EURO 2012 Group B: ‘The Group of Death’

Denmark:

Having been handed pretty much the roughest draw possible Denmark look like the weakest of the four sides in Group B on paper but as the old saying goes ‘football matches aren’t won on paper’ and the Danes will be hoping that this footballing cliche lives up to it’s billing.

Eriksen

Eriksen has made a major impression at Ajax and now he will look to impress in a major international tournament

They may appear to have a somewhat inferior squad to those of their rival teams in Group B but they actually have a squad made up of some very decent international footballers as well as Christian Eriksen who is one of the most highly rated young midfielders in world football. It is too early to right off Denmark’s chances of causing an upset in ‘the group of death’ but one would have to say that there would be little shame in propping up the rest come the end of the group stages if that were to be the case.

One to watch… Christian Eriksen: Eriksen has attracted the interest of many top European clubs over the past couple of seasons with his pace, creativity and ever-developing class clear for all to see. This could be the tournament where he becomes a star.

Euros nostalgia: Denmark were surprise winners when Sweden hosted the tournament in 1992. Inspired by Peter Schmeichel’s phenomenal form in goal and the playmaking skills of Brian Laudrup the Danes came through tough group consisting of hosts Sweden, France and England and then defeated reigning champions Holland in the semis before beating Germany 2-0 in the final.

Tournament prospects: It is very hard to see Denmark getting out of the ‘group of death’ given the competition but that was also the case back in 1992 when they were victorious. They will probably finish bottom of the group but don’t write them off as they are a very decent side.

Netherlands:

Over the past few years the Dutch national side have re-established themselves as one of the super-powers of international football and that has been in no small part down to the starring roles of attacking midfielders Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder and front-man Robin Van Persie.

Robben

Robben may not have many more chances to land silverware with the Dutch national side

Another key part of the Dutch’s re-emergence has been their willingness to trial and persist with the inclusion of young and talented players on the international stage. Over the past few years players such as Gregory Van Der Wiel, Klaas Jan Huntelaar, Ibrahim Affellay and Eljero Elia among others have been thrust right into the thick of international football and they have had to develop at a rate of knots in order to meet the standards required.

Their blend of world class talent, experience and a wealth of young and talented players has seen them become a real force to be reckoned with and they will hope to go one further than their runners-up finish at the World Cup in 2010.

One to watch… Gregory Van Der Wiel: Holland’s squad is brimming with young and attacking talent and Van Der Wiel definitely comes within this bracket. The young right back has attracted the attention of huge clubs such as Real Madrid already and perhaps he is just a few strong performances at the Euros away from sealing such a move.

Euros nostalgia: The Netherlands won the trophy in 1988 with a squad containing legends such as Ruud Gullit, Ronald Koeman, Frank Rijkaard and Marco Van Basten who scored probably the best goal ever to grace the final of a European Championship.

Tournament prospects: The Dutch squad is up there with the best in the competition and their recent qualification and major tournament form suggests that they are prime candidates to win the tournament. However, they are in the toughest group of the draw and they will have to hit the ground running to avoid an embarrassing first round exit.

Germany:

Germany are nearly always key players when it comes to major international tournaments and it appears as if that will be the case once again.

If their showing at the World Cup in 2010 is anything to go by then their young and developing squad could well be ready to take the Euros by storm. Since then they have promoted youngsters Mats Hummels, Toni Kroos, Marco Reus, Andre Schurrie and particularly Mario Gotze to the forefront of their thinking and their already young and exciting squad has picked up some even younger and more exciting recruits.

Ozil and Gotze

Ozil had a huge impact in 2010 and now partnered with Gotze in the playmaking department he could impress once again

If their more recent additions to the squad can impact in a similar fashion to how the likes of Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Mueller did in South Africa in 2010 then Germany could be the team to watch in Poland and Ukraine.

One to watch… Mario Gotze: The diminutive Dortmund attacking midfielder has become a key part of Germany’s full international squad having graduated from the youth ranks since the World Cup in 2010 and he looks set to have a major impact in his first major competition for the national side.

Euros nostalgia: Having overcome England on penalties on their own turf in the semis of Euro 96, Germany went on to inflict defeat on the Czech Republic in the final and that remains as their most recent major tournament win.

Tournament prospects: Armed with a fantastic squad bursting to the seams with potential Germany could definitely go all the way and win this one. The bulk of their squad is made up of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund players and if they can re-produce the domestic form shown by Dortmund and the European form of Bayern then they will surely rival the likes of Spain. They may have a tough group but I think they will top it.

Portugal:

Over the past decade Portugal have often shown the worst of themselves in qualification for major tournaments by scraping through groups which their capable squads should have been more than able to deal with but when it has come to the big stage they have a decent record. They have managed to get out of the group stages in each of the last four European Championships and in amongst this record they should really have picked up the trophy in 2004 when they lost out to shock winners Greece on home turf.

