Everybody can spoil a party

This EURO has teams that may not fancy themselves as title favourites but still have the credentials to be on the podium, so to say. Over to S. R. Suryanarayan.

They may not be counted among the best in Europe but football can throw up any number of surprises. EURO 2012, too, will surely have its share of miracles and the reason for it is that some of the teams may not fancy themselves as title favourites but still have the credentials to be on the podium, so to say.

Can anyone forget Denmark's remarkable success in 1992 or Greece's date with glory in 2004? So what will it be like, this time around? What do the following teams have in them to produce that extra bit, which will make the difference in the final analysis? A glimpse at the following formations will throw some light on what the feast will be like overall, let alone results.

Host Poland finds itself in what looks like the most open group (A) in the company of Greece, Russia and the Czech Republic. Home conditions and some good earlier performances, not to speak of some gifted talents make Poland a tough customer. Coach F. Smuda's focus is on striker Robert Lewandowski, who will represent Poland at home for the first time. He was the architect in Borussia Dortmund's Bundesliga title-triumph with a tally of 22 goals. Another to receive notice will be goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny who plays for Arsenal.

For Poland, (formation likely to be 4-3-3) in its second EURO (it failed to progress from the group stage in its only appearance in 2008), there is hope of better times, considering it has a handsome opportunity to progress. Some positive results in earlier friendlies — victories over Ivory Coast, Norway and Argentina and a draw with Germany and Greece — give more credence to these thoughts.

In the same group, Greece, one time winner, has the credentials of being a team that plays a very direct no-nonsense game. The strength in its 4-3-3 formation is in the array of attacking midfielders led by 22-year old Sotiris Ninis, whose comeback from a knee injury triggered a five-match winning run in the qualification phase. The team does not boast of any big stars but players like Georgios Samaras, Giorgos Karagounis, Kostas Katsouranis have adequate experience to excel at the big stage. Also to watch out for is youngster Kyriakos Papadopoulos, playing as a central back. Defence is Greece's strength and a resolute and resourceful midfield in front, will make it difficult for opponents to score.

Russia (Group A), semifinalists last time, is ready for more, with its 4-2-3-1 format. Dick Advocaat means business. He has a problem of plenty upfront and in all probability play Aleksandr Kerzhakov as the striker, well supported by Andrey Arshavin and Alan Dzagoev, playing just behind.

Yuri Zhirkov, the attacking runner on the wings, will be another key player in the Russian squad. Brilliant from set-pieces and combination play, Russia will be a hard nut to crack. Watch out for Dzagoev, currently the best young player in the country. Arshavin, too, has the potential to light up the tournament. Having been runner-up on three previous occasions, Russia has the pedigree and the chances of a strong finish looks bright for this once powerhouse of world football.

The Czech Republic is the fourth team in Group A. Appearing in five consecutive championships since Slovakia's split, the Czech team which plays a 4-5-1 formation, is believed to revel in counterattacks. Coach Michal Bilek has a clutch of stars in his kitty including players like Tomas Rosicky, Milan Baros and goalkeeper Petr Cech (captain), around whom the new generation players will bind. Jersoslav Plasil is the key in the midfield with Jan Rezek and Vaclav Pilar on the sides. Much has been said about the offensive full backs Theodor Gebre Selassie and Michal Kadlec (top scorer with four goals in the qualifying phase).

As Cech put it, “adaptability is our strength.” But an over-defensive approach can make it hard for the Czech's to secure positive results. Still in this improbable group, it can most definitely dream of making it to the knockout stage.

Denmark had scripted one of the most remarkable stories of EURO championships by coming into the final after a last minute withdrawal from Yugoslavia in 1992 and what is more, it won the event. The country reached the quarterfinals once thereafter in 2004 but failed to qualify for the last edition. Morten Olsen remains the coach of the team for 12 years running and the glories of ‘92 still remain a topic of popular discussion.

The current team, which plays a 4-3-3 system, has Nicklas Bendtner as the main striker. Much is said of the 20-year-old Christian Eriksen, an attacking midfielder in the mould of Michael Laudrup. Daniel Agger glues the defence together and once these three get their acts together, Denmark can make an impression. There is also high praise for Simon Kjaer, a defender and a regular in the qualifying phase. Slotted in the tournaments ‘group of death' alongside the Netherlands, Germany and Portugal, Denmark will find it difficult to cause any miracle.

