EURO 2012 Preview: Can Spain win it all again?

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With a stacked 16-team field featuring seven of the world’s top 10 squads and 13 of its top 18, the 2012 European Championships should provide thrilling games throughout, starting Friday morning and running through the final match on July 1.  As we near the opening kickoff in Warsaw, here’s a close look at what you need to know for Euro 2012.

The hosts

Poland—Despite making their Euro debut in 2008, the Poles failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and currently rank a tournament-worst No. 62 in the world.  Though they have the honor of kicking things off Friday against Greece, Poland’s performance won’t thrill its home crowd.

Ukraine—Since the Yellow-Blues reached the 2006 World Cup quarterfinals, little has gone their way.  2012 will mark their first-ever Euro appearance, though like Poland, the expectations aren’t very high, as Ukraine enters the tournament at No. 52 in the world.

The favorites

Spain—The world’s top team is an easy choice here, after Spain took home the 2008 Euro and the 2010 World Cup.  Even with the injured striker David Villa and defender Carles Puyol missing the tournament, La Furia Roja is flat-out dripping with talent and can go as far as their determination will take them.

Germany—After losing in the Euro 2008 final to Spain and in the semifinals of the each of the last two World Cups, is it finally Germany’s time to win a championship?  The No. 3-ranked Germans are absolutely loaded with both skill and strength, featuring many players from the Champions League runner-up Bayern Munich.  With all that talent and a history of making deep tournament runs, it’s hard to picture a final match without the Germans in it.

Netherlands—The current world No. 4 made a run all the way to the 2010 World Cup Final, only to be ousted by the Spaniards.  With a wealth of maturing talent, headed by striker Robin van Persie and midfielder Wesley Sneijder, the Dutch should be a scary opponent for anyone.  Whether in the semifinals or final, Holland may even get the chance to avenge its World Cup Final loss to Spain.

The “Group of Death”

Group B (Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Portugal)

With a recent slide in the FIFA rankings, Portugal actually enters the tournament with the lowest world ranking (No. 10) of any team in Group B, just behind Denmark at No. 9.  Though the Dutch and Germans are favored to make deep tournament runs, a single goal could suddenly leave one of the world’s top five to watch the quarterfinals from home.  This brutal group’s winner will likely be rewarded by landing opposite Spain in the bracket, thus having to play the tournament favorite only if both teams reach the final match.  But don’t rule out the possibility of an all-Group B final either, as any one of these teams could win multiple knockout games, regardless of the opponent.

The sleepers

Croatia—Though they missed the 2010 World Cup, the Croats sit quietly at No. 8 in the world after reaching the quarterfinals in the 2008 Euro.  Led by electrifying midfielder Luka Modric, Croatia could slip through a tough Group C into a very winnable game against England, France or Sweden in the quarterfinals.  While Croatia probably can’t win the tournament, top teams should be wary of the Blazers.

Russia—After beating the Dutch to reach the semifinals of the 2008 Euro, the Russians enter the 2012 tournament as the top ranked team (No. 13) in the very weak Group A.  Though advancing to the quarterfinals would bring an opponent from the Group of Death, Russia could again surprise a tournament favorite and reach the semifinals.

Players to watch

Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal—Who won’t be following Ronaldo’s every move in Euro 2012?  Somehow the Portuguese continue to limp through qualifying stages, leaving themselves difficult draws and brutal knockout round matchups.  Now buried in the tournament’s most challenging group, Portugal needs Europe’s best player to be firing on all cylinders if the team hopes to even reach the quarterfinals.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic—Though he scored this gem against Greece in Euro 2008, Ibrahimovic has never produced for his country the way he’s proven he can at the club level.  With the Swedes in a marginal group featuring the inconsistent English and rebuilding French, an excellent performance from one of Europe’s best strikers could help Sweden make a run to the semifinals.

So who wins it all?

After asserting its dominance in the Group of Death, Germany will cruise through the first two knockout rounds and into the Euro Final with little resistance.  On the other side of the bracket Group B runners-up, the Netherlands, will outlast the uber-talented Spainiards to avenge their 2010 World Cup Final defeat.  However, Holland’s excitement will be short-lived, because in the all-Group B Euro 2012 Final, Germany’s young talent will prove too much for the Orange and Thomas Muller will score the game-winner in extra time.

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