Mired in the climax of the European club season, as most of us currently are, it’s easy to lose track of the calendar. So you’ll probably be as surprised as we were to realize the June 8 kickoff of Euro 2012 is fast approaching. That being the case, it’s time to turn some of our attention to the summer’s big dance.
Here are the five biggest questions as we close in on the tournament.
1. The bubble
It’s a biennial rite, the tussle for the last spots on your nation’s roster for a Euro or World Cup. Invariably, national outrage boils over in at least one country as a popular player believed to be helpful to the cause is left off the team. As ever, the fight is fiercest for the striker positions.
Take Spain’s front line. In addition to a preposterously overcrowded midfield -- Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Xabi Alonso, David Silva, Juan Mata, Sergio Busquets, Santi Cazorla, Jesus Navas -- the defending champion Spaniards have a surplus of forwards that will necessitate unpopular cuts. Between the resurgent Raul, Fernando Torres (who is finally showing signs of life), Roberto Soldado, Fernando Llorente, Pedro and Alvaro Negredo, and David Villa, if he’s healthy -- some difficult decisions will have to be made.
England faces a similar predicament. With Wayne Rooney suspended for the first two games (more on that in Point 3), the Three Lions will need to get the most from their remaining forward slots. Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck and Gabby Agbonlahor are young and promising. Jermaine Defoe and the currently injured Darren Bent are proven goalscorers. And Bobby Zamora, Peter Crouch and Andy Carroll can act as a target man complimentary to either Rooney or a replacement. Let’s also not forget about the ground swell of support for … Norwich’s Grant Holt! But who will interim manager Stuart Pearce take to Poland and Ukraine? If he’s still the coach, that is -- speaking of being on the bubble.
Most interesting, however, will be whether Mario Balotelli is included in Italy’s squad. As of now, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli has said the mercurial striker will be a key part to the team’s plans.
Balotelli’s season with Manchester City has been tumultuous, to say the very least, as his exasperated manager, Roberto Mancini, simply no longer trusts him. Prandelli has been vocal about wanting Balotelli to clean up his act and has left him off previous rosters to make a point. But with Giuseppe Rossi out for the tournament and Antonio Cassano also questionable, Italy will need a creative spark like Balotelli’s, who, for all his eccentricity, remains fabulously talented.
2. The injuries
In the run-in to a major international tournament, national team coaches watch their core players’ games through their fingers, praying no serious injuries blow unpluggable holes into their depth charts. “The critical phase starts now,” Germany manager Joachim Loew recently told Kicker. “That’s why in the final sprint of the season, I’d like more than anything that no one gets seriously injured.”
There are plenty of injury concerns. As mentioned, Italy will be without New Jerseyite- Rossi, who reinjured his right knee, a double whammy that will cost him another six months. Meanwhile Cassano, he who boasts of his 1,000 conquests, has recovered from heart surgery, but whether he’ll be back to form by June is questionable.
Also falling into the questionable strikers category are the aforementioned Villa and Bent, as well as Germany’s Miroslav Klose. England’s young midfield dynamo Jacks, Wilshere and Rodwell, are out and doubtful, respectively. In defense, Sweden’s Daniel Majstorovic and Denmark’s Nicolai Boilesen won’t be participating. And Germany’s Per Mertesacker and Holland’s Erik Pieters might not either.
Just how many fingers can coaches cross for the above to make it back in time and no others to get badly injured?
3. The Rooney factor
England, by and large, needs no help flaming out prematurely at major tournaments. In 2012, it will be without star striker and offensive moves-maker Wayne Rooney for its crucial first two group phase games against France and Sweden. Why? Because wise young Wazza thought it necessary to kick out at Montenegro’s Miodrag Dzudovic in the last gasp of England’s qualifying campaign, incurring a red card.
A three-game ban was reduced to two. But the problem of having to do without England’s only forward capable of creating chances for himself and others will be significant. Of the striker corps named in Point 1, every member is either unproven, pedestrian at the international level or productive only in conjunction with a creator. While all useful in their own right, no pairing culled from this bunch will set the world alight.
Just how much will its Rooneylessness hurt England?
Much of the outcome of modern Euros and World Cups are dictated by who has the freshest legs after an ever more demanding European club season wraps up. Curiously, it is in the national team’s interest for its best players to play on clubs that don’t reach very far in continental competitions, so as to save on wear and tear on their legs.
This could be a key issue for the two biggest favorites, Spain and Germany. Almost all of Spain’s starting lineup plays for either Real Madrid and Barcelona, both of which crashed out of the Champions League semifinals. Bad news at club level, but with the league all but won by Madrid, players on both teams can take relative breathers, which could help them defend their Euro 2008 title.
But Bayern Munich, which employs the bulk of Germany’s starters, is in the Champions League final against Chelsea (which counts John Terry as a key cog for England, as well).
5. Will the host countries be competitive?
Whereas all World Cup host countries have managed to advance out of the group stage until South Africa failed to in 2010, falling short on goal difference to Mexico, Euro hosts have a much less illustrious track record of late. Neither Austria nor Switzerland advanced when they put on Euro 2008. And Belgium failed to when joint-hosting in 2000.
How will Ukraine and Poland fare? It’s hard to say yet. Theirs are proud nations that will expect their national teams to do some damage. But neither team is much fancied, in spite of boasting decent, sturdy sides and Poland recently holding Portugal to a 0-0 friendly draw while Ukraine is undefeated in five games, including a 3-3 tie with Germany. That’s due to the strength of the rest of the field, which includes no weak opponents.
Will Poland and Ukraine be spared the embarrassment of crashing out in the group stage on their home turf?