Issue 47, June 2012.

Lviv Today’s London-based journalist, Andrew Lewis, previews the Euro 2012 championship, looking at the teams playing in Arena Lviv, the tournament favourites, and the chances of the Ukrainian team.
As the drama of domestic league action across Europe fades into memory, eager fans turn their attention to the international stage for this summer’s festival of football – the much anticipated UEFA European Championship 2012. The tournament, co-hosted by Ukraine and Poland, kicks off on 8th June, and brings together 16 of Europe’s finest footballing nations who will be competing for Europe’s biggest prize. And as all the talk about preparation, construction and accommodation finally dies down, the focus moves towards what everyone has been waiting for – football.

Taking Centre Stage in Lviv

Lviv will be hosting three matches in what has to be the most exciting (and difficult) group of the tournament – Group B, in which Germany, Portugal, Denmark, and the Netherlands will be battling it out for the top two places to progress to the knockout stages. With the Netherlands playing all their matches in Kharkiv, coming to Lviv will be the giants of world football, Germany; hosts of the 2004 tournament, Portugal; and winners of Euro 92, Denmark.
Many people’s favourites to win the group, and strong contenders to win the tournament, Germany, swept aside their opponents in qualifying, winning all ten matches and continuing to display their new brand of attacking football seen in South Africa, masterminded by their head coach, the tactical genius Joachim Loew. The established stars of the German team such as Gomez, Podolsky, Schweinsteiger and Klose (who scored nine goals in qualifying) will be hoping to combine with the newer talent brought through by ‘Jogi’ to take home their fourth European title. Hotly tipped for success are Real Madrid’s 23 year-old Mesut Ozil, who was nominated for player of tournament in the 2010 World Cup, and Borussia Dortmund’s 19 year-old Mario Gotze. Fast, skilful and creative – he is considered to be one of the best young players in the world. With this kind of quality on the pitch, the technical expertise of the management team, and the enthusiasm of their passionate fans who will be coming to Lviv in their thousands, Germany look set to make a real challenge for the Euro 2012 crown.

Trying to halt the Germans in Lviv are Portugal, who will be looking to the phenomenon that is Christiano Ronaldo to produce the same magic on the European stage as he has done for Real Madrid this year, scoring 60 goals in all competitions. Officially the second best player in the world (behind Messi) Ronaldo has pace and power, dribbling and heading ability, and on his day, a shot that is simply unstoppable. Other big names playing alongside him, under the command of coach Paolo Bento, will be Manchester United’s quick-footed Nani, Quaresma (now playing at Besiktas), and the more senior Postiga, who scored twice as Portugal destroyed Bosnia 6-2 in their final play-off match, taking them through to the finals. Under Bento, Portugal have managed to produce results when it really matters, and Portuguese supporters travelling to Lviv will hope that this continues. Having reached the final in 2004, where a shock 1-0 to Greece saw them lose in front of their home crowd, Portugal will be looking for victories in Arena Lviv to take them to the final again, and this time, to glory.

The third team on display in Lviv, Denmark, surprised everyone when they won the European Championship in 1992 as a stand-in team following the last-minute withdrawal of Bosnia. However, the difficult group draw means they will have a lot of work to do to repeat that success in 2012. Ajax’s young attacking midfielder, Christian Eriksen, is their rising star, drawing comparisons to the great Dane, Brian Laudrup. In defence, Roma’s Simon Kjaer put in very strong performances during their qualifying games. Coach Martin Olsen, overseeing his last major tournament for Denmark, will also need to find a way to inspire his talented but inconsistent striker Nicklas Bendtner to find his scoring touch to have any chance of escaping the ‘Group of Death’. Having beaten Portugal in qualifying, the Danes have shown they get results against quality opposition. However, in-form German and Dutch teams may just prove to be too strong for them.

Tournament Favourites – Spain and the Netherlands

Following their dominance at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, and the indisputable quality of football being played in La Liga in recent years, there is a general consensus that Spanish football is the best in the world. It is therefore no surprise that Spain go into Euro 2012 as clear tournament favourites. They won all eight of their qualifying matches, scoring a total of 26 goals and conceding just 7. They won a recent friendly against Venezuela 5-0. The list of talent in the Spanish squad is intimidating to say the least. The fact that Chelsea’s £50 million striker Fernando Torres is not guaranteed a place in the starting line-up tells you just how strong they are. At his disposal, Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque (who led Real Madrid to domestic and European success) has a glittering list of stars to choose from, such as Xavi, Iniesta, Silva, and Fabregas, to name but a few. Opposing teams may take some comfort from the fact that the Spanish danger man up front, David Villa, will miss the tournament through injury. However, in addition to Torres, they can also call on Barcelona’s in-form striker Pedro and Bilbao’s Llorente to create chances and score goals. The current European and World Champions, if this Spanish side lives up to its expectations, they could become the first side ever to retain the European title.

