With the domestic season all done and dusted, the potential tedium of a summer bereft of football has been saved this time around by the European Championships. I'm not the biggest fan of international football if I'm being honest. No, sorry, I'll rephrase that, I'm not the biggest fan of England. This is a stance that I have been forced to take given the way our national media build up the side's chances each and every tournament only to be sharpening their knives behind closed doos awaiting to the all too predictable knockout stages exit. Also, there was something very shady and distasteful about John Terry's inclusion which doesn't sit well with me at all.
Anyway, I digress. To help you gear up for this summer's exhibition of football we here at Roker Report will be previewing each group, looking for any connections to SAFC, potential transfer targets etc, starting, predictably with Group A's hopefuls.It looks like I have drawn the short straw having been given the competitions first group to have a look at. With Poland, Greece, Russia and Czech Republic making up the numbers it is undoubtedly one of the weakest groups in the competition.
Poland - 58/1
Poland, the co-hosts, go into the competition having undertaken a massive rebuilding job since the failed qualification campaign of 2010. In fact Poland have not taken part in a competitive game since 2009. The Poles will no doubt be hoping that the home advantage will be on their side as in fourteen of the last fifteen tournaments the
host side has reached at least the Semi-Finals.
The main stars of the Polish squad are the trio of Robert Lewandowski, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek from Borussia Dortmund and also the Arsenal goalkeepers Wojciech Szczesny and Lukasz Fabianski.
Lewandowski is instantly the first name that catches the eye courtesy of his prolific record this season which saw the forward hit thirty goals in forty-six appearances. I wouldn't get your hopes up as a Sunderland fan however that Robert will be rocking up at the Stadium of Light though as Manchester United are reportedly weighing up an approach for the talented striker and are prepared to sacrifice bench warmer Dimitar Berbatov to help sweeten the deal.
Right back Piszczek may also be worth keeping an eye on unless you're a member of the Phil Bardsley fan club although he is contracted to Dortmund until 2016.
You can expect to see Poland lineup in a counterattacking 4-2-3-1 formation in a bid to make the most out their fairly limited side with all hopes pinned on the Dortmund trio. I would expect the Poles to make it to the knockout stages, purely based upon the home support, but no further.
Greece - 66/1
The Greeks will no doubt be looking forward to a distraction from their current economics problems back home and would no doubt love a repeat of their incredible shock win at the 2004 tournament where they turned the footballing world on its head with the ultimate underdog story.
There are a couple of players that may be worth keeping tabs on from the Greek squad; Schalke's highly rated young defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos and the attacking midfielder Sotiris Ninis.
The imposing Papdadopoulos is already making a name for himself as a tough tackling, strong central defender with excellent ability in the air and an eye for a pass as well. The young Greek is expected to feature more for Schalke as the future of their regular centre-backs Benedikt Howedes and Christoph Metzelder is seemingly uncertain. A good showing during the competition would also only serve to add a couple of million onto any potential transfer.
The Greeks can be expected to play a narrow and compact system, looking to defend deep and control the possession. The side however are not exactly a threat in front of goal, they qualified having only scored fourteen goals in their ten qualifying games, a weakness that I believe will see them fail to advance to the knockout stages.
Russia - 20/1
The Russians are an interesting side who are seemingly capable of putting on a decent showing at such competitions as their Semi-Final exit at Euro 2008 showcased where they came undone against the eventual champions Spain. However, possibly falling victim to raised expectations, the side failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup as they lost in the second place play-off to Slovenia.
Coached by the experienced Dick Advocaat and led by familiar names Andrey Arshavin, Roman Pavyluchenko and Yuri Zhirkov I would expect the Russians to manage a Quarter-Finals appearance where they will probably just come up short against one of the bigger nations.
Russia will hugely benefit from the fact that the vast majority of their squad play their club football in the Russian league and will surely have an edge over other sides thanks to the winter break which has given their players three months R&R.
One to keep an eye on is Alan Dzagoev. The twenty-one year old attacking midfielder is making waves at CSKA Moscow. Unfortunately whilst the clever midfielder would be an ideal addition to O'Neill's squad and has openly spoken of his desire to play in the Premier League he is more likely to find himself at Old Trafford rather than
Wearside if reports are to be believed.
Czech Republic - 67/1
The Czech Republic are a mainstay of the competition, having appeared in every Championship and even reaching the final in 1996 and the semi-finals in 2004. The Czech's enjoyed a successful qualification campaign which saw them finish second behind Spain and win the subsequent playoff against Montenegro.
The Czech's boast a solid if uninspiring squad but have enjoyed some success since adopting a strong 4-2-3-1 formation and allowing Tomas Rosicky a lot of freedom to pull the strings behind the lone striker. This system has seen the side lose just one of their last seven games and even then that loss came against Spain.
One name that could be worth keeping an eye on given Sunderland's desperate need for a left back is Michal Kadlec. Currently plying his trade with Bayer Leverkusen, the solid, reliable fullback is also something of a free kick specialist and has figured in every minute of their qualifying campaign and also managed four goals in the process.
CSKA Moscow's young centre forward Tomas Necid is also a player to keep an eye on, although having been previously scouted and linked by Real Madrid, AC Milan and Liverpool he probably has other clubs on his agenda than O'Neill's Sunderland.
I would expect the Czech's to finish second in the group behind Russia and make it to the knockout stages but no further than that at this summer's tournament.
Coming later in the week, we have Group B! What a joy that will be, plus next week we'll do the other two groups as we complete an SAFC slanted look at Euro 2012