Ronaldo

Ronaldo suffered the heartbreak of defeat in the final in 2004 but now he captains his country

It is rough on Portugal that they have been drawn in a group that contains two of the best sides in the world as they would have looked a decent bet to go through in any of the other three groups but don’t rule them out of contention in Group B just yet.

At their disposal they have an experienced and talented back line including Real Madrid’s Pepe and Fabio Coentrao, a versatile and energy-packed midfield including the likes of Joao Moutinho of Porto and Raul Meireles of Chelsea, and, to top it off they have one of the fiercest looking attacking contingents in the competition with the likes of Nani, Quaresma, Varela and Helder Postiga providing able support to the tournament’s best player in Cristiano Ronaldo.

One to watch… Cristiano Ronaldo: Off the back of his best season in La Liga to date (and that’s saying something!) the eyes of the whole tournament will be on Ronaldo as he hopes to set a captain’s example and inspire his side to qualify from the tournament’s toughest group.

Euros nostalgia: The football loving nation of Portugal was left devastated by their side’s failure to defeat Greece in the final of Euro 2004 the tournament which saw their star player of the moment, Cristiano Ronaldo, take his first steps in a major international tournament and saw their former star man, Luis Figo, play in his final European Championships.

A brief summary of Group B:

It is nearly impossible to predict the outcome of this group given the calibre of the teams and the individuals on show but it is hard to look past Denmark being the bottom side. I don’t think they’ll be whipping boys by any means and I expect them to push each of their opponents really hard but ultimately I think their efforts will prove a little futile.

Given that it is ‘the group of death’ it means that one of the tournaments stronger sides will have to take an early bath and face the indignity of a first round exit. I don’t quite know why I think this will be the case but I have a feeling that the Netherlands will prove to be the major casualty of the first round and I think Portugal will come second in the group behind Germany who I expect to fare very well throughout the tournament. I think that the winner of the competition will come from Group B and I think Germany look the most likely.

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The Summer Sales: Benfica, Dortmund and Bilbao amongst those likely to pay for their success

As the summer draws closer and the vast majority of Europe’s domestic leagues are winding up for the summer break and the transfer window that comes with it, rumours are rife about who could go where and why they might seek pastures new.

It is the time of year when all sides who have either performed beyond their means or who have been outgrown by their leading lights fear the most as they head into the year’s most lengthy and protracted period of transfer-related vulnerability.

We have already seen clear examples of what this summer’s transfer window may have to offer as the Bundesliga’s relegation threatened Cologne have lost their talismanic local hero Lukas Podolski to Arsenal for what appears a bit of a bargain. Arsenal have also moved to try and avoid last season’s mad rush for recruits on deadline day by attempting to secure a deal for Yann M’Vila who is also fast becoming too big a fish in the small pond that is Rennes.

Podolski

Podolski has a fantastic international record

In addition to  players like Podolski and M’Vila shining at their clubs and attracting attention from ‘Big-Time’ clubs from around Europe, there are also whole clubs around Europe who may pay the price for their success and they could be set to lose multiple players over the forthcoming summer.

Benfica, having forced their way ahead of Porto in Portugal’s domestic pecking order for much of the Portugese league season and having entertained en-route to a place in the last eight of the Champions League are now surely set for a summer of fending off interest in their most-prized assets.

Gaitan impressed against United and will have attracted interest from SAF

Arguably the hottest property at the club is their versatile attacking midfielder Nicolas Gaitan who has attracted many potential suitors with his strong performances both in Portugal and in the Champions League. It is the creative talents of the 24 year-old Argentine which have earned himself a now regular slot in amongst Argentina’s rather special attacking contingent in the national squad and that have drawn interest from huge club’s like Manchester United who have been linked more closely with securing his services than any other side.

Another huge talent plying his trade at Benfica is Swiss international Axel Witsel who has this season emerged as one of Europe’s most talented and

Witsel has shone this season and a big club will surely come calling

combative central midfielders. His consistently strong and disruptive performances amongst Benfica’s talented midfield impressed has I’m sure impressed many scouts at the top European clubs, and perhaps never more so than in Benfica’s Champions League group games which resulted in them outdoing both Manchester United and FC Basle.

Benfica’s impressive displays this year may have gone some way towards re-building their reputation and improving their financial outlook but if they don’t manage to hold onto the likes of Gaitan and Witsel then it could well have cost them dear when it comes to the strength of their playing personnel.

Another club who could come under the radar of many of Europe’s top clubs are Borussia Dortmund who have for the second season running overcome Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga title race.

