(AFP – June 8, 2012) Host nation Poland is set to meet Greece in Warsaw’s National Stadium in the inaugural match of the 2012 Euro tournament. Poland is hoping for an opening win on home soil while opponents Greece is seeking a morale-boosting victory for a nation crippled by financial and political turmoil. The tournament is the first behind the former Iron Curtain, hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine, a gamble by European football’s governing body UEFA to develop the game beyond its traditional heartlands.
Franciszek Smuda’s Poles are seeking to emulate the golden generation of the 1970s and 1980s while Greece want to prove that their 2004 victory was no fluke and give their cash-strapped compatriots something to smile about.
The Poland-Greece opener is followed by Russia versus Czech Republic in Wroclaw, where Dick Advocaat’s Russian side come into the tournament on a high after beating Italy 3-0 last week, prompting predictions that they may be a team to watch. The experienced Dutchman may play down any talk of Russia as outside bets but captain Andrey Arshavin believes they are ready to take on and beat the best.
“The result of the friendly match with Italy boosted our fans’ hopes ahead of the championship’s start and all of our players also. However, for a long time we have believed our team is capable of playing at this level,” he said.
The Czechs’ Champions League-winning goalkeeper Petr Cech told fans in an online chat on Wednesday that Group A was wide open, with any one of them able to progress to the quarter-finals.
“Our chances are the same as those of the other three teams in Group A,” he said, predicting that Spain, Germany and the Netherlands would win the title although he suggested: “We may spring a surprise.”
Unrest in the Dutch camp. In Group B, Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk said the Oranje’s opener on Saturday against Denmark was “the most important game in the last six months” but fears have mounted about another potentially self-destructive row in the camp.
That followed comments by Bundesliga top scorer Klaas-Jan Huntelaar that he was unhappy about not being picked as lone striker ahead of Arsenal’s Robin van Persie, who was the leading goalscorer in the English Premier League.
Germany forward Lukas Podolski has meanwhile backed his team to subdue Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo, predicting a 2-0 win for the Mannschaft when the sides meet in Lviv, Ukraine, on Saturday.
“We have to be aggressive, entangle him in some tough tackles and take away his love of football,” Podolski said of the Real Madrid player. “But one thing is clear, we have enough players of our own with great potential.”
Injury-hit England’s preparations for their first Group D match against France in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Monday, were hit further when striker Jermain Defoe flew home from their Krakow training camp after the death of his father. The Football Association said he would rejoin the squad at a later date.
France coach Laurent Blanc, however, said a weakened England was still a threat, particularly given the tradition behind the tie.
“Yes of course they are not at full strength but what concerns me is that England will play in a certain style, based on their qualities, and they will give everything because when there are French against English, it raises the game above the normal international match.”
Defending champions Spain take on 2006 World Cup champions Italy when Group C games begin on Monday. That match is followed by Ireland against Croatia.
While the England-France opener is the talking point of Group D, the other game in that group features co-hosts Ukraine facing Sweden.
EURO 2012 OPENING GAMES
Poland v Greece, Saturday June 9
Russia v Czech Republic, Saturday June 9
Netherlands v Denmark, Sunday June 10
Germany v Portugal, Sunday June 10
Spain v Italy, Monday June 11
Ireland v Croatia, Monday June 11
France v England, Tuesday June 12
Ukraine v Sweden, Tuesday June 12