Everything to play for as contenders line up to challenge Spain

Germany and Italy among the usual pretenders, while the best England can hope for is to lose to the holders in the quarter-finals

By common consent the best European Championship was either in 1976 with only four teams, when Czechoslovakia won after every match went to extra-time, or 1984 when there were eight teams and Michel Platini's French champions proved the most exciting of them. As with World Cups, more means worse, which is already a depressing portent for 2016 when the number of finalists will be increased to an awkward 24.

Equally depressing, and more immediate, are concerns outlined in these pages last week about racism and hooliganism – confirmed the next day by the BBC's Panorama programme – as well as the costs and inconvenience that have made this a tournament best watched in the pub. And not a pub in Donetsk.

Pessimism extends to the prospects of England and Ireland but if there is any consolation it is that once the actual football starts, 13 of the top 20 countries in the world (by Fifa ranking) will be represented. Only the Czech Republic (ranked 26th), co-hosts Ukraine (50th) and Poland (65th) are outside that group and the latter pair will of course have all the traditional benefits of playing at home.

They will need them to have any chance of making an impact, though the Poles have been favoured by a draw offering some beatable opposition in a dull-looking Group A, which begins on Friday with their match against Greece, followed by Russia's against the Czechs.

With Lukasz Fabianski injured, his Arsenal goalkeeping colleague Wojciech Szczesny is the only Premier League player in the Polish squad and has a key role, as has Robert Lewandowski, scorer of 30 goals this season for German Double-winners Borussia Dortmund.

Russia, who won Ireland's qualifying group, must be fancied to progress and there will be much interest in North London in whether Andrey Arshavin, after a loan spell in St Petersburg, can still be as inspirational as he was in guiding them to the semi-final four years ago.

The two sides going through from that section will find life considerably harder against whichever pair from Germany, Holland, Portugal and Denmark emerge from Group B. There is quality there, and potential winners too. The Germans have finished in the top three at the last three major tournaments and would appear to be reaching maturity under the outstanding Joachim Löw. They possess abundant scoring potential, although there are worries about the fitness of key midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger and the defence in general: a 5-3 defeat by Switzerland last weekend raised eyebrows, even if all Bayern's players were missing.

Beating the Dutch 3-0 in a friendly last November became an even greater psychological boost once the draw was made the following month, throwing the old enemies together for their second match on 13 June. That one could decide the group, although Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal are capable of taking a point or more off both. Denmark actually finished ahead of the Portuguese in qualifying and are desperately unlucky to have been thrown into this section.

The day after Germany open against Portugal on Saturday, Spain will start against Italy in a meeting of the two sides most fancied to progress from Group C. Do not expect a goal-fest; the one criticism that could be aimed at Spain in becoming world and European champions was their low scoring record – eight from seven games in South Africa – and that was with David Villa, who will be missing this time after breaking his leg.

Italy, who conceded only twice in 10 qualifying games, will happily play the part of so many of Spain's opponents by sitting back and they would regard a draw as a huge bonus to take into their games against Croatia and Ireland. Dogged by another match-fixing scandal and short in attack, they could use Mario Balotelli as an impact substitute, though he might provoke a sensation by walking off as promised if racially abused – less likely in Poland than in Ukraine, where the Italians would play a quarter-final.

Ireland will add colour in their first tournament since 2002, though the number of players from leading clubs has sharply diminished since then. Based in Gdansk, they will play their first and third matches 150 miles away in Poznan, the opening one against Croatia a week today offering possibilities, although a little injury to Luka Modric in training would be welcome.

They cannot reasonably expect to take anything from Spain and need to be in contention when Giovanni Trapattoni comes up against his countrymen in the final game. The Irish will work hard in a solid 4-4-2, the worry being that they will be outnumbered and outpassed in the middle of the pitch by all three teams, hanging on and hoping for heroics from Shay Given and a touch of class from James McClean or Robbie Keane.

And so to Group D, and what must be the least prepared England team of the modern era. Absolutely no blame for that attaches to the manager appointed a month ago, who has quickly proved his own man and just as quickly been reminded of the vicissitudes of international management; which in England's case always comes with knobs on. Roy Hodgson has said he would be "bitterly disappointed" not to qualify from the group, but the nation would hardly be in a state of shock, and in any case Spain are the likely opposition in the quarter-finals.

