Arguably the biggest star in the tournament, Portugal are hoping they can ride the Real Madrid star to a title. He scores goals by the bundle and he has to be aching to get out of the shadow of rival Lionel Messi. He has a habit of disappearing in big games, but he’s got to show up, and he must score goals for the Portuguese to have a chance.
Giorgos Samaras, Greece
The Celtic hit-man has to have a huge tournament if the Greeks are to prosper. Whether he can or not is another matter. He looked lost for much of the season with the Hoops but recovered late to help lead them to the Scottish title. And the pressure is on the Greek team as a whole – with the financial disaster enveloping that nation, it seems that more than just sporting pride is riding on this tournament. Samaras has shown he can deliver – just not consistently. Greece hopes he hits a rich vein and soon.
Robert Lewandowski, Poland
The Borussia Dortmund striker is carrying the hopes of an entire nation. Don’t believe me? Go look at the skyscraper in downtown Warsaw – it’s wrapped in his picture. Just 23, he is considered a finished product and at Dortmund, he rang up 22 goals this past season alone. The focal point of the Polish attack, he’ll bring a lot of attention from defenders – but he’s shown he can blow by even the best.
Tomas Rosicky, Czech Republic
Another erratic season at Arsenal may have fans wringing their hands, but Rosicky has shown he can lead his national team’s midfield time and time again. With the Czechs looking porous in the back and a bit thin up top, expect Rosicky to carry to water and rack up the miles.
Mario Balotelli. Italy
The bad-boy striker of Manchester City is a calculated gamble for an Italian side reeling from scandal. He’s a red card just waiting to happen, but he can also score and set up magnificent goals. His temper is another matter, and no one seems to know quite what sets him off. Italy has to hope the good Mario shows up in Gdansk, because that first game against Spain will be vital.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden
Often derided as lazy and overrated, the AC Milan striker is in fact one of the most dangerous players in the game. Technically brilliant, he just doesn’t waste a lot of energy on chasing balls. Given freedom to roam, he creates havoc for defenses on the fly. Sweden are a workmanlike team, but Ibra gives them something truly special.
Andrei Arshavin, Russia
The Arsenal midfielder fell off the deep end at Emirates this season and was indifferent at best during his loan spell with Zenit. This tournament may represent his best chance to shop himself, and Russia needs him to have a big tournament for them to prosper. When he’s on, he can be a genius; he’s agile, skilled and can make seemingly impossible shots. But when he’s off…well, let’s just say Arsenal’s fans booed him this season for a reason.
Cesc Fabregas, Spain
Cesc isn’t the best player on Barcelona and he’s by no means a sure-fire starter on a Spain team loaded with talent. That says more about the depth the defending champs have than it does about the one-time Arsenal man, who is one of the classiest players in the game. Thoughtful, creative and deadly in front of goal, if Cesc gets minutes, he can help Spain.
Andrei Shevchenko, Ukraine
At 35, this is the Ukrainian striker’s last hurrah and he is desperate to leave his nation on a high note. He’s got a lot to carry: Ukraine is arguably the poorest team in the tournament and the former Chelsea man will be depended upon to craft and score goals. He doesn’t have the legs any more, but he does have the experience and character.
Robbie Keane, Republic of Ireland
The Galaxy striker has had a muddled year so far in MLS but has been magic for Ireland throughout the years. This is surely his last hurrah, and he’s eager to make the most of what has been a glorious opportunity for the Irish. At his best, he can bull to goal and net the winner. At his worst you wonder exactly what he’s doing out there. Which Keane will show up?
Wayne Rooney, England
He’ll miss the first two games due to an inexcusable moment of madness but if the banged-up and half-strength English can hang on he may be a factor in what might be a make-or-break game against Ukraine. The only English player who can both create and score, Rooney is world-class and can change a game.
Mesut Ozil, Germany
The Real Madrid midfielder blossomed this season under Jose Mourinho and was an integral part of the La Liga title winning team. On a German team that is stacked with talent, Ozil will be tasked with giving them some flair while linking them back to front. One of the best dribblers in the game, Ozil can make the big pass and score the big goal. This could be his year to become a superstar.
Fernando Torres, Spain
Torres endured a miserable year at Chelsea and he left a sour taste in many fans’ mouths with his petulant outburst after the Champions League final. He’s clearly not the goal-scorer he once was – and may never again be – but he still has loads of talent and he can bully his way through defenses. If he gets hot, watch out. He’s got a lot of disappointment and frustration to get out.
Mario Gomez, Germany
On a team full of glittering names, it’s hard to pick just one, but Mario Gomez is going to be under the Klieg lights. Desperate to redeem himself after a miserable Champions league final that saw him waste chance after chance, Gomez can score goals by the bushel – but does he have the confidence?
Franck Ribery, France
The lone star on a Bleus side in transition, Bayern’s creator must overcome both his hot temper and a bitter loss to Chelsea in the Champions League final. He won’t have Arjen Robben around to slug, but he will have to shoulder a lot of the burden on a French team that has a very weak defense and an unproven attack at this level.
Robin van Persie, Holland
The Arsenal striker tore up England last year and saved his club’s season. Can he take Holland to the trophy alongside Klaas-Jan Huntelaar? Don’t bet against it: van Persie has scored some amazing goals this season and has been red-hot for the Dutch. One of the top strikers in the tournament, the only question is: has he already peaked this season?