Which Of The Three Favourites Is Strongest?

Is Spain's crown starting to slip? Will the German wunderkinds go all the way? Will Holland be a team of brutes again? Matt Stanger previews the three Euro 2012 favourites...

Last Updated: 06/06/12 at 11:40 Post Comment

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After losing 1-0 to Spain in the final of Euro 2008 and again by the same scoreline in the semi-final of World Cup 2010, Germany may have finally peaked to reassert authority over their current nemesis.

The distinguishable cycle that began after the country hosted the World Cup in 2006 has seen Jogi Löw's team develop an exciting, counter-attacking style that brushed England and Argentina aside in South Africa, where they topped the scoring chart with 16 goals. In the last seven World Cups, only Brazil (18 goals in 2002) have achieved more.

The quartet of Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira and Mesut Özil were all integrated into the starting line-up in the lead-up to 2010, with Bastian Schweinsteiger adapting from his previous attacking role into a deep playmaker, picking the passes that carved open Argentina in the second round. That Germany had less possession than their opponents in that 4-0 victory says a lot about how they intend to play; they want the ball for a good time, not a long time.

Löw's young talents in South Africa are now the leaders of this generation, and they are joined by a host of Europe's finest prospects for Poland and Ukraine. The squad is bursting with precocious hopefuls eager to make an impression, with stars such as Mario Götze and Marco Reus not even expected to start.

It's this faith in youth that has so many England fans advocating a 'rip it up and start again' policy, but while Germany's current crop are being linked with half of Europe - Chelsea have already completed a deal for Marko Marin, Borussia Dortmund snapped up Reus for fear that Götze may be tempted away in the summer and Mats Hummels has attracted the eye of both Manchester clubs - Roy Hodgson's youngsters head to Euro 2012 with lowered expectations. Danny Welbeck has shown signs of promise for Man United, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is a raw talent and Theo Walcott can produce on occasion, but in truth they are some way behind the quality of the German wunderkinds.

After narrowly losing to Spain in the last two tournament meetings, Germany are ready to usurp the favourites in Poland and Ukraine. Löw's team won all 10 of their qualifying matches and were only outscored by the Netherlands (by three goals, and 16 of the Oranje's came against San Marino). Despite the new faces that have been bled into the squad since South Africa, they have continuity in the 4-2-3-1 system drilled over the last four years and experienced heads such as Lukas Podolski are primed to make an impact.

"Only the title counts, nothing else," the 27-year-old, who should pick up his 100th cap during the Euros, told the Kolner Stadt Anzeiger newspaper. "In recent years, we have always said that the semi-finals would be a success, but I think we can say we are ready to challenge for the title ahead of these finals."

The 5-3 defeat to Switzerland indicates that obvious tweaking is needed in defence, but little should be read into a pre-tournament friendly. "It has been the same in previous years, when we lost 4-1 to Italy (in 2006), for example," said Podolski. "Of course defeats like this shouldn't happen and they hurt, and losing 5-3 to Switzerland is definitely not on, but I can promise there will be a different team on the field."

***

Germany will be keen to express themselves and if both they and Spain top their groups a mouth-watering final could be on the cards. In this possible match-up Germany can benefit from a decline - albeit minimal - in Spain's dominance.

Between 2007 and 2009 Spain went on a 35-match unbeaten run, which included their Euro 2008 victory. In the last twenty matches four have ended in defeat, with a stoppage-time equaliser from David Villa saving the team from the ignominy of losing to Costa Rica and late winners required against Chile and China. Although Euro 2012 qualifying was achieved without dropping a single point in the eight group matches, there are signs that Spain are not as imperious as when they were in their prime in 2010.

To begin with, injuries and loss of form have affected several of the key personnel who played fundamental roles in the successes of the past four years.

Fernando Torres embodies an element of incremental abatement. In 2008 the striker scored the winner in the final against Germany; at the 2010 World Cup he was merely a passenger in the team's route to glory; and this season his form has been so poor that he was almost left out of the squad in favour of Valencia striker Roberto Soldado. Indeed, with 27 goals compared to Torres' 11, Soldado has every reason to feel extremely unfortunate in Vicente del Bosque's final decision.

Along with Torres' poor form and inclusion that is perhaps based on sepia memories of him lifting the ball over Jens Lehmann in Vienna, the enforced omissions of Carles Puyol and Villa are also a concern for Spain. Villa, the country's all-time record goalscorer, won the golden boot at Euro 2008 and scored as many goals as Thomas Muller, the prize winner in South Africa (but had a fewer number of assists).

Although the striker's loss is a setback, his prolonged absence since December has afforded Del Bosque plenty of time to test alternatives. Athletic Bilbao's Fernando Llorente was the leading contender to start, but he has also struggled for fitness. In the last two months of the season, the 27-year-old centre-forward looked worryingly devoid of his power, exemplified by his performances in both the Europa League and Copa del Rey finals. With just one goal in his last eight appearances, Llorente isn't expected to hit the ground running in Poland and Ukraine.

If Del Bosque isn't convinced Llorente is fully fit, rather than risk Torres he may turn to Alvaro Negredo. Despite Sevilla slumping to a disappointing 9th-place finish in La Liga this season, the striker ended the campaign in sparkling form, notching eight goals in the final ten matches. Six strikes in ten international games suggests that he has already made the step up, but Negredo has only featured for 120 minutes in Spain's last eight matches and is yet to earn his manager's trust.