A buoyant France await in Donetsk tomorrow week once England make the long trip there from their Polish base; Sweden, though poor at Wembley last November, generally manage a dogged draw against England; and the critical third game will effectively be away to Ukraine, when Wayne Rooney will at last be available. Hoping that 18-year-old Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain emerges in the interim as a wild card, like Michael Owen in 1998, shows the sense of desperation.

For once an honourable English quarter-final defeat would be something of an achievement – all the more so if it comes against the eventual winners, with Spain defeating Germany in a repeat of the 2008 final.

Group by group guide: Beware those Dutch dustmen and the Russian karate queen

Group A: Poland, Greece, Russia, Czech Republic

Favourites Poland have home advantage but have never won a European Championship finals match. Russia will fancy their chances of topping the group.

Dark horses Greece's players keep promising to give their troubled country something to smile about.

Grudge match Poland v Russia. The Russians refused the Polish sports minister's request to switch from their Warsaw hotel, located beside the site of a monthly rally to commemorate the 2010 death in a plane crash in Russia of then president Lech Kaczynski – for which his twin brother Jaroslaw says Russia was to blame.

Friends and family Unlike Arsenal's Wojciech Szczesny – whose father Maciej also kept goal for Poland – the French-born Ludovic Obraniak and Damien Perquis are about as Polish as Phil Jagielka.

Song for Europe The drum-playing Petr Cech is threatening to play a gig with guitar-loving Tomas Rosicky if the Czechs win Euro 2012.

Grim reaper rating 2/5 – the weakest group of the lot, but the hosts aren't complaining.

Group B: Holland, Denmark, Germany, Portugal

Favourites Germany won 10 out of 10 in qualifying, Holland nine out of 10. It could be close.

Dark horses Portugal finished below Denmark in their qualifying group but they do have Cristiano Ronaldo.

Grudge match Holland v Germany. When Johan Cruyff's Total Footballers lost the 1974 World Cup final, Dutch TV commentator Herman Kuipkof, mindful of Germany's wartime occupation, said: "They tricked us again." The Dutch gained revenge in the Euro 88 semi-final.

Friends and family Denmark's reserve goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel can always ask dad Peter how on earth the Danes managed to win the trophy 20 years ago.

Song for Europe German comedian Oliver Pocher has recorded a Skinner and Baddiel-style song called 'Schwarz und Weiss' ('Black and White') but it's not as funny as the German fans' chant for the Dutch: "In Germany only binmen wear orange."

Grim reaper rating 5/5 – this is the Group of Death.

Group C: Spain, Italy, Republic of Ireland, Croatia

Favourites Reigning world and European champions Spain have won 34 of their last 35 World Cup and Euro fixtures. But can they really pull off an unprecedented hat-trick of tournament wins?

Dark horses Croatia will want to end coach Slaven Bilic's six-year reign on a high – and they have a good record against Italy.

The grudge match Spain v Italy. The Azzurri will want revenge for their quarter-final shoot-out loss to their Latin rivals in 2008. It was Spain's first win over Italy and banished any lingering self-doubts.

Friends and family Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni will be reunited with former Juventus charge Cesare Prandelli, the Italy coach. Spotting Shakira could be a popular distraction when Spain play.

Song for Europe It's not that Spain's players don't know the words to their anthem – it's just that there aren't any.

Grim reaper rating 4/5 – it will take the luck of the Irish for them to progress.

Group D: Ukraine, Sweden, France, England

Favourites Tough to call but Laurent Blanc's France are now unbeaten in 20 matches.

Dark horses Ukraine are hosts but they are also Euro novices. Sweden can hardly be dark horses when England have failed to beat them in three previous attempts at a major tournament. So, England then?

The grudge match France v England. Les Bleus have won four of the last five meetings, including the opening match at Euro 2004 when England led until the 90th minute. England last prevailed at the 1997 Tournoi. Still, we'll always have Agincourt.

Friends and family England WAGs beware – the Ukraine midfielder Ruslan Rotan's wife Mariya is a former karate world champion.

Song for Europe Andriy Shevchenko and Andriy Voronin recently appeared in a pop video with the Russian singer Irakli, kicking a ball around a car park.

Grim reaper rating 3/5 – England will fancy their chances. Only problem is, so will the other three.

Simon Hart

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