Finally, after travelling thousands of miles to the bleakness of Montenegro and Wales and yet another tedious UEFA draw, England have finally found out who lies in their path to glory in Euro 2012. Optimistic to say the least but surely we can’t fare any worse than we did in South Africa, where we managed to be matched by the USA and Algeria, before bowing out ingloriously to arch-rivals, Germany, regardless of the controversy of Lampard’s disallowed goal.
For all the negativity that constantly surrounds our national football team, England have enjoyed a favourable draw, in which arguably the two toughest groups have been avoided. Whilst the beauty of the European Championships is that there is no such thing as an easy game, Fabio Capello and his team can be expectant of a relatively comfortable passage through the group stages where they will face co-hosts Ukraine, Sweden and France. Nevertheless, England must guard against the complacency that has been all too apparent in previous tournaments and was recently seen in their last competitive fixture where England blew a 2-0 lead away to Montenegro, despite earning the solitary point they required for qualification.
The priority of all teams was to avoid the two World Cup finalists situated in Pot A, Spain and the Netherlands, and while Ukraine may be ranked 55th in the world by FIFA, it would be foolish to underestimate a nation playing in front of a vociferous and hostile home crowd. Lest we forget, Capello experienced his first competitive defeat as England manager in a 1-0 loss in Kiev during World Cup qualification for 2010. The Swedes are an all too familiar opponent that have been tricky customers to deal with in the past (the two teams drew 2-2 at the 2006 World Cup). Although England recently beat them in a friendly at Wembley, their coach, Erik Hamren, commented after the draw by saying “I don’t think you saw the real Sweden in that match”. And then we revive our rivalry with the French, the in-form team in world football, having gone 17 matches unbeaten under new manager and former Manchester United defender, Laurent Blanc. An emerging nation after their public fiasco at the World Cup last year, France are unbeaten in their last five games against England, including a last minute victory at Euro 2004 and a 2-1 win at Wembley in November last year, in which a Karim Benzema-led France enjoyed such superiority that the scoreline flattered the home side. However England are to be fair on a similar run of form themselves. They finished 2011, following the game against Sweden, unbeaten. Clearly to label England as favourites would be foolish considering previous tournaments, but we can surely be labeled as dark horses for the Euro crown.
With all three group games to be played in Ukraine, a tricky proposition now faces the FA as whether to change base, having originally decided to situate themselves in the town of Krakow, Poland. Capello has already voiced his opinion on this matter, stating “we have already found a really good place. I am happy with the facilities and we will stay in the same place in Krakow”, meaning England will face journeys of 930 miles to Donetsk to play France and Ukraine and 540 miles to Kiev where they take on Sweden. Whilst you may be wondering why the location of a training base matters so much, just cast your mind back to the player’s opinions of being based in Rustenburg, South Africa, where complaints were made over the strict regime imposed by Capello and the remoteness of the area.
A quick glance at the other three groups in these Championships verifies why England will be mildly content with who they face; Group A is arguably the easiest group, containing the lowest-ranked team in the competition, co-hosts, Poland and a Russian team that was considered the weakest in Pot B, despite its exploits at the last Euros in 2008. The group is rounded off by Euro 2004 champions, Greece and the Czech Republic, a side that seem to consistently qualify without making much of an impact during the actual competition.
Group B has been given the customary ‘Group of Death’ term after seeing the Netherlands, Germany and Portugal drawn together. All three sides boast amongst them some of the top players in the world, with these mouth-watering clashes featuring the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wesley Sneijder and Mesut Özil. Denmark take the last spot in this group and cannot be taken too lightly after topping a qualification group that also featured Portugal.
The Republic of Ireland find themselves facing an uphill task in qualifying from Group C. Alongside them are the reigning World and European Champions Spain, who triumphed in 2008 with a 1-0 win over Germany, and former World Champions from 2006, Italy. The match with Italy will see the current Ireland boss, Giovanni Trapattoni, come up against his former adversaries, with Croatia completing Group C, featuring the diminutive but effective Luka Modric. One must not forget that, even if England do manage to qualify for the knockout stages, topping the group may be vital in avoiding a quarter-final clash with Spain, a match-up that may prove detrimental to our chances of advancing to the latter stages of the competition.
So, between now and June 11th when England kick-off their campaign, Capello has many questions which he must ponder regarding his squad choice. He will be wary of the mistakes he made in South Africa, where the likes of Scott Parker, almost a shoe-in now at the centre of midfield, was left out. Will he go with the tried and trusted experience with the likes of Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand or will he risk experimenting with more youthful players, such as Kyle Walker, Jack Rodwell and Dean Sturridge? Will Steven Gerrard and Jack Wilshere recover from long-standing injuries and return to full fitness? The biggest dilemma, however, lies with Wayne Rooney who, facing a three-match suspension following a sending off in England’s last qualifier, is by no means certain of a place in Capello’s squad.