As Tim Stannard wrote here, there is a possibility that Spain will start against Italy in a striker-less formation. Of course, it won't be as soul shudderingly dreadful as when Scotland lined up in a 4-6-0 formation against Czech Republic in qualifying, but it casts light on the limitations Del Bosque considers himself under.

A bigger worry lies in defence, where Puyol's absence ensures Gerard Pique will start despite a relatively poor season. That Pique's mixed form coincides with his blossoming relationship with Shakira may only be a coincidence, but the centre-back will need to cut out the errors that have been evident in his performances for Barcelona.

In Javi Martinez, a midfielder-cum-defender, Pique has a potential partner who has largely been solid and dependable in Athletic Bilbao's rise under Marcelo Bielsa. But a back four of Sergio Ramos, Pique, Martinez and Jordi Alba, who only has five caps, is certainly less convincing than the defensive line-ups in 2008 and 2010. As the oldest of the four, Ramos will be expected to lead by example, but with more red cards than any other player in Real Madrid's history it might prove a tough ask.

Another option Del Bosque seemed to be leaning towards in the warm-up games was to move Ramos, who has had an excellent season for Real, into the centre and bring the 26-year-old's club teammate Alvaro Arbeloa in at right-back. However, Arbeloa has been struggling with a 'mild cervical contracture' - which, I've learnt, doesn't mean he's pregnant - and will be monitored ahead of the first game against Italy on June 10.

***

Spain's other potential challengers, Holland, have seemingly cut out the indiscipline that brought seven yellow cards and one dismissal in the 2010 World Cup final. The Dutch were the only team in their qualifying group not to lose a player to suspension during the preliminary round, with notorious reducer Nigel De Jong ousted from Bert Van Marwijk's starting XI for the last four matches by PSV's Kevin Strootman. Van Marwijk has changed tack somewhat, looking to find a balance between the hardheaded Holland of 2010 and the more agreeable style of the national team's illustrious past.

Following the 1-0 extra-time defeat to Spain in South Africa, Johan Cruyff denounced Holland's approach. "This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style, yes it served the Dutch to unsettle Spain," said Cruyff. "If with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they ended up losing. They were playing anti-football."

Previously, Van Marwijk has defended his side's pragmatic tactics: "Of course, we want to win playing great football but the important thing is that we learn to win ugly games". But after breezing through an undemanding qualifying group - winning nine of ten games and conceding only eight goals - it will be intriguing to see if the Dutch can, or will, rekindle the brutality that dismayed Cruyff when they face Germany in their second Group B match on June 13 and Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal on June 17.

If recent evidence is anything to go by, it won't be easy for them to switch back to being bully boys. A 3-0 defeat to Germany in November 2011 is one of three losses in the Oranje's last seven matches. Strootman was replaced by De Jong after 64 minutes against Jogi Löw's team and Van Marwijk has outlined his preferred pick for the Euros by starting the Man City midfielder in the last four friendlies.

Caution is perhaps required in the toughest group of the tournament, but while De Jong's partnership with Mark Van Bommel is primarily designed to dominate the midfield by force, he has shown that his passing also stands up to scrutiny. Only Leon Britton averaged a better pass completion rate than De Jong in the Premier League this season, and the 27-year-old provides a platform for the front four of Wesley Sneijder, Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben and (probably) Ibrahim Afellay to attack without hesitation, as they did in the recent 6-0 thrashing of Northern Ireland.

There is crucial flexibility in being able to replace De Jong with a more attacking option should the team require a change of approach. In the semi-final of the 2010 World Cup against Uruguay, Rafael Van Der Vaart was brought on for holding midfielder Demy De Zeeuw at half time and subsequently Holland played at an increased tempo as they went on to win 3-2. In this respect the Dutch perhaps have an advantage over Germany's commitment to counter-attacking and Spain's perseverance with the passing merry-go-round. Their combative nature gives them a strong grounding, and the abundance of offensive options on the bench allows for a purposeful plan B.

It's clear that Holland's biggest weakness is in defence, where an injury to first-team regular Erik Pieters has compelled Van Marwijk to select the left-back's understudy at PSV, Jetro Willems. The 18-year-old made his full debut in the 2-1 defeat to Bulgaria on May 26, but looks to be ahead of Wilfred Bouma in the race for a starting spot. Incidentally, Bouma's return to the international set-up is one of the feel-good stories of the tournament, after it was feared that the former Aston Villa defender would never play again following his two-year injury nightmare at Villa Park.

Giovanni Van Bronckhorst is the only player from Holland's World Cup final starting XI not be in the squad for the Euros (owing to retirement) and the valuable continuity, along with 4-2-3-1 system retained by Van Marwijk, stands the team in good stead to progress from Group B. Should they accomplish that initial aim, the quarter-finals present a relatively straightforward challenge against a Group A opponent, which, after having already faced Germany and Portugal by that stage, is unlikely to prove a problem.

Matt Stanger - now available on Twitter.

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ven if United were to sign CR7 & Messi to play upfront, the fact remains Fletcher and Cleverly are playing in midfield. That's where the problem is. Fletcher is too slow with an awful pass, while Cleverly is simply rubbish

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