Are the Euro 2012 top dogs ready for action?
As the leading contenders for the Euros prepare for friendly matches this weekend, Jack Pitt-Brooke answers the key questions about their form, fitness and fatigue ahead of next month's big kick-off
Saturday 26 May 2012
Spain: The holders are in some disarray
Will the long Spanish season affect the national team?
Strangely, Spain have the latest-ending domestic season in Europe. The Copa del Rey final, between Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao, was only played last night, 12 days after the last game of the English season, 13 days after the German cup final and five days after the Coppa Italia final. This means that the Barcelona spine of the Spain team, as well as those Bilbao players Vicente Del Bosque might take, will be relatively unrested and under-prepared compared to most of those they face in Poland and Ukraine. Spanish fans know the effect this might have. "Incompetence is accepted as standard from the Spanish association," said Pete Jenson, The Independent's Spanish football correspondent.
So how are preparations for Euro 2012 coming on?
Del Bosque's half-squad, built mainly around Real Madrid players, has been training in Schruns in Austria. They play Serbia in St Gallen in Switzerland this afternoon, with a line-up expected to include five from Real Madrid as well as the uncapped pair Adrian Lopez and Beñat Etxebarria. Juan Mata and Fernando Torres will join up this weekend but it will be tomorrow before Del Bosque can name his final 23, including the Barcelona players. The finalised squad will face South Korea in Berne on Wednesday and China in Seville the following Sunday, two days before they fly to Gdansk, before facing Italy on 10 June.
How confident are Spain that they can win their third straight major tournament?
It will be difficult to resurrect the 2008 and 2010 plan and go again. David Villa and Carles Puyol, both integral to those last two trophies, and holding 181 Spain caps between them, are both absent through injury. Spain will miss their experience and reliability, and will also worry about how best to fill their places. Up front, Del Bosque is likely to call on Fernando Llorente, Torres and Alvaro Negredo, leaving Roberto Soldado at home. At centre-back, first-choice pair Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos are likely to be joined by Javi Martinez and Javi Garcia.
Is there a prospect of Del Bosque freshening the team up?
There is a case that Spain's series of 1-0 wins at the last World Cup shows that the team is fairly predictable and needs some variety. But it would be a surprise if Del Bosque parts with the pairing of Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso at the base of midfield. Xavi, David Silva and Andres Iniesta should also start but all three have looked exhausted after long seasons. Bringing in some variety, perhaps in Santi Cazorla, Pedro or Jesus Navas might make Spain more of a threat, as could youngsters Isco or Iker Muniain, currently slated to join the Under-21s this summer instead.
Germany: Bayern hangover?
Are Germany the most confident team in Europe?
Yes, having won all 10 qualifiers for Euro 2012. After semi-final places at the last two World Cups, and losing the final of Euro 2008, it feels that Germany's time has arrived. "We are that good now and have developed well in the past few years to say that we will challenge for the title," said Lukas Podolski.
Can they recover from Bayern Munich's terrible end to the season?
This is the big question. The core of Germany's senior players – Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, Manuel Neuer, Holger Badstuber, Jérôme Boateng and Thomas Müller all play for Bayern. In the last month they lost the Bundesliga title to Borussia Dortmund, who they also beat them in the German Cup final, before defeat in the Champions League final at home to Chelsea.
"That's the fear for the public" Eurosport Bundesliga commentator Ian Holyman told The Independent. It will be a test of the mental strength, especially for Schweinsteiger, who has been in and out with injury all year, and missed the decisive penalty last Saturday. "He didn't look anywhere near up to speed," said Holyman. Even so, the Bayern players will not train until after today's friendly with Switzerland, and tomorrow's trip to the Monaco Grand Prix.
Which youngsters will Joachim Löw keep in the squad?
Without the Bayern contingent, tonight's game in Basle should give the up and coming talent a chance to show why they should not be excluded from the final 23. The Bender twins, Lars and Sven, should start together in midfield, while Mario Götze, Marco Reus, Julian Draxler, Ilkan Gündogan and André Schürrle should all feature.
Realistically, three of those young players, along with one other, will not be in the squad. Given the faltering form of Bayern, Löw may well prefer Götze, Gündogan or Sven Bender, who all won the Double with Dortmund.
Does Löw stick with his impressive 2010 team?
It may not be until Thursday's friendly with Israel that Löw gives a clearer sense of his first-choice side. He has decisions to make, hinging on whether he sticks with his 2010 team or freshens it up. Miroslav Klose has been a stalwart of the national team for years, and Müller is one of its emerging stars. But both have had poor seasons, leaving Löw with the choice between sticking with his 2010 players or choosing someone in better form. Klose could be replaced by Mario Gomez as the lone striker. That is a marginal call, but Müller is more likely to lose his place on the right to the talented winger Reus.
Portugal: Ronaldo fires impressive recovery
After needing the play-offs to reach the finals, are Paulo Bento's side struggling for momentum?
No. Bento's brief tenure as manager has been very successful, and they did well even to qualify for the play-offs, which they won comfortably. In one of the smaller qualification groups, with eight games rather than 10, the controversial end of Carlos Queiroz's reign left them with only one point from their first two matches. But they won five of their last six games, bringing them back up into the play-off positions. Facing a very competitive Bosnia side, they drew away from home before eventually rolling them over and winning 6-2 at the Estadio da Luz.
Has Cristiano Ronaldo rediscovered his best form?
