The former Iron Curtain countries and a country on the brink of bankruptcy vie for Group A honours.
In Greece, we have one of the unlikeliest Euro winners when a dour, no name squad under Otto Rehhagel won the 2004 final against Portugal in a defensive snoozefest. There are three survivors from that squad in captain Giorgios Karagounis, midfielder Kostas Katsouranis, and goalie Kostas Chalkias. It is a veteran squad with few exceptions like the versatile 22 year old Sotiris Ninis who is expected to shine in the role of creative midfielder. EPL followers will be familiar with Giorgios Samaras, the former City striker. The Greeks predictably did it on defense while qualifying for the 2012 Euros. It would be a feel good story, a country undergoing massive societal and economic upheaval, advancing to the next round but one can’t see them bettering their 2008 group exit.
The battle will be between Russia, co-hosts Poland, and the Czech Republic.
The Russians are heavily favoured to advance with Andrey Arshavin showing flashes of his 2008 brilliance in his loan to Zenit St Petersburg from Arsenal. This Euro could also anoint 21 year old Alan Dzagoev as Arshavin’s successor. He will be on the radar of some of the top clubs. The attack also includes the powerful Pavel Pogrebnyak shining in his January loan to Fulham where he scored six goals in 12 appearances. In Igor Aknifeev they have a fine goalkeeper and their defense is rock solid.
Along with them should be co-host Poland, whose only other appearance was the 2008 Euros in which they failed to win a single match in the group stage. This year a trio of Borussia Dortmund players will be critical to their success: striker Robert Lewandowski scoring at will for his club, veteran Jakub “Kuba” Błaszczykowski, considered one of Poland’s best midfielders, and right back Łukasz Piszczek. At goal, Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczęsny, who can bring off some spectacular saves.
The Czechs will be no pushovers. They are a veteran group with Tomas Rosicky, the captain enjoying a rejuvenation of sorts at Arsenal. Petr Cech was magnificent in the Champions League finals showing no signs of age. They have some decent strikers in Tomas Pekhart and Tomas Necid while Milan Baros is back in the squad. Those Liverpool days feel like a different era. However they have a porous back line that leaked goals and the fact of the matter is they were competing with Lichenstein, Scotland, and Lithuania for qualifying in Group I where everyone was spanked by a flawless Spain.
Advance to round two: Russia, Poland.
Players to watch for: Andrey Arshavin, Alan Dzagoev, Robert Lewandowski, Sotiris Ninis, Yuri Zhirkov, Marek Suchy, Wojciech Szczęsny
Goalkeepers: Petr Cech (Chelsea), Jaroslav Drobny (Hamburg), Jan Lastuvka (Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk)
Defenders: Theodor Gebre Selassie (FC Slovan Liberec), Roman Hubnik (Hertha Berlin), Michal Kadlec (Bayer Leverkusen), David Limbersky (Viktoria Plzen), Tomas Sivok (Besiktas), Marek Suchy (Spartak Moskow)
Midfielders: Vladimir Darida (Viktoria Plzen), Tomas Hubschman (Shakhtar Donetsk), Petr Jiracek (Wolfsburg), Daniel Kolar (FC Viktoria Plzen), Milan Petrzela (Viktoria Plzen), Vaclav Pilar (Wolfsburg), Jaroslav Plasil (Bordeaux), Frantisek Rajtoral (Viktoria Plzen), Tomas Rosicky (Arsenal)
Forwards: Milan Baros (Galatasaray), David Lafata (FK Jablonec), Tomas Necid (CSKA Moskow), Tomas Pekhart (Nurnberg), Jan Rezek (Anorthosis
Coach: Michal Bilak
Goalkeepers: Grzegorz Sandomierski (Jagiellonia Bialystok), Wojciech Szczesny (Arsenal), Przemyslaw Tyton (PSV Eindhoven)
Defenders: Sebastian Boenisch (Werder Bremen), Marcin Kaminski (Lech Poznan), Damien Perquis (Sochaux), Lukasz Piszczek (Borussia Dortmund), Marcin Wasilewski (Anderlecht), Jakub Wawrzyniak (Legia Warsaw), Grzegorz Wojtkowiak (Lech Poznan)
Midfielders : Jakub Blaszczykowski (Borussia Dortmund), Dariusz Dudka (Auxerre), Kamil Grosicki (Sivasspor), Adam Matuszczyk (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Adrian Mierzejewski (Trabzonspor), Rafal Murawski (Lech Poznan), Ludovic Obraniak (Bordeaux), Eugen Polanski (FSV Mainz), Maciej Rybus (Terek Grozny), Rafal Wolski (Legia Warsaw)
Forwards: Pawel Brozek (Celtic), Robert Lewandowski (Borussia Dortmund), Artur Sobiech (Hannover)
Coach: Franciszek Smuda
Goalkeepers: Kostas Chalkias (PAOK), Michalis Sifakis (Aris), Alexandros Tzorvas (Palermo)
Defenders: Vassilis Torosidis (Olympiakos), Sokratis Papastathopoulos (Werder Bremen), Avraam Papadopoulos (Olympiakos), Jose Holebas (Olympiakos), Stelios Malezas (PAOK), Giorgos Tzavelas (Monaco), Yiannis Maniatis (Olympiakos), Kyriakos Papadopoulos (Schalke)
Midfielders: Giorgos Karagounis (Panathinaikos), Kostas Katsouranis (Panathinaikos), Giorgos Fotakis (PAOK), Kostas Fortounis (Kaiserslautern), Yiannis Fetfatzidis (Olympiakos), Sotiris Ninis (Panathinaikos), Grigoris Makos (AEK Athens)
Forwards: Georgios Samaras (Celtic), Dimitris Salpigidis (PAOK), Kostas Mitroglou (Atromitos), Nikos Lymberopoulos (AEK Athens), Fanis Gekas (Samsunspor)
Coach: Fernando Santos
Goalkeepers: Igor Akinfeyev (CSKA Moscow), Vyacheslav Malafeyev (Zenit St Petersburg), Anton Shunin (Dynamo Moscow)
Defenders: Alexander Anyukov (Zenit St Petersburg), Alexei Berezutsky (CSKA Moscow), Sergei Ignashevich (CSKA Moscow), Roman Sharonov (Rubin Kazan), Vladimir Granat (Dynamo Moscow), Kirill Nababkin (CSKA Moscow)
Midfielders: Igor Denisov (Zenit St Petersburg), Roman Shirokov (Zenit St Petersburg), Konstantin Zyryanov (Zenit St Petersburg), Yuri Zhirkov (Anzhi Makhachkala), Alan Dzagoyev (CSKA Moscow), Igor Semshov (Dynamo Moscow), Denis Glushakov (Lokomotiv Moscow), Marat Izmailov (Sporting), Dmitry Kombarov (Spartak Moscow)
Forwards: Andrei Arshavin (Arsenal), Alexander Kerzhakov (Zenit St Petersburg), Roman Pavlyuchenko (Lokomotiv Moscow), Alexander Kokorin (Dynamo Moscow), Pavel Pogrebnyak (Fulham)
Coach: Dick Advocaat