The Netherlands will be looking for a way to end the Spanish reign this summer, as the tournament’s second favourites look to take their crown from them. A big early test for the Dutch will be their huge group clash with Germany in Kharkiv. Arjen Robben continues to be their inspiration, turning in match-winning performances on a regular basis. And the English Premier League’s Player of the Year (and top scorer), Arsenal captain Robin van Persie has been in electrifying form this season, scoring freely, and very often, spectacularly. If he can bring this form to Ukraine, he will give the Dutch every chance of challenging Spain. Whatever the results, football fans will be treated to a display of passing attacking football that has become synonymous with Dutch football.

Three Lions – Dark Horses?

England, renowned for bringing a team of stars and the weight of expectation to major tournaments, only to return empty-handed, have been beset by complications in their build-up to Euro 2012. But, ironically, this may just help their cause in Ukraine. With nobody expecting them to do well, a new manager, Roy Hodgson, who only accepted the job on 1st May (following the sudden exit of previous coach, Fabio Cappello), and star man Wayne Rooney suspended for their first two matches, the usual enormous and often crippling pressure to succeed has been somewhat lifted. If Hodgson, who has gained international managerial experience as coach of Switzerland and Finland (and who speaks five languages, importantly including English, which Capello never quite mastered), can select and unite the right squad in the short time he has before their tournament kicks off against France in Dontesk on 11th June, England could do well this summer. As well as Rooney, England will be looking for strong attacking performances from his Manchester United team-mate, Ashley Young, and Arsenal’s lightning-fast duo Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Goalkeeper Joe Hart will be full of confidence following an outstanding Premier League-winning season at Manchester City, which should make England more solid at the back than in other recent tournaments where goalkeeping errors have cost the team dearly. And with Ferdinand not selected, and Lampard ruled out at the last minute through injury, what is left of the old guard (Terry, Cole, Gerrard, et al) will need to remain solid in what could be (for some of them, at least) their last major tournament. Previously having won only seven of twenty one matches in European championship finals, could this be the year that England finally show what they are capable of?

Home Advantage (and a Lot of Luck)

These are the two ingredients that could hold the key to Ukraine’s success as they play for national pride on home soil in Euro 2012. While the bookmakers see little chance of the co-hosts doing well, and the FIFA rankings putting them in 50th place, the European Championship is a tournament full of surprises (think Greece and Denmark) and it would be foolish to write them off. The vocal support of Ukrainian fans, who will fill Kyiv’s Olympic Stadium and Donetsk’s Donbass Arena, will give them a much-needed advantage in their difficult group matches against Sweden, France and England. Such support has already proved helpful, like in the friendly against Austria in Lviv in November last year. The fans (wearing traditional Ukrainian ‘veshavanky’) stood up and sang the Ukrainian national anthem as the game, level at 1-1, entered the last five minutes, and inspired their team to score a last minute winning goal. The boss, legendary striker, winner of the Ballon d’Or, and former Deputy in the Ukrainian Parliament, Oleg Blokhin, has managed to get some great results in pre-tournament friendlies, winning four of their last five, and earning an impressive 3-3 draw against Germany. Thanks, in part, to the collective will of the whole nation, their number one export, Dynamo Kyiv’s Andriy Shevchenko, has overcome back problems and will be in the squad, looking bring his world-famous goal scoring ability to Euro 2012. Other key players such as Andriy Yarmolenko, Yevgen Konoplyanka, Serhiy Nazarenko and Bayern Munich’s Anatoliy Tymoshchuk will also need big performances if Ukraine are to progress. A major cause for concern for Blokhin will be his current goalkeeper crisis. The position has been plagued with difficulties. First choice Oleksandr Rybka is suspended for using a banned diuretic, Abdriy Dykan will miss the finals after getting injured in March, and Oleksandr Shovkovskiy has been ruled out for three months with a shoulder injury. Finding replacements at this late stage who have the necessary experience and composure has not been easy for Blokhin. He eventually decided to put his faith in Oleksandr Goryainov (Metalist Kharkiv), Maxym Koval (Dynamo Kyiv) and Andriy Pyatov (Shakhtar Donetsk) and the coach and country will be hoping that, between them, these goalies will keep Ukraine in the tournament as long as possible.

Problems aside, if Ukraine can build on their pre-tournament momentum, draw on home support, and pick up points against Sweden and France, it would set up a hugely exciting game against England in Donetsk on 19th June, where they could be playing for one of the two qualifying places and progression into the knockout stages. And from there – who knows what might happen?