Ronaldo barely scored at all under Queiroz but with Bento in charge he has done much better, scoring seven goals in the eight qualifying games which dragged Portugal into this tournament. For a player too often criticised for failing to reproduce his superhuman club performances at international level, it was a more than adequate riposte. He is no longer asked to play up front, but attacks from the left. It is the same role he has for Real Madrid, and he can also play in front of the same left-back, Fabio Coentrão, with whom he enjoys a good understanding.
How will the midfield work without Carlos Martins?
The Benfica midfielder has been an important cog in Bento's side, but is injured, so Miguel Veloso will have to step into the rotating three-man midfield with João Moutinho and Raul Meireles.
Netherlands: Will Van Marwijk set talented trio free?
Can Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder recover form in time?
For two of the Netherlands' three attacking greats, it has been a very difficult season. Last Saturday Robben lost the second European Cup final of his career, missing an extra-time penalty for Bayern Munich. It has been nearly as tough for Sneijder, who did not even get to play in a final, as Internazionale continued their post-Mourinho drift into sixth place in Serie A. Both must lift themselves if they are to shine this summer.
But if they do, Netherlands could be a real force?
Certainly. Robben and Sneijder, along with Robin van Persie, form one of the most talented and dangerous attacking triangles in international football. Van Persie, in contrast to the other two, has been one of the best players in Europe this season, winning both player of the year awards in England, having scored 30 Premier League goals and dragging Arsenal up to third place. His performances did revert back to the merely human in the second half of the season, but he was still very good.
If Van Persie, Robben and Sneijder can all produce close to their best, they could thrill just as much as they did in Euro 2008.
But what about Bert van Marwijk's approach?
In a country which puts so much emphasis on style of play, Van Marwijk's pragmatic approach has proved unpopular. Johan Cruyff, the icon of Dutch football, even said he supported Spain in the 2010 World Cup final. There has been quite a reaction against Van Marwijk's reactive 'resultaatvoetbal'.
After the outcry, Van Marwijk's team played in a more attractive manner in the qualifiers, scoring 37 goals in their 10 matches. They created more chances, often without Nigel de Jong. But a return to the 2010 plan in the recent friendly victory over England at Wembley suggests that Van Marwijk might revert to type next month, as he tries to escape from the tournament's hardest group.
France: Blanc rebuilds after 2010 World Cup catastrophe
Do France still bear the scars of 2010?
There can be no underestimating the trauma of the dismal chaos at the World Cup two years ago. "It was the biggest sporting disaster in the nation's history," said Tom Williams, a French football journalist for AFP. The collapse of unity, discipline and managerial authority in South Africa, was damning of the failures of Raymond Domenech and the players themselves. So there is a lingering impact on expectations. The main hope at home is for France to reach the quarter-finals, with anything else a bonus. The modesty is admirable, but it feels too cautious given the quality in their squad.
Has Laurent Blanc led a healing process?
Blanc has done well: France were not brilliant in qualifying, and they needed a late Samir Nasri penalty against Bosnia to save them from the play-offs. But they did make it, and are unbeaten in 18 games. An impressive friendly victory in Germany in February was the highlight of Blanc's reign so far.
Blanc has re-imposed competence and managerial order. "There is a feeling that a page has been turned," said Williams. The players, many of whom were not there in 2010, look up to Blanc because of his role in the 1998 World Cup win.
Will this be the international arrival of the '1987 generation'?
Nasri, Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa and Jérémy Ménez were all left at home in 2010. Those four, who helped win the 2004 European Under-17 championship, have long been hailed as the future of French football, and have all just enjoyed the best seasons of their careers. Benzema won his championship with Real Madrid, Nasri won his with Manchester City, while Ben Arfa and Ménez were excellent at Newcastle United and Paris Saint-Germain respectively. If those four can carry their club form into the Euros, there will be few more exciting teams.
Italy: Powered by Juve
How much momentum can Italy take from Juventus' unbeaten run to the Serie A title?
Juventus were excellent this season, going unbeaten and winning their first scudetto since 2003. Juve have traditionally provided the spine for strong Italy teams, and it could well be the case again this summer. "Juventus provide a load of options," said Italian football writer James Horncastle, "which it would be foolhardy not to make the most of."
The best of those is the champions' defence: they conceded just 20 goals in 38 Serie A games. Gianluigi Buffon will naturally continue in goal, while the centre-backs are likely to be drawn from Juve's Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci. In front of them, the masterful Andrea Pirlo will continue to orchestrate.
Will Italy score enough goals?
In their 10 qualifying games, Italy only hit 20 goals, three of them from an awarded victory over Serbia. Two 1-0 friendly defeats to Uruguay and the United States have raised worries they do not create or take enough chances. "There has been a concern about a lack of goals," said Horncastle. Much of this stems from a bad knee injury to Giuseppe Rossi, as well as Antonio Cassano's absence after a stroke. But Cassano is recovering, and will start, alongside either Mario Balotelli or Antonio Di Natale.
Which forwards will Cesare Prandelli take to Poland?
Given Cassano and Balotelli's unpredictability, Prandelli will need alternatives up front. But rather than taking the experienced Alberto Gilardino or Fabio Quagliarella, he has chosen in-form youngsters Mattia Destro and Fabio Borini, along with Sebastian Giovinco. "All of the six strikers have truly touched me," said Prandelli, who is still whittling his squad down to 23. "They have quality and are modern strikers. They all deserve to be here."
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