Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo reacts during their friendly soccer match with Turkey Saturday, June 2 2012, at the Luz stadium in Lisbon. The game is part of Portugal's preparation for the European soccer championship. The Euro 2012, to be held in Poland and Ukraine, starts June 8.
Stage is set
The European Championship kicks off Friday in Warsaw with a slew of mouthwatering matchups. Here are six of the best, true can’t-miss matches that show off the continent’s greatest teams and players:
Germany vs. Portugal, June 9 in Lviv, Ukraine
Every tournament has its very own group of death, and this one is the most lethal of all time, with all of its contenders coming from within world football’s top ten. There is no easy gimme, no soft touch, no breathing space. Germany are one of the favorites to win the Euro, but Portugal have a weapon in the shape of Cristiano Ronaldo, the most potent forward in Europe. Portugal are not as strong as a team, but the pressure on Germany to start the competition with a bang is intense. Since Jurgen Klinsmann began the regeneration of the German team, they have been steadily improving, and the combination of youth and experience is tantalizing. Mario Gomez, who scored 40 goals this season so far, sums up the optimism: “It says everything about our self-belief that even a second or third place finish will leave us very disappointed.”
Spain vs. Italy, June 10 in Gdasnk, Poland
Spain are the current indisputable masters of world football, being reigning holders of international football’s double – the World Cup as well as the European Championship. Italy have all sorts of distractions, with a match fixing outrage dominating the headlines back home which is serious enough for the Prime Minister to suggest Italian football should be cancelled for a couple of years to enable them to put their house in order. But Italy’s Azzurri have history on their side when it comes to reacting well to adversity. The last time they headed into a tournament on the back of a scandal, they won the World Cup. Italy have to try to restore some pride in their football, but there is no trickier opponent than the mesmerizing Spaniards. “I feel privileged to have coincided with a generation of such brilliance,” says coach Vicente del Bosque. Watch out for Italy’s explosive Mario Balotelli. As hot-headed as they come, anything can happen when he is around.
England vs. France, June 11 in Donetsk, Ukraine
It speaks volumes for England’s problems that for the first time in decades they come into a major finals without any chest beating roars that they are in it to win it. Never has expectation been so tepid. With controversial problems recently coming to a head, a new coach, Roy Hodgson, has been drafted in at the last minute. For all his good and steady work, he is not a man with the charisma to make people dream of miracles. Injuries have made picking a team awkward, and the star of the show, Wayne Rooney, is suspended for the first two games. All in all, it’s hardly the perfect platform to take on a revived France team. The French have a new look. They are trying to emerge from the shadows of a catastrophic tournament the last time out, where they scurried home from the World Cup in South Africa in disgrace. There has always been a “neighborly” rivalry when these two nations meet, and that is enhanced by the number of French players who play in the Barclays Premier League. Expect some tension in the air.
Poland vs. Russia, June 12 in Warsaw, Poland
Of the two countries with home advantage in this competition, Poland are the ones to keep your eye on. A young and brave team, desperate to prove themselves on this stage, and handed a group they need not fear, Poland believe they can go far. They don’t have much heritage in European Championships, having failed to qualify for 12 successive editions before making their debut last time out. But this time they are not short of inspiration. And quality too. In Robert Lewandowski, a man who, with his girlfriend, has earned the nickame of the “Polish Beckhams,” they have a goalscorer in excellent form. Russia, who won many admirers with their adventurous style at the last Euro, also expect to get out of a group that also includes the Czech Republic and Greece. Poland v Russia is a match with an emotionally fuelled undercurrent based on the history that saw Poland invaded by the Soviet Union during World War II, and under the influence of their neighbors throughout the communist years.
Holland vs. Germany, June 13 in Kharkiv, Ukraine
Arguably the game that stands out above all others until the knock-out rounds begin, this is a contest that appears to have just about everything: two outstanding teams (currently ranked two and four in the world), an abundance of goalscorers and potential matchwinners, and a generous helping of spice that stems from one of the great rivalries in the history of football. These central European neighbors, both with a proud heritage in the sport, have dueled at some famously high profile, high intensity occasions. West Germany won the 1974 World Cup final. The Dutch claimed victory in the semi-finals of Euro 1988 that they went on to win. It is never just a gentle kickaround when these two go eyeball to eyeball. Last November, in a so-called “friendly”, Germany won 3-0, inflicting on Holland their worst defeat for 15 years. The true meaning of this encounter will have context once we know the scores from the rest of the group games. In the final round from Group B, Germany meet Denmark and Holland play Portugal. Either way, some serious teams will go home cursing at the end of this Group.
Italy vs. Republic of Ireland, June 18 in Poznan, Poland
The Group C finale is one that fascinates. Ireland are guided by Giovanni Trapattoni, one of the most celebrated and successful Italian coaching masterminds of them all. "I wanted to avoid Italy because they are strong mentally and because we know each other," the wily Trapattoni said at the time of the draw. But emotion will be put to one side as Ireland seek a grand upset. With Robbie Keane, the most prolific scorer in their history, leading the charge and a well organized and never-say-die group behind him, they are not going to the Euro to make up the numbers a decade after their last international tournament. Spain, who meet Croatia at the same time as this match, are favorites for this group but everybody else is in the frame to progress too. Italy have their issues. Croatia are a dark horse. Ireland, too, have the guts to cause a shock or two.