This past Sunday fifty-one countries participated in the draw to determine the qualifying groups for Euro 2012, a competition held every four years and hosted this time around by Poland and Ukraine jointly. The groups will be contested according to a league system on a home-and-away basis, with games scheduled between September 2010 and October 2011.
In Group A top seeded Germany was drawn along Turkey, a good side that got to the semi-finals of Euro 2008 and will be supported fiercely by the large Turkish population in Germany, neighbors Austria and Belgium, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan. The three time champions should get through without many problems, but Turkey will be a worthy opponent. Austria has been known to trip up bigger teams especially in Vienna and Belgium is on the up and up under new Dutch manager Dick Advocaat. Prediction: Germany qualify, Belgium will snatch second.
Group B features Russia as the top seed, along a tough Slovakian team that won its World Cup qualifying group and has Marek Hamsik in prime form. The draw is an accessible one for Ireland as well, if it can come away with points from Moscow and Bratislava. Macedonia is no pushover either, particularly at home. Armenia and Andorra complete the group. Prediction: if Guus Hiddink is still in charge, Russia will win the group, followed by Slovakia. Otherwise, Slovakia and Ireland will finish at the top.
Group C will feature a very good battle between Serbia and Italy. Serbian players that make their living in Serie A will now be on the other side of some team-mates. Both sides know each other intimately, yet over the next two years it is Serbia that may have more firepower. Italy’s aging generation (Gatusso, Totti, Buffon, del Piero, Pirlo, Cannavaro, etc) must pass on the baton after the World Cup for Italy to retain its competitiveness. Slovenia is a wonderful squad with no stars but excellent team unity and the ability to sneak past both Italy and Serbia with a little chance. Estonia, Northern Ireland and Faroe Islands should be three points every time for the favorites, although all three – including Faroe Islands – will be tough at home. Prediction: Serbia wins the group, Italy edges Slovenia for second.
France should be a powerhouse, considering the tremendous pool of talent it has at disposal. Yet somehow, under the guidance of an ineffective manager, France barely scrapes by and occasionally suffers shock defeats against small teams that play with greater unity and will. Second group seed Romania is a side in transition with humbled aspirations and a young, talented new manager who is experimenting with formations. Bosnia made a very good impression in World Cup qualifying and still has as good a center forward as there is in Edin Dzeko. Albania and Belarus will be tough opponents, Luxembourg fills out the group. Prediction: France first, Bosnia second.
Holland and Sweden were drawn together in Group E, to the probable delight of Swedish fans who will flock to Amsterdam for the great fiesta. Holland is much stronger, while Sweden is in flux with Ibra’s commitment following the South Africa failure. Sweden will also travel to their neighbors in Helsinki in an interesting nordic match-up. In turn, the Finns will meet their not-so-distant cousins on the Danube. Hungary under Erwin Koeman has improved and will be a difficult team to beat especially in Budapest, while Moldova will probably put together one memorable game in this campaign. San Marino, easy points. Prediction: Holland first, Sweden and Hungary will battle for second.
An intriguing Group F headlines a talented Croatia squad that just missed out on South Africa and a super defensive Greek team that just sneaked into the World Cup, an ever more important feat given the country’s massive economic problems. Israel will be the wild card in this group, while Georgia has a bunch of good players and an eagerness to improve on the sub-par recent performances. The head to head results and the Israel encounters will determine the outcome. Latvia and Malta should be game. Prediction: Croatia first, Israel second.
England should have a relatively comfortable qualifying campaign in Group G, along side a Switzerland that is a little short on firepower, a Bulgarian team without any discernible character, a Welsh team that is rarely short on talent but somehow never puts it all together, and a little known Montenegro team that has Jovetic and a few other good players, but not enough to challenge. Prediction: England first, Switzerland second.
Portugal and Denmark have been drawn again, in Group H, as was the case in World Cup qualification. Instead of Sweden they will contend with Norway, Gudjonsson’s Iceland and an increasingly tougher Cyprus team rounding out the group. A Scandinavian – Mediterranean axis that will display some wonderful match-ups. Norway is hard to assess at the moment, following an unimpressive World Cup qualifying campaign, but should have enough to challenge Denmark for second place. Portugal wins the group without drama, Denmark will take second.
Finally in Group I, Spain, current European champions and possibly the best team in the world, should not have any problems clinching the group at the earliest possible moment. Only Czech Republic will contend and should be able to lock in second place. Scotland is always excessively optimistic given their talent, Lithuania will be a tough away match for all and Liechtenstein just happy to be inn the mix. Spain first, Czech Republic second.
Poland and Ukraine are automatically qualified as hosts.