Sixteen teams line up next week across Poland and Ukraine, fighting for Europe’s ultimate national prize: The European Championship. Defending champions Spain enter as the favorites but there are four other legitimate contenders – and two dark horses – that may well give the big boys a run. Here’s a quick look at the teams to watch, their key players, and the make-or-break game they face in the group stage.
The Netherlands are tough, focused team that must overcome their ugly loss in the World Cup finals to Spain if they are to prosper. Loaded with talent, Arsenal’s Robin van Persie and Schalke’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar should feast on service from Wesley Sneijder (Inter) and Arjen Robben (Bayern.) Holland’s question marks are on defense: is Milan’s Urby Emanuelsen – a midfielder by trade --really ready for prime time in the back? Dark horses by dint of their group – it will be a struggle for them to progress -- but they are a fine side. Key player: van Persie. He scores when he likes, and is having a career year. This summer should serve as his “world stage” party. Must-see game: June 13 against Germany in Kharkiv. What a battle this one should be. Don’t answer your bookies call!
If they’re ever going to do it, the time is now. Cristiano Ronaldo is red-hot after a great season with Real Madrid and while the temptation will be to ride him to wins, the Portuguese have some other guys who can do damage. Manchester United’s Nani runs hot and cold but can score goals; Fabio Coentrao and Pepe are very strong out of the back. Chelsea’s leggy Raul Meireles might be the x-factor – he can cover a lot of ground and has a knack for showing up in big games. Key player: Ronaldo. Arguably the single best player in the tournament. Eager to prove he’s got it when it counts, will Ronaldo deliver this summer? We’ll have to wait and see. Must-see game: June 17, against Holland in Kharkiv. This game could “make-or-break” for either squad, as the winner should advance to the group stage.
The co-hosts will get a bounce, and if they can ride it, they can go late. Can they win it? Unlikely, but the Dortmund trio of Jakub “Kuba” Blaszczykowski, Robert Lewandowski and Lukasz Piszczek form a top-to-bottom spine that is both tested and good. The Poles have a leaky defense -- Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczesny is going to be tested often, but if he can shine, the Poles have a chance. Key player: Szczesny. The Arsenal keeer has to compensate for a lousy defense, but if he can keep the ball out of his net, the Poles can score and win games. Must-see game: June 12 against Russia in Warsaw. The teams hate each other, and here’s the hosts’ chance to put the Bear to the sword.
The French are in rebuilding mode and are probably a few years away from challenging. But, they can get off to fast start thanks to England’s absences and have enough talent to make things challenging. Franck Ribery is the fulcrum; when he can create, France can score. Newcastle’s pair Hatem Ben Arfa and Yohan Cabaye will be pressed to perform, while City’s erratic Samir Nasri will have to show some of his skill. City’s Gael Clichy is the best defender in a rather muddled bunch. Key player: Ribery. The lone star, he has to shake off the bitter Champions League Final loss to Chelsea. If he doesn’t, it will be Must-see game: June 11 against England in Donetsk. The teams have a strong dislike for one another, and Les Bleus have the advantage as Wayne Rooney is suspended.
The Germans would be clear favorites if they weren’t in the group of death. They must fight by Holland, Portugal and Denmark to make the knockout stage. They have talent up and down the field with Bayern’s Manuel Neuer and Philipp Lahm running the defense, Dortmund’s Mario Goetze and Real Madrid duo Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil pulling the strings and big-game gun Miroslav Klose still firing. Key player: Bastian Schweinsteiger. The engine of the German national team, when he’s on, they win. That simple. Must-see game: June 9 against Portugal in Lviv. A big game here sets the tone for Die Mannschaft in the tourney’s toughest group.
The defending champs have talent to burn. David Silva (Manchester City), Fernando Torres and Juan Mata (Chelsea) and Fernando Llorente (Athletic) are just the tip of the iceberg on a side that is anchored by Real Madrid and Barcelona talent. Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and Xavi can form one heck of a midfield, and this team can both defend and score with ease. Their fluid passing is mesmerizing, and no one doubts that this is a golden era for the Spaniards. The big question mark here is fitness: all Spain’s players enter whipped after grueling league seasons and may be too gassed. Still, on any given day, Spain’s your pick to win. Key player: Iniesta. The midfield dynamo will not have Lionel Messi to pass to, but he still can call the tune. Must-see game: June 10 against Italy in Gdansk. Spain are clear favorites, yet this is their toughest group game.