After two years and 248 qualification matches, Euro 2012 is almost ready to start. All four groups will be incredibly hard to qualify from, never mind win, and although some groups are tougher than others on paper, you could conceivably call all four groups "the group of death."
Group A: Rankings
Czech Republic (FIFA-26/UEFA-16)
Group A will be tough to call as all four teams are on a similar level.
Poland (32) will obviously enjoy some partisan home support, which has been a huge factor in tournaments of old.
Franciszek Smuda's side will kick off the month-long tournament when they take on Greece on June 8. Later that night, Russia will entertain the Czech Republic as the competition begins in earnest.
This will be Poland's second time in the European Championships, and they will be hoping to improve upon their showing at Euro 08 where they only managed one draw before being eliminated.
However, in recent times, their form has picked up. They've suffered only one defeat in nine matches including impressive draws with Germany and Portugal. Those results hide a miserable World Cup qualifying campaign that saw the Poles only finish above San Marino in a group that also included the Czech Republic and as a result Leo Beenhaker was sacked.
Since then, Smuda, who took over, has had a complete change of heart and tactics.
Knowing that Poland does not possess any top quality defenders besides Borussia Dortmund's Lukasz Pisczceck, he has built a side that is realistically two separate entities of attack and defence.
By utilising a 4-2-3-1 formation, Smuda plays two out and out defensive midfielders in front of a deep defence, leaving the four offensive-minded players to scrap it out by themselves. You can see this immediately in the fact that during those last nine friendlies, Poland has scored only 11 goals while conceding just eight.
They lack guile and intelligence on the ball and much will be expected of Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Błaszczykowski who were both instrumental in Borussia Dortmund as the club claimed the Bundesliga this season.
So a huge home support will be the most crucial factor to Poland's making the Quarter Finals.
Russia (8) come into Euro 2012 as slight favourites to win the group, but they also struggle to score. They only scored 17 goals in ten qualifying matches but that includes a 6-0 mauling of Andorra. That, though, is tempered by the unusual fact that the World Cup 2018 hosts only conceded four goals in qualification.
If the backbone of Poland's team is the three Borussia Dortmund players, then the spine, body and brain of Dick Advocaat's team is from CSKA Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg.
Between the two giant Russian clubs, they contribute 12 players to the cause, many of which are certain starters.
By using a vibrant 4-3-3 formation, Advocaat has been able to get the best from highly technical players like Andrei Arshavin, Alan Dzagoev and Roman Shirokov while basing the foundation on the Zenit midfielders in holding Igor Denisov and Konstantin Zyryanov.
This, though, belies the fact that at the back, Russia can be quite ponderous. So expect Zyryanov to provide extra depth when playing against Poland and Greece.
Think Euro 2004 and you won't go far wrong with your estimation of Greece (10).
While the manager may have changed—Fernando Santos replaced Otto Rehhagel in 2010—the system has stayed the same. Defend deep, defend hard and use set-pieces to their full extreme.
Like Poland and Russia before them, Greece has a defence that is very hard to breach. They scored 14 goals in qualification and only conceded five and have only lost once in 20 matches since Santos took over. In short, they will be not be rolled over.
Santos also likes to use a 4-3-3 formation except that the Greek system is from a completely and totally different planet when compared to the Dutch model preferred by the Russians.
In Santos' team, the forward three play on their own for the most part, feeding off second balls, set-pieces and making nuisances of themselves. They are pragmatic to the extreme, incredibly difficult to break down and are not afraid to stay closed up, even if qualification depends upon it.
This last fact can be seen in their must win qualification game against Croatia where they defended deep and refused to come out until set-pieces offered chances in the last 20 minutes.
They have an intense belief in their chosen style and system, and for that reason, they are very dangerous opponents.
They will also be playing with the full knowledge that they will be representing their entire country. In 2004, Greece won the Euro and went on to hold the Olympics; life could not have been better.
Roll on eight years and the country is in the middle of a massive economic crisis where watching football is the only release for many. If fans are a factor, then Greece has as much to play for as Poland.
Meanwhile, Michal Bilek's team come into Group A as the most cosmopolitan and widely travelled side in the group.
There is serious quality throughout the Czech Republic (16) team from Chelsea's Champions League winning hero Petr Cech in goal to Bordeaux's Jaroslav Plasil in the midfield to CSKA Moscow's 22-year-old wonderkid Tomas Necid up front. That's not to mention Arsenal's attacking midfielder Tomas Rosicky, who has been something of a revelation since March.
Up until recently, Bilek used a modified 4-4-2 formation that did not suit the players he had at his disposal. He has since moved to a more modern 4-2-3-1 style that makes the best use of the wide range of midfielders he has in his squad.
The one drawback, though, is that by going with only one up front, goals have proven hard to come by against good opposition and they are often picked off easily. Since a fateful 3-0 defeat to Norway, however, the Czech's have only lost one out of their last eight—a 2-0 defeat to Spain— while winning five and drawing two. They've scored 14 goals and conceded seven in that span.
This group will test every aspect of Russian play from Poland's constant probing to Greece's "battle us before you beat us" style of play to the Czech Republic's classic Eastern European style. However, when all is said and done, Dick Advocaat's side should have too much for their opponents, and qualification seems a certainty for Russia.
Finding a team to finish second might be a tougher question.
Poland will offer the best attack while Greece will offer the best defence, for their part the Czech Republic can be ruled out as they have neither the strongest back line or strike force.
Winners: Russia - 6/4 to win Group A - 9/20 to qualify from Group A.
Runners-Up: Greece - 9/2 to win Group A - 6/4 to qualify from Group A.
Group A Fixtures:
Match (01) June 08- Poland vs. Greece (National Stadium, Warsaw - 60,000)
Match (02) June 08- Russia vs. Czech Republic (Municipal Stadium, Wroclaw - 42,000)
Match (09) June 12- Greece vs. Czech Republic (Municipal Stadium, Wroclaw - 42,000)
Match (10) June 12- Poland vs. Russia (National Stadium, Warsaw - 60,000)
Match (17) June 16- Greece vs. Russia (National Stadium, Warsaw - 60,000)
Match (18) June 16- Czech Republic vs. Poland (Municipal Stadium, Wroclaw - 42,000)
Players to Watch:
Poland: While all eyes will be on Lewandowski, it is Arsenal's Wojciech Szczesny who will be Franciszek Smuda's most important player. If he can keep the ball out of the net, Poland have a great chance to progress.
Russia: Alan Dzagoev is the most talked about young player in Russia in almost a decade. The 5'10" attacking midfielder made a huge impact on the Champions League this season, and much rests on his young shoulders.
Greece: He may only be finding his feet in the national team and no more than an impact sub, but Giannis Fetfatzidis has all the attributes to make a name for himself at Euro 2012. The offensive minded midfielder may be the difference between Greece going home and going through to the quarterfinals.
Czech Republic: Tomas Necid play's his trade in Russia with CSKA Moscow, so he will be no surprise to Dick Advocaat, but he may be to everyone else. The 22-year-old is back from almost a year out after knee surgery, and he will be keen to pick up where he left off. He was top scorer in 2006 at UEFA's U-17 European Championships and again in 2008 at the U-19 Championships.
The Czech Republic team are staying just a half mile from the Municipal Stadium in Wroclaw, where they play all three group matches.
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