Germany looks formidable

The 14th staging of the tournament in Ukraine and Poland will have matches taking place in eight cities across the two host nations. After the initial four-team group stages, two teams from each group will qualify for the knockout phase and battle it out to lift the trophy at Kiev's Olympic Stadium, refurbished and spruced up for the occasion, writes Ayon Sengupta.

Before you proceed any further, this writer warns you that he is no clairvoyant. And if you want a correct position on the final results of this EURO, you will be better off paying more attention to the likes of Fred the Ferret, Citta the Elephant, Khryak the Hog or Paulus the Octopus, soon to be legendary figures. Illustrious successors of the much celebrated, and now dead, Psychic Paul from Germany. (All of you should remember how the octopus had correctly called out the World Cup games in South Africa.)

But one can tell you for sure that this quadrennial EURO, which does miss the South American flair of Brazil, Argentina or Uruguay, is in no way gauche. The significant depth in the European continent, and the smaller field size (four groups rather than the World Cup's eight), makes this tournament's talent quotient far denser than that of the World Cup. The World Cup is too big, too hyped and the quality is diluted. (The 24-team format from 2016 will almost certainly make the EURO the same.) This time around, if you exclude the two automatically qualifying host nations, Poland and Ukraine, only one team in the tournament ranks outside the world's top-20 teams (the 26th-ranked Czech Republic).

The 14th staging of the tournament in Ukraine and Poland will have matches taking place in eight cities across the two host nations. After the initial four-team group stages, two teams from each group will qualify for the knockout phase and battle it out to lift the trophy at Kiev's Olympic Stadium, refurbished and spruced up for the occasion, with a new seating capacity of 60,000. (The two hosts have spent close to Euro 38 billion on infrastructure like stadium, hotel and transport — including roadways, railways and airport — and the tournament will leave behind a long-term legacy, spurring future growth.)

Though defending champion Spain, Holland and Germany are rightly the most favoured teams heading into this year's competition, history has confirmed that the European Championship can be a tournament for the underdogs.

The Danes did it in 1992 with a team hastily recalled from beach and golf holidays. (Denmark had failed to qualify and only made it to the finals after Yugoslavia was debarred following the Balkan crisis.) Greece won in 2004 with a motley bunch of journeymen, playing a man-to-man defence, adopted way back in the 1970s, and now out of trend. (A lot of smaller teams might base their strategy on that model and Barcelona's frailties against ultra-defensive tactics might force bigger nations to choose the same path, especially against Spain.) There's always that unpredictability to the EURO, one of the shortest international football competitions. A couple of providential results and an unheralded team can make history. EURO 2012 will last just over three weeks.

Despite the wide-open nature of this tournament, there's no doubt about the quality of the top three sides.

Spain, clubbed in Group C — now rechristened as ‘EURO's Group of Debt', alongside Italy, Croatia and Ireland — has been the new benchmark in world soccer since its title triumph in Austria-Switzerland, four years ago. Vicente Del Bosque's men eased through a straightforward qualifying group, winning all eight of their games.

The tiki-taka playing style still has critics whirring and the Barcelona duo of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, with their short passes and quick interchanges, will always be a difficult proposition to mark. However, the Spaniards will miss the services of central defender Carlos Puyol and forward David Villa — replacement Fernando Llorente is no match and Fernando Torres has shown only sparks of his old self lately — both out injured.

More worrying for Del Bosque will be the rumours about the complete breach of trust amongst the Barca and Real Madrid stars since Jose Mourinho took over at Real. The sight of international team-mates lunging at each other and exchanging insults in the El Clasicos might come back and haunt Del Bosque and his men. The long-drawn season and the fatigued look of the Barcelona players towards the end of it will be another area of concern. As many as seven Barca players have been named in the final 23.

World Cup semifinalist Germany — with an array of home-grown young talent in Mesut Ozil, Mario Gomez, Thomas Muller, Marco Reus and Sami Khedira — looks explosive and most definitely has thinned out the divide at the top. Young, yet experienced, Germany under Joachim Loew will be looking for a revenge on La Furia Roja for a World Cup semifinal (2010) and a EURO final (2008) defeats.

The same emotional currents will be on the minds of Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and others of Holland. A World Cup final grief is not easily forgotten or forgiven.

France and Portugal are the two dark horses in the tournament.

Les Blues has improved drastically since its abysmal 2010 World Cup trip, where the players mutinied against an autocratic Raymond Domenech and the whole squad underperformed. Under the leadership of new manager Laurent Blanc and skipper Hugo Lloris, France already has wins over Brazil, Germany and England (at Wembley) and in Karim Benzema it has one of the most exciting attacking prospects in the world. Throw in a Franck Ribery, Hatem Ben Arfa and centre back Adil Rami, and France looks capable of causing a few upsets.

Portugal's attacking plethora is beyond imagination and if Cristiano Ronaldo leaves his ego out of the team equation, he can find able support from Manchester United's Nani and Chelsea's Raul Meireles to create havoc and even progress out of the ‘Group of Death'. (Group B has Germany, the Netherlands and FIFA ranked No. 10 Denmark alongside the Portuguese.)

Italy, which has again been rocked by a betting outrage, can find courage and succour from its scandalous history. Paolo Rossi came back from a two-year ‘fixing' ban to star in Italy's '82 Cup triumph, scoring six goals and winning the Golden Boot. The 2006 World Cup winner, too, went to the competition with the Calciopoli Scandal brewing hot back in home, which saw the ultimate relegation of Juventus to Serie B. Firebrands Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli might just draw inspiration from the dump and inspire the Azzurris to another commendable performance.

The others, too, bring in a rich array of talent and Poland's Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Błaszczykowski, Russia's Alan Dzagoev, Ukraine's Andriy Yarmolenko, the Czech Republic's Tomas Rosicky, Greece's Sotiris Ninis, Denmark's Christian Eriksen; among the rest will try their best to leave a mark on the competition.

The older generation — Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden), Andriy Shevchenko (Ukraine), Steven Gerrard (England), Andrei Arshavin (Russia), Robbie Keane (Ireland) and the likes — as well, will be looking for one final hurrah.

Keeping aside the two host nations' perennial racism problems (hopefully, UEFA and the local authorities have done enough to curb the menace) and the equally worrying Euro Zone financial crisis, EURO 2012 promises to be a feast, a veritable one.

Germany is this writer's winner!