With all the anticipation leading up to the European Championships in June, the attention will inevitably fall upon the frontrunners like Spain, Germany and Holland. But like we see in most major international competitions, there are ‘dark horses’ that often get overlooked and fall into the bracket of being written off in terms of challenging in the latter stages. As we saw in 2004 with Greece, it sometimes pays to look closely at some of the lesser known teams when trying to decipher how the tournament will unravel.
Where better to start than analysing the chances of the hosts, or in this case co-hosts. With the matches being split between destinations in Ukraine and Poland, home advantage may not be as great as it could have been, but nonetheless both home nations will want to impress in their own back yard. Although neither side has a great record in recent times against big international sides, I think that Poland of the two offer the greatest promise going into Euro 2012.
Ukraine are seemingly still relying heavily on the likes of Shevchenko and Tymoshchuk, with perhaps the exception of Andriy Yarmolenko, there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of in-form new talent coming through. The manager, Oleg Blokhin, recently said they needed players to fight for their country and some of the more well-known names like Milevskiy and Voronin and perhaps culpable of under-performing.
Meanwhile, although with it again being difficult to gauge form with the host nations not needing to qualify, Poland appear to have some growth and development in the squad that may push them towards the quarter-finals. Their weakest area on paper would arguably be their defence, but in friendlies, even against highly ranked teams, they don’t concede too many goals. The manager, Franciszek Smuda, appears to have built up a decent resolve and determination in the Polish squad and they may be up to the task of fending off some bigger sides in the Euros. This can only be aided by the form of Dortmund defender Lukasz Piszczek, who has arguably been not only one of the stand-out right-backs in the Bundesliga but in Europe this season, and Arsenal shot-stopper Wojciech Szczesny.
Even with key men like Blaszczykowski and Lewandowski in the attacking third, Poland have struggled for goals at times. We’ve seen, for example, Switzerland put in some fantastic defensive performances in big international tournaments recently, notably not conceding a goal in four games of World Cup 2006 and beating Spain 1-0 four years later. Poland could turn out to be of a similar ilk, with a bit of a lack of creativity from central midfield but a strong unit and team spirit, with the added benefit of home stadiums.
However, if the Dortmund trio pull together the same sort of form that saw them retain the Bundesliga, Poland could spring some surprises. They effectively have 6 defensive players and 4 attacking, so counter-attacking could work for them, with Lewandowski at the top of the formation having scored 30 goals this season for his club. Two more players to watch are former Ligue 1 winner with Lille Ludovic Obraniak, and 19-year old Warsaw whiz-kid Rafal Wolski who was a surprise addition to the squad.
Bookmakers are offering odds of around 40/1 for Ukraine to win Euro 2012 and roughly the same odds for Poland, both of which seem realistic when you look at the stiff competition. However, with the slightly more favourable group and a united squad, I would favour Poland to reach the knock-out stages and provide a potential upset. A match against Germany in the quarter-finals would certainly be a hotly contested affair to say the least.
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