They’ve never been this low. It’s hard to remember a time when England went into a major tournament with so few expectations. Average, weak and ordinary, all three words have been associated with the squad Roy Hodgson has opted to take to Poland and Ukraine.
Many talented players were unavailable for selection; Injury has robbed the former West Brom coach of Jack Wilshere, Frank Lampard and Kyle Walker, whilst Michael Carrick and Micah Richards stuck with their earlier declarations that they wouldn’t travel to Euro 2012 just to sit on the bench. But the current group is, without doubt, the weakest since the 1980?s. Liverpool, who endured their worst league campaign in 58 years, are the biggest representatives of the travelling pack with five members. It’s an indication of the struggles that many predict lie ahead for a nation that has failed to lift a trophy since 1966.
In contrast, France are in their best form in years. Unbeaten in 21 league international fixtures now, following their 2-0 friendly win against Serbia and then a 4-0 victory versus Estonia last night, coach Laurent Blanc has overseen an improvement in mentality and attitude – qualities that were lacking under the turbulent reign of Raymond Domenech. Although ten players who took part in Les Bleus‘s disastrous world cup fiasco in South Africa have made the squad for the European Championships, Blanc knows he has the respect and honesty of them all – even Patrice Evra who was perhaps the worst culprit two years ago. Blanc has played down his side’s chances of winning a first title since 2000, but outside of France, there is a growing feeling that this rejuvenated squad – the fifth youngest of the tournament – are very dangerous dark horses.
After failing to qualify for a European Championship for 24 years, Sweden reached the semi-finals of Euro 1992 where they lost narrowly to Germany. The Scandinavians have made it through to four of the five Euros’ since, where they always prove to be tough opposition. A squad loaded full of experience – the third oldest side at Euro 2012 – Erik Hamrén’s side’s 3-2 win against Holland in qualification proves how dangerous they can be. Despite missing out on the world cup, Hamrén has rebuilt his reputation through guiding his country to Poland and Ukraine – the former Rosenborg coach replaced Lars Largerback, who ended his 11-year affiliation with the national side in 2009. Only one defeat against England in 44 years – last November’s 1-0 friendly loss at Wembley – Sweden will fancy their chances of pipping the ‘Three Lions’ to the group’s runners-up spot.
Similarly to Sweden, Ukraine head into this summer’s tournament with a wealth of experience throughout their squad. They have the oldest player of any roster at Euro 2012 – reserve goalkeeper Oleksandr Horyainov – and as co-hosts, Oleg Blokhin’s men will believe they can cause an upset in Group D. Blokhin, managing his country for the second time following a spell between 2003 and 2007, has overseen five wins in six games – the only ‘blip’ being a 3-3 draw with Germany. Familiar faces in the squad include captain Andriy Shevchenko – 46 goals in 105 caps – and Bayern Munich’s versatile Anatoliy Tymoshchuk – the most capped player in Ukrainian history.
Coach: Roy Hodgson (since 2012)Captain: Steven Gerrard (91 caps)
FIFA Ranking: 6th
Euro 2008: Failed to qualify
Strengths: According to some, Europe’s best goalkeeper and left-back in Joe Hart and Ashley Cole. A centre-back partnership – John Terry and Gary Cahill – which flourished for Chelsea in the second half of the campaign. Great pace on the counter attack in the shape of Theo Walcott and Ashley Young as well as the promise of Arsenal wonderkid Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Weaknesses: Best player Wayne Rooney is unavailable for the first two fixtures due to suspension, whilst prodigious midfielder Jack Wilshere is ruled out of the tournament through injury. Right-back Glen Johnson is prone to lapses in concentration, whilst the team’s inability to retain possession could be fatal against the better nations.
Possible line-up: Hart; Johnson Cahill Terry Cole; Parker Gerrard; Walcott Young Downing; Welbeck
Prediction: Edge Sweden to second place in group. Quarter-final exit.
Coach: Laurent Blanc (since 2010) Captain: Hugo Lloris (32 caps)
FIFA Ranking: 14th
Euro 2008: Group Stage
Strengths: Genuinely one of the most talented squads at championships. A gifted spine of Hugo Lloris, Adil Rami, Yann M’Vila and Karim Benzema provides the backbone of the side. Benzema and Frank Ribery are two world-class performers in great form for their nation. Strong bench provides Blanc with many options. Settled and harmonious squad in contrast to previous tournaments.
Weaknesses: The losses of first-choice full-backs Bacary Sagna and Eric Abidal are huge – particularly as Patrice Evra’s form is a worry – whilst M’Vila’s tournament is dependent on a scan on a damaged ankle. The Rennes anchorman protects a back four which can be undone on the counter, scenarios where Philipe Mexes can look porous.
Possible line-up: Lloris; Debuchy Rami Mexes Evra; M’Vila Cabaye; Menez Nasri Ribery; Benzema
Prediction: Top group, and reach semi-finals.
Coach: Erik Hamrén
Captain: Zlatan Ibrahimovi? (76 caps)
FIFA Ranking: 17th
Euro 2008: Group stage
Strengths: Experienced tournament side, with an ability to upset big sides. The enigmatic Zlatan Ibrahimovic leads the line, a player who is capable of genius moments. Accomplished technicians in midfield too; Rasmus Elm, Kim Kallstrom and Seb Larsson are all composed in possession.
Weaknesses: Highly-rated forward John Guidetti will miss the tournament as a result of a mystery virus. Lack of a top-class centre-back could prove decisive.
Possible line-up: Isaksson; Granqvist Mellberg J.Olsson M.Olsson; Larsson Elm Svensson Kallstrom; Ibrahimovic Elmander.
Prediction: Just fall short in qualifying from group.
Coach: Oleg Blokhin (since 2011)
Captain: Andriy Shevchenko (105 caps)
FIFA Ranking: 52nd
Euro 2008: Failed to qualify
Strengths: Currently enjoying a strong run of form, wealth of experience throughout side and will have perceived benefit of being a home nation. Promising midfielders coming through. Organised and beat England in last meeting in Ukraine.
Weaknesses: Captain and top-scorer Shevchenko – despite 16 goals in last 34 appearances for Dinamo Kiev – is no longer the same player he once was. Key defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy is missing with injury, whilst Blokhin has to cope with something of a goalkeeping crisis – the second (Oleksandr Horyainov) and third (Maksym Koval) choice keepers have just one cap between them.
Possible line-up: Pyatov; Rat Kucher Mikhalik Selin; Gusev Tymoshchuk Rotan Konoplyanka; Voronin; Shevchenko
Prediction: Home support not enough. Bottom of group.
Group D Odds:
Winner – France & England 17/10, Ukraine 4/1, Sweden 6/1
To Qualify – France 8/15, England 4/9, Ukraine 7/5, Sweden 15/8
To Finish Bottom – Sweden 13/10, Ukraine 21/10, Frane & England 9/2