Shinji Kagawa

Kagawa and Gotze both look set to fly the nest at Dortmund

Already it is being said that Shinji Kagawa might have agreed a deal with Manchester United which would be a major loss for the German club and others may well follow him out of the door as Dortmund have failed to cash in on their domestic success with a strong return to European football.

Centre-backs Neven Subotic and Mats Hummels have both impressed greatly over the past couple of seasons and have also become key players in their respective national set-ups and it would be absolutely no surprise if Europe’s major forces tried to recruit either one of them.

The jewel in Dortmund’s crown though is Mario Gotze the diminutive, young attacking midfielder and he again is being linked with a move away having featured regularly in transfer talk throughout much of the past two years. If he were to part company with Dortmund it would perhaps be the greatest loss of them all as he is very much the golden boy at the German Champions and he is the very embodiment of all that has been positive about their re-emergence as a major force in German football.

Another side likely to be the subject of a lot of transfer attention are Athletic Bilbao who have won many admirers during their European adventures this season. Though their Europa League campaign ultimately ended in major disappointment when they lost 3-0 to fellow Spanish side Athletico Madrid, many of their young and talented squad have caught the eye of on-looking scouts and as they are a side struggling to break into La Liga’s upper echelons and into real contention to secure Champions League football they will surely lose a hold of some of their stars this summer.

Iker Muniain Javi Martinez

Bilbao have entertained in the Europa League

The two most sought after members of their squad would appear to be versatile holding-midfielder and captain Javi Martinez and their star striker Fernando Llorente both of whom were a part of Spain’s world cup winning squad in 2010.

Martinez, who has for a long time been linked with Real Madrid and Barcelona, has starred for Bilbao and has demonstrated great maturity in captaining a side who have impressed under his leadership in spite of his relatively tender age. Not often is one so young placed in such a position of responsibility at a football club but Martinez has led by example providing much of the thrust which has made his Bilbao side such a dynamic force this season. He may be reluctant to leave such a prominent and valued role at his boyhood club but he will also be aware that he must be playing Champions League football if he is to fulfil his ambitions of becoming a regular in Spain’s line-up.

The same can also be said of Llorente who’s sublime volley against Manchester United in the Europa League will live long in the memory. If his talents aren’t also taken onto the next level, which is surely regular Champions League football, then perhaps he will miss out on the opportunity to stay ahead of the likes of Fernando Torres in Spain’s pecking order.

It would be a surprise if Bilbao managed to hold on to both Martinez and Llorente in the wake of their hiccup in the final of the Europa League and their consequent failure to secure Champions League football for next season but perhaps they can be hopeful of holding onto another of their prodigious talents Iker Muniain who is maybe a step behind the likes of Martinez in terms of his development.

The diminutive forward has provided great support for Llorente over the course of this season and though Bilbao have the means to hold onto him for now it might well be beyond their power if he decides that he is already primed for a first crack at Champions League football. There will certainly be no shortage of sides willing to look into the possibility of tempting him away from the San Mames if he does want out so expect rumour a plenty about where his future might lie this summer.

A big factor in Bilbao’s attempts to hold onto their emerging stars could be whether they manage to hold onto their Coach Marcelo Bielsa who has a fine record since taking charge and could perhaps be on the hit list for many of Europe’s top clubs. The club’s directors will though be breathing a huge sigh of relief that Barcelona have turned to Tito Vilanova as Pep Guardiola’s successor as Bielsa was the name on everbody’s lips as soon as the job became seemingly up for grabs.

If Bilbao’s agonising shortcoming in trying to secure Champions League football hasn’t already proved enough for their skipper and other key players, then surely the loss of Bielsa would put the final nail in the coffin in terms of sealing their respective decisions to part company with the Basque club.

It is indeed sad for football that many emerging sides tend to lose the best of their playing crop every time they show any major signs of development and bridging the gap that lies between them and the more dominant clubs in Europe but that is the nature of the modern game. Money talks and so does the opportunity to play at a higher level on a more regular basis, so expect the likes of Benfica, Dortmund and Bilbao to pay for their success and have to fight valiantly in order to hold onto their most prized assets.

Other names to watch out for in this summer’s transfer market:

Radamel Falcao (Athletico Madrid), Hulk (Porto), Papiss Demba Cisse (Newcastle), Cheick Tiote (Newcastle), Eden Hazard (Lille), Loic Remy (Marseille), Gonzalo Higuain (Real Madrid), Dani Alves (Barcelona), Robin Van Persie (Arsenal), Ricky Van Wolfswinkel (Sporting Lisbon), Ola John (FC Twente), Luuk De Jong (FC Twente), Cristian Eriksen (Ajax) Gregory Van Der Wiel (Ajax), Leighton Baines (Everton), Stephane Sessegnon (Sunderland), Didier Drogba (Chelsea), Edinson Cavani (Napoli), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Ezequiel Lavezzi (Napoli)