It is that time again. Every four years, the best European international football teams get together to compete in the biggest tournament that is not called the World Cup. The best of the best get their chance to shine in the international stage after a long qualification campaign. Four years ago, Spain won the tournament and many felt it was a foreshadowing of what they would eventually go on to achieve during the World Cup. In 2008, the hosts were Switzerland and Austria. This time it is another tandem of countries. Poland and Ukraine will have a chance to measure themselves against the best in Europe. Can they become threats to the other teams or will they wither in the face of the opposition that will be traveling to their cities? That is just one of the things that will be interesting to see during this tournament.
Who Will Win?
There are a couple of teams that have been lauded as the favorites to win this years tournament. Obviously, the defending champions and World Cup winners Spain must be in the conversation for this years title. Although in the end, I think Germany have a better team while Spain have the most talented individuals. There are two main problems I see with Spain: where will they find the leadership in the back line with Carles Puyol out of the tournament and who will be the person to score their goals? With Fernando Torres not playing his best and David Villa out with injury, it will fall on guys like Llorente and Negredo to pick up the scoring slack. Germany will have some trouble with their central defense, but if Mats Hummels plays like he does with Borussia Dortmund, Germany should be able to win this.
Who Will Come Close?
I can't really call France a dark horse, so I will put there in this category as a team that will probably come very close to winning the whole thing and might even do it. After the debacle that was the World Cup 2010, manager Laurent Blanc has slowly but surely dismantled this team and then built it back into a force to be reckoned with. The players seem to be playing with a renewed passion plus there are new players that will be looking to make their marks during this tournament. Yann M'Vila and Jérémy Menez are guys who will be looking forward to making their mark as they stand alongside veterans like Franck Ribéry.
Who is the Dark Horse?
For me, a dark horse is a team that has a real outside shot of winning. The probability is that they won't win, but they will be a threat. I didn't want to claim France was a dark horse, because they are too big a team to be in this category, so I chose Russia. One of the reasons I picked them over other teams is their draw in the Group Stage. They will probably be able to get the first spot in their group. Obiously, they will have to beat either Germany or the Netherlands, but I believe they could do that if they needed to.
Who Will Win the Golden Boot?
This is an interesting one. There are many great scorers in this tournament. Scoring in international football is not a very easy thing to do. Group Stage is normally a pretty cagey affair with player not going all out in order to have a chance of moving on. It would be easy for me to just pick someone like Robin van Persie, but his draw makes it hard for me to pick him to score the most goals throughout the tournament. I also think picking Miroslav Klose wouldn't work as he is not really a hundred percent and he is older now. I believe Karim Benzema will probably score the most goals. In Group Stage they face three teams that are pretty suspect at the back. His ability to power balls in and to control the ball on his feet will be paramount for France to reach the later stages of the tournament.
I think the hosts will probably be the biggest disappointments. It seems to me like both Poland and Ukraine as nations have failed to grasp at this opportunity with all their might. They might prove me wrong in the end, but it feels like the hosts are only there for the ride and not as the active participants that they should be. With Poland and Ukraine both getting decent draws (Poland more so than Ukraine), if they both fail to qualify for the elimination rounds, I fear that it will be up to the traveling fans of these nations to pick up the slack.
Who will be a train wreck?
It pains me to say it, but I think England might just become a train wreck during this important tournament. Expectations are always high for England as an international force mostly because they have the best football league in the world. The truth is that this team is talented but it lacks a certain cohesive that teams at this level need to succeed. Their manager has been there for only a couple of months and they have lost a couple of important pieces of their puzzle (mainly Gareth Barry, Gary Cahill and Frank Lampard). Not only this, but it will take some wizardry from their offense if they want to avoid elimination in the Group Stage even without their best player on the pitch for two out of the three first games. Rooney has been suspended for those two games and that will be a real blow as they try to create goal scoring opportunities. It seems to me that a lot of pressure will fall on captain Steven Gerrard's shoulder.
Player to watch?
I'm actually looking forward to see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The young Arsenal man will be looking to become a threat with his pace and his ability with the ball at his feet. Mesut Ozil will try to replicate his accomplishments from the World Cup and his club play during this tournament. Fernando Torres will also be a big talking point. Can he reclaim his spot as the main striker for Spain or will he flounder like he has when it comes to goal scoring?
Either way, this will be a great tournament and I look forward to watching each and every game.
Grab a beer and enjoy!