Spain and Germany hot favourites at Euro 2012 ...but don’t rule out a dark horse
SPAIN and Germany are rightly the most favoured teams heading into Euro 2012 this summer but history has demonstrated that the European Championship can be the tournament for the underdog.
In 1992, Denmark's players were preparing for their summer holidays when the late call came to replace Yugoslavia, who were expelled by UEFA because of the Balkans conflict. Richard Moller Nielsen's men had nothing to lose and that fearlessness - allied to the breathtaking saves of goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel - carried them to glory in Sweden.
Greece's triumph eight years ago was far less romantic, as Otto Rehhagel's ultra-defensive unit wrung the absolute maximum out of their limited ability to start and end the tournament with 1-0 victories over hosts Portugal.
In fact, Greece’s unlikely triumph is seen very much a blueprint of what Ireland can achieve at these championships.
But anyone wishing to take a punt on one of Europe's lesser lights claiming glory in Poland and Ukraine could do worse than pick out one of the four teams in Group A.
Co-hosts Poland, Greece, Russia and the Czech Republic look quite evenly matched, and for the two that progress to the last eight there will be a sense of nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Man for man, Russia look arguably the strongest side in the group. They finished top of a pool featuring the Republic of Ireland and 2010 World Cup surprise package Slovakia, and have retained some key members of the squad which reached the semi-finals of Euro 2008.
Despite that, forward Pavel Pogrebnyak is cautious about their chances.
"Everybody's reaction was that Russia had got the easiest group," he told uefa.com.
"Naturally we don't think so, because I believe we have the most equal group."
Russia kick off against the Czechs, who were lucky to edge past Scotland into a play-off and are a long way short in terms of quality of the side which reached the Euro 2004 semi-finals and the great team led by Pavel Nedved which got all the way to the Euro 96 final.
Expectation levels in Poland were low until the draw was made, but now optimism is high that Franciszek Smuda's team can make it to the knockout stages. They have a quality goalkeeper in Arsenal's Wojciech Szczesny and in defender Lukasz Piszczek, midfielder Jakub Blaszczykowski and forward Robert Lewandowski they possess three players who had important roles to play in Borussia Dortmund retaining their German Bundesliga title this season.
Greece remain obdurate opponents and were unbeaten in 17 matches until the November friendly defeat to Romania, with coach Fernando Santos awarded a contract extension through to the 2014 World Cup. In Sotiris Ninis, they have an attacking midfielder whose flair could go some way to helping them do away with their conservative image.
Cristiano Ronaldo rarely finds himself cast as an outsider, and though individually the Real Madrid superstar may be the best player on show this summer he has it all to do to guide Portugal out of Group B, which also features Germany and 2010 World Cup finalists Holland.
Denmark also possess an exciting talent in Ajax playmaker Christian Eriksen, and memories of overcoming the Dutch and the Germans en route to that 1992 success are unlikely to provide much comfort this time around.
Two more heavyweights, Spain and Italy, are expected to dominate Group C, which also features Croatia and the Republic of Ireland. Tottenham playmaker Luka Modric will need to be inspirational form if Croatia are to progress, as will influential captain Darijo Srna, but the Shakhtar Donetsk player is relishing the test.
"We are used to (doing things) the hard way, since we qualified for this championship via the play-offs. We have proved it again, that when it counts we are always there and that we can play the best football when it's needed the most," he said.
The tournament will provide a swansong for Andriy Shevchenko, who is set to lead the line for Ukraine in Group D.
Oleg Blokhin's team have obtained some impressive results over the autumn of 2011 and early part of 2012, none more so than a 3-3 draw with Germany in November in Kiev. However, the group facing them is much tougher than that handed to fellow co-hosts Poland, with France, England and Sweden standing between them and the last eight.
"We do understand that we are playing in a very difficult group and we are getting ready for that," Shevchenko said.
"The last six months especially we have been training very hard and we have very good young players, who are getting ready for this tournament.
"We play Sweden, the French team and England so it will of course not be easy, which is why we are getting ready with friendly matches."
Sweden's chances by and large depend on their talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with the AC Milan forward their top scorer in qualifying with five goals. Classy left-footed midfielder Kim Kallstrom offers invention, and there is a little more dynamism about this team than has been associated with Sweden in the past.