Looking at Group A, it does appear to be the most open of all the groups. Russia will most likely feel that first place is theirs for the taking, however all three of Poland, Greece and Czech Republic will believe the second spot is well within reach. Greece of course have achieved success in the competition fairly recently, finding themselves the surprise victors in 2004, while Russia came close last time around, falling at the hands of eventual winners Spain in the semi-finals. Czech Republic were runners up when the competition came to England in 1996, and came third in 2004, whereas Poland are relatively new to the competition, qualifying for the first time in 2008.
Russia – Key Players: Alan Dzagoev, Roman Pavlyuchenko – Prediction: 1st
The Russians could be considered as dark horses this summer, and will be hoping to go one better than they did in Austria/Switzerland four years ago. The likes of Arshavin, Pavlyuchenko and Zhirkov are known to most football fans in England, however the base of their team comes from their domestic league. The Russian top tier has improved dramatically in recent times, and is ranked as the 7th best league in Europe by UEFA, and quite incredibly, Pavel Pogrebnyak (Fulham) and Marat Izmailov (Sporting Lisbon) are the only players from outside the Russian league in their squad. They are blessed with a very promising goalkeeper in Igor Akinfeev, a talented young midfielder in Alan Dzagoev, and a talismanic frontman in Aleksandr Kerzhakov, all of whom ply their trade in their homeland – the tournament’s strongest sides would be extremely foolish to underestimate the Russians.
Czech Republic – Key Players: Petr Cech, Tomas Rosicky – Prediction: 2nd
The Czechs will believe they have what his takes to progress to the quarter finals, and I’d be inclined to agree with them. Their qualification campaign was tarnished only by defeats against the holders Spain, forcing them into a play-off match against Montenegro which they won. They boast one of the best goalkeepers in the world in Chelsea’s Petr Cech, and his influence will no doubt be crucial as they look to keep opposition strikers at bay. A resurgent Tomas Rosicky has been in fine form for Arsenal during the second half of the season, and will be the side’s main creative spark, with ex-Liverpool, Aston Villa and Portsmouth forward Milan Baros their most prolific forward. The direct frontman has netted 48 goals in 93 games for Turkish side Galatasaray, and opposition defenders will need to find a way of containing his pace and dribbling skill.
Greece – Key Players: Sotiris Ninis, Theofanis Gekas – Prediction: 3rd
The Greek side will be looking to bring some happiness to a nation currently in economic turmoil – it has been suggested that Greece have only sold 60% of their ticket allocations, as a result of their on-going crisis. The squad named by manager Fernando Santos is brimming with experience, with the midfielders Giorgos Karagounis and Kostas Katsouranis both having around 100 caps apiece, and playing crucial roles in their Euro 2004 triumph. Their qualifying campaign was very consistent; they topped their group without losing, overcoming Croatia in the process, which England fans more than anyone will recognise as no mean feat. Their Albanian-born creative midfielder Sotiris Ninis is perhaps the most talented component of a new generation of Greek footballers set to take the reins from those who were victorious in Portugal. Having recently signed for Serie A club Parma, he looks the real deal, with impressive pace and a lethal shot from long range. The ‘Ethniki’ will certainly hope to give their natives something to cheer about this summer.
Poland – Key Players: Jakub Blaszczykowski, Robert Lewandowski – Prediction: 4th
The hosts will be under pressure from their own fans to put in a good showing, and much of that pressure will be directed at their Dortmund duo of Jakub Blaszczykowski and Robert Lewandowski. The former, known to fans as Kuba, captains the national side from midfield, while the latter has been attracting attention from the likes of Manchester United after finding the net 30 times this season. The pair have picked up consecutive Bundesliga titles in the last two years, and proved crucial in this season’s campaign, featuring in 29 and 34 league matches respectively. Another man who will be crucial for Poland is Arsenal’s youthful shot stopper Wojciech Szczesny, who recently completed his first full Premier League season at the tender age of 22. The top two spots certainly aren’t out of reach – all it would take is a few good performances, and the hosts could see themselves in the quarter finals. That’s the beauty of the group stages, one shock result can change the entire picture.