IF Spain’s reign over the global game is to go south in the east this summer, it is likely that the pretenders to the throne will emerge from Group B.
So loaded is this section of the draw that a team spearheaded by Cristiano Ronaldo are regarded as outsiders to progress into the last 16. Indeed there is such a plethora of bona fide global talent in Group B that even the self-proclaimed greatest player on the planet, Nicklas Bendtner – last seen struggling to justify his place in the Sunderland team – might have to take a back seat to some of the other star names jostling for top billing.
Every tournament has its Group of Death and with Holland and Germany vying for qualification alongside a strong Portugal and an underrated Denmark, this one looks particularly treacherous. All four teams are nestled in the top ten of Fifa’s international rankings and the top scorers from the Premier League and Bundesliga (Arsenal’s Robin van Persie and Schalke’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar) are both involved.
Ronaldo himself scored 60, which would have been enough to secure him La Liga’s golden boot were it not for the freakish exploits of Barcelona’s maestro Lionel Messi.
With three of the four teams so blessed with attacking options, it promises to be a group for the purists. And one that will surely go a long way to deciding the eventual winners, too. Given that the group winners are likely to avoid Spain until the final, that June 13 meeting of a free-scoring Holland with second favourites Germany in Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv could be absolutely crucial.
Joachim Löw’s Germany certainly don’t want for belief. Striker Miroslav Klose, who will be playing in his sixth major tournament, says that Germany are the best in Europe, while the manager is on record as saying he isn’t even entertaining the idea of failure.
A quick glance at Löw’s attacking arsenal confirms just why confidence flows through Teutonic veins. Mario Gomez scored more than 40 goals last season and he will be vying for a striking role alongside Klose and Lukas Podolski, who both have extensive experience of finding the net in major tournaments. Behind them there lies vibrant and imaginative midfield players who will provide a rich supply line.
Real Madrid’s Sami Khedira and Mesut Özil have flourished in La Liga, while Toni Kroos and Borussia Dortmund’s Mario Götze weave patterns that make England’s formulaic 4-4-2 look tired and old-fashioned. Defensively, they have seen better days. Arsenal’s Per Mertesacker is vulnerable, while veteran Philipp Lahm could be tested by someone with pace to burn. Löw would counter that argument by pointing to his goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who performed so superbly for Bayern Munich in their Champions League run last season.
This is a German side that fancies itself as potentially better at the short, passing, possession game than Spain and their system is more fluid than in previous years. They have the versatility to go a long way.
If it sounds like the rest of Europe has no hope, German confidence could yet be punctured by a Holland side that swept aside Northern Ireland with embarrassing ease on Saturday. Bert van Marwijk’s team reached the World Cup final two years ago but aesthetically, they left a lot to be desired. A disappointing tournament came to be defined by Nigel de Jong’s utterly cynical chest-high kick on Xabi Alonso, and it felt like justice had been served when the Spanish team ran out winners in Johannesburg.
Two years on, they have re-calibrated the side and returned to something like the glorious values of the Oranje side that were carried to victory in Euro 88 on the back of the sparkling football of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten.
They should score goals, anyway. Van Persie could probe alongside Huntelaar, while their midfield bank of Arjen Robben and Rafael van der Vaart has thrust and pace to keep defences on the back foot. Interestingly, van Marwijk could opt for van Persie on his own and look to pack the engine room with creative types like Wesley Sneijder. It is a role the Arsenal man has become used to at the Emirates and the fact he was so prolific in the Premier League should send out a warning to Europe’s best.
They are justified as being ranked the third-best team in the world and should go through alongside Germany. Local interest is provided by Tim Krul, of course, but Roma’s Maarten Stekelenburg will go into the tournament as Holland’s first-choice goalkeeper. Like England, the sheen has long since faded from Portugal’s golden generation and they will do well to keep pace with the two leading lights of Group B. Paulo Bento’s team qualified well but have struggled in their pre-tournament warm-up matches – losing to Turkey at the weekend after a goalless and uninspiring draw with Macedonia.
Any team with Ronaldo has a puncher’s chance and the forward, who scored nine times in 11 games during qualification, has linked well with Benfica left-back Fabio Coentrão for his country. It would be asking a lot for him to lead the team close to their previous best finish in the European Championships – as beaten finalists in 2004. Denmark will not be expected to figure in the final shake-up but they are a useful team with an impressive creative fulcrum in the shape of Ajax midfielder Christian Eriksen.
In any other group the side led by the experienced Morten Olsen might be viewed as danger men but here they are a dark horse. Given the strength of the Dutch and Germans, they are likely to come up short.