Finalist in 2004 at home, before losing to gross outsider Greece for the title, Portugal, has evolved into a decisive unit according to its coach Paulo Bento. The team is almost a single-man army with Cristiano Ronaldo being the unquestioned supremo. Bento gives his star a free run in a 4-3-3 formation and Portugal can throw in a surprise or two in a very tough Group B.

However, Portugal's start to the qualifying campaign was uneventful, and the team had to come through a play-off against Bosnia. With Ronaldo striking form, the qualification phase was signed off in style, with a 6-2 win. Ronaldo with seven goals was the highest scorer in that phase. Known for its attack in bursts, Portugal will depend on Ronaldo and Nani for goals, while the defence will rally around the temperamental Pepe. But, though, there is depth, Portugal's inability to deliver despite individual talents might again come back to haunt it.

Ever since becoming a separate entity after the breakup of Yugoslavia, Croatia has been a force in the footballing world and has qualified for four of the five EURO's since then. This time, its passage came after a 3-0 victory over Turkey, in a two-leg play-off, after finishing second to Greece, in its qualifying group. Clubbed in Group C with Spain, Italy and Ireland, Croatia, which plays a 4-4-2 pattern, certainly looks the odd one out, particularly so, considering its recent poor run of form. As has been the feature of the side, it has a few outstanding talents, none more impressive than its midfield general and creative mind Luka Modric, whom many consider as one of the best players in the world. Darijo Srna is another high quality performer in the midfield. Croatia's worry area is its defence, thanks to low-performers and ageing legs. But a frontline with abundance of creativity and spark might see it pull off an upset or two. Upfront, the chemistry between Mario Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic will do the side good. However, leaving aside Spain and Italy, Croatia's record against Ireland itself is nothing to crow about — just one win in six meetings.

Having qualified once, way back in 1988, Ireland has much to look forward to, coming through a play-off, after finishing next best to Russia in the qualifying league. In Group C, Ireland, without anything much to speak of in the last decade, hopes to make an impact with its 4-4-1-1 style. Defence oriented, and that was how it progressed, Ireland will not make it easy for any opponent to score. In goal, Giovanni Trapattoni's team has the brilliant Shay Given. The defence, too, is sound and on the break veteran forward Robbie Keane can still cause acute discomfort to any side. Ireland's problems lie in its midfield. James McClean or Aiden McGeady needs to bring in fresh ideas if the side fancies outwitting world beaters like Spain and Italy.

As co-host, Ukraine did not need to qualify. It recent international friendlies it has produced both the good and the bad. If losing to Czech was unsettling then good results over Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany and Austria, was considered heartening. Ukraine's weakness is definitely its defence and in Group (D) comprising England, France and Sweden, this can be calamitous. Barring the 2006 World Cup, Ukraine has precious little experience at the international level. Hence, coach Oleg Blokhin has a tough task in hand.

Playing a 4-4-1-1 pattern, Ukraine will look to ageing stars Andriy Shevchenko, Andriy Voronin and Anatoliy Tymoshchuk for succour. The player to watch out for among the younger lot would be 22-year-old Andriy Yarmolenko, who is being compared to Shevchenko and could end up defying odds.

Sweden is perhaps just slightly better prepared than Ukraine and has more experience to fall back on at the international level. It exited from group stages in 2000 and 2008 but made it to the quarters in 2004. Having qualified as the best runner-up, Sweden, which plays a 4-4-2 format, under Erik Hamren, has its task cut out. The team's fulcrum is as always the hugely influential 30-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who must be desperate to make a mark at the international level. However, he will need support from the likes of Martin Olsson, Jonas Olsson, Sebastian Larsson and the vastly experienced Kim Kallstrom (whose seven assists in the qualifying phase was the best by any player) to make any difference. The strong point for the Swedes is its midfield where players like Larsson, Elm and CSKA Moscow's Pontus Wernbloom will harrow opponents and try to keep feeding Ibrahimovic continuously.