Big three eyeing EURO crown
© AFP

Little seems to have changed at the pinnacle of European football over the last four years, with Spain, Germany and the Netherlands standing out as the teams to beat when UEFA EURO 2012 gets under way on Friday.

The Spanish owe their tag as favourites to their status as European and world champions, while the Germans and the Dutch were the teams La Roja respectively beat to win those titles, Die Mannschaft also finishing third at the last two FIFA World Cup™ finals.

Hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine, the tournament begins this Friday, when the Poles take on Greece in Warsaw, with the final taking place on 1 July in Kiev.

Aside from being crowned champions of Europe, the winners will also earn a place at the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013.

Each match will be officiated by a team of seven officials: a referee, two assistant referees, a fourth referee, the customary reserve assistant referee and two additional assistant referees. Following a decision made by the IFAB (International Football Association Board), the two additional assistant referees will stand behind the goal-line and will focus on incidents taking place in the penalty box.

The favourites
Spain are gunning for an unprecedented third major title in a row. Coach Vicente del Bosque has once again built his team around an exceptional midfield. The Spaniards breezed through qualifying yet again, though their challenge has been undermined by the absence through injury of talismanic defender and dressing-room leader Carles Puyol, and front man David Villa, Spain’s all-time top scorer with 51 goals.

Having completed their process of rejuvenation, Germany have been producing some sparkling football of late, thanks in no small part to Mesut Ozil, yet without relinquishing any of their traditional competitiveness, discipline and determination. Solid in all departments, the Germans know what it takes to succeed in this competition, having won it three times and finished runners-up on another three occasions.

Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk has assembled a squad largely unchanged from the one that went so close in South Africa two years ago. Spoilt for choice up front and blessed with a technically proficient midfield engine room, Van Marwijk can count on a clutch of experienced players who will go into the tournament in prime form and are doubly determined to land the Netherlands’ second continental title, the first coming back in 1988. Yet, as ever, his hardest task will be maintaining harmony in a typically star-studded Dutch squad.

The outsiders
Top of the list of dark horses are Russia, semi-finalists four years ago. Coach Dick Advocaat, who will vacate the post at the end of the competition, has put together a solid and tightly knit team, one founded on a miserly defence that conceded just four goals in their ten qualifying matches. The 21-year-old Alan Dzagoev will be charged with the task of orchestrating a side that is already turning its thoughts to hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2018.

Crowned world champions in 1982 and 2006 despite being beset by match-fixing scandals on both occasions, Italy arrive in Poland and Ukraine with a similar crisis hanging over them. Focusing on the football, Cesare Prandelli has been fielding an untypical two-pronged attack, formed by the spiky duo of Mario Ballotelli and Antonio Cassano, though the rash of injuries afflicting his defence will almost certainly force him to switch to a 3-5-2 formation.

Newly appointed England coach Roy Hodgson has similar problems to ponder after injury denied him the services of key names such as Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry and Gary Cahill, while Wayne Rooney is suspended for their opening two matches. Europe's only world champions never to have won the continental title, England failed to qualify for EURO 2008 and were dumped out of the quarter-finals at the last FIFA World Cup by Germany.

France, for their part, will be banking on Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema as they seek to atone for disappointing showings on their last two appearances on the big stage.

The co-hosts should not be discounted either. Ukraine have the vastly experienced Andriy Shevchenko to guide them on what will be his international swansong, played out in front of his adoring fans, and Poland will be seeking inspiration from Borussia Dortmund playmaker Jakub Blaszczykowski, the man they call “Little Figo”.

Players to watch
Voted player of the tournament at EURO 2008, Spanish schemer Xavi is still at the top of his game at the age of 32, while Barcelona team-mate Andres Iniesta is also aiming to impress once more. Meanwhile, Germany’s Miroslav Klose, who celebrates his 34th birthday on Saturday 9 June, the day Die Mannschaft meet Portugal, is out to cap an impressive international career in which he has scored 63 goals in 116 matches. The same age as Klose, Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is back to his best after a long injury and is ready to aid La Nazionale’s cause.

Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo are two strong-minded geniuses with a gift for turning games with a flash of inspiration, while Robin van Persie, who has made the central striking role his own in the Netherlands’ line-up, has shown time and again with Arsenal that he can handle the pressure that comes with shouldering goalscoring duties.

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Classic match-ups
10 June: Spain-Italy (Group C)
11 June: France-England (Group D)
13 June: Netherlands-Germany (Group B)

Co-hosts’ debuts
8 June: Poland- Greece (Group A)
11 June: Ukraine-Sweden (Group D)

Potential upsets
9 June: Netherlands-Denmark (Group B)
14 June: Spain-Republic of Ireland (Group C)

Star duel
9 June: Germany-Portugal (Group B): Cristiano Ronaldo and his Real Madrid team Mesut Ozil go head-to-head

The stat
12 -
The number of players taking part at EURO 2012 with more than 100 caps to their name. The most prominent member of this select pack is Spain’s EURO 2008 and FIFA World Cup-winning captain Iker Casillas, who at 31 has made 131 international appearances, 95 of them on the winning side.

What they said
“People are already tipping us as favourites. But when things start going badly, the atmosphere changes completely,” Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk.

“Low is in charge of quite simply