Today at Euro 2012: Netherlands v Denmark and Germany v Portugal

 

Netherlands v Denmark

The Netherlands begin Euro 2012 against Denmark today with confidence at an all-time high and their preparations only marred by the hideous monkey chanting aimed at their black players during training on Thursday. Manager Bert van Marwijk will need his stars – the likes of Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder – to perform to their maximum in order to emerge from a tricky group but they must fancy their chances.

Dirk Kuyt is hoping to replicate the 2-0 win over the Danes during the World Cup two years ago, but says the opposition poses a threat. "Denmark have improved a lot. They have won five of their last six meetings with Portugal, which indicates they are a stronger team and have become more stable," he said.

The pre-tournament chatter has centred around the Oranje showcasing more attacking flair than in South Africa, where they were ridiculed for being the polar opposite to "total football".

They will operate with two holding midfielders, meaning extra reliance on the full-backs to plough forward. First-choice left-back Erik Pieters is ruled out of the competition with a foot injury. His back-up at PSV, Jetro Willems, fills in. At 18 and possessing blistering pace, his exuberance could be an asset in an attacking sense at least.

Denmark have also had their injury woes. Thomas Sorensen is out of the tournament, meaning ex-Charlton goalkeeper Stephan Andersen, 30, will deputise – only his 11th cap in eight years. He is keen to grab his chance. "A goalkeeper has a certain influence," he said. "Because there are situations when he has to perform some miracles and that is necessary if you want to succeed."

Germany v Portugal

Steel helmets are the vital piece of kit eluding Germany ahead of their Group B opener against Portugal, joked their assistant coach. When asked how they will attempt to deal with Cristiano Ronaldo's free-kicks, Hansi Flick said: "I think just steel helmets and to make themselves big. At 20, 25 or even 30 metres we need to be clever in the one-on-one situations. Ronaldo has an exceptional free-kick quality."

That quip has the remnants of truth about it – the Real Madrid man hits a heavy ball. His dead-ball genius is something Arsenal's Per Mertesacker will have to be wary of. The defender has recovered from last week's training-ground collision with Jerome Boateng to take his place in the back four alongside Holger Badstuber, but will have his work cut out against the quick feet and direct running of Ronaldo.

Captain Philipp Lahm will start at left-back, but there are question marks as to who will play on the opposite side. Lars Bender looks most likely, but coach Joachim Löw will not announce his team until just before kick-off to keep the squad on their toes, with Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez waiting to find out who will lead the line. "We have our line-up in our heads. There is some uncertainty among the players whether they will play or not. That is good because it keeps the concentration high right until the end," Flick said.

Portugal striker Hugo Almeida is talking up their chances and pinning hopes on Ronaldo: "He is the best player in the world. However, one does not win alone. He needs a good supporting team around him, so he can be at his best."

Player to watch: Mesut Özil, Germany

He might not have Cristiano Ronaldo's productivity or Andres Iniesta's medals but there will be no finer footballer at Euro 2012 than Mesut Özil, and certainly no one more likely to dominate the tournament.

Özil's rise to the top of the European game has been thrillingly quick. Four years ago, he was trying to settle at Werder Bremen and impress with the Under-21s. Now he is the artistic director of the best club side in Europe – Real Madrid – and, quite possibly, the best international side too.

Everything that is good about Germany is embodied by Özil. Not just the personal story of choosing to play for them over Turkey, but the perfect technique, the awareness of the pitch, the individual brilliance deployed in the service of the team.

There are not many footballers like him. Özil plays in the same role for club and country, at the heart of a 4-2-3-1 system. His vision and precise passing make him a masterful creator of chances. Özil has made 34 assists in the last two La Liga seasons, as many as Lionel Messi. His perfect pass to Cristiano Ronaldo at the Nou Camp set up the goal which effectively won Real Madrid this year's Spanish title.

Özil can also beat a man by himself. His first touch can be deceptive as he teases defenders away from the ball. He has a turn of pace, as England know. Like Kaka, whom he has effectively replaced at Real, with the ball at his feet he is capable only of grace.

Tomorrow's matches:

Spain v Italy

Carlo Ancelotti believes the midfield combination of Andrea Pirlo and Thiago Motta is a winning one for the Italians. The ex-Chelsea manager said: "Cesare Prandelli's decision is perfect. Thiago can play anywhere in midfield, including to the left of a strong central player like Pirlo." He thinks they will beat Spain by hitting them on the counter-attack. Mario Balotelli is set to play up front with Antonio Cassano for the Azzurri.

Republic of Ireland v Croatia

Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni has unfinished business on the international stage. The 73-year-old was in charge of Italy's ill-fated World Cup campaign in 2002 – when they were controversially knocked out by Croatia. His determination to succeed is something which drives John O'Shea on. "The one thing we can take from the manager is the self-belief and discipline that has brought him success," said O'Shea.

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