ground play.
Breakout Player: Vassilis Torosidis is one of the most prominent rising Greek stars. Although he may not start, he will just be taking in everything around him and gain experience with the aged stars on his squad. As it turns out, his birthday is on the same day Greece opens their campaign against Sweden, so what a sweet present that would be to get an appearance.
Predicted Group Finish: Third
After their 2004 triumph, other European nations quickly realized the tactics Greece used were just draining to play against and even more draining to watch. Any enthusiast will tell you that if they see those same tactics, they would a hope a team like Spain or Sweden would just quickly show them how to play real football, fluid football, and flair football. This tournament, every squad knows their tactics and will be able to combat it, which spells a short June for Greece.
As defending champions, we almost need to thank them for their gritty and grinding finals performance in Portugal, as now every team knows: you cannot just play defense and expect to win. You are going to have to score, and score a lot. With the talent located throughout literally every single squad at this tournament, the goals will be flying, bodies will be rolling, and pure heart will give eternal glory to those who will give it all in a total football tactic. So until June 29th, everyone has got a chance, and what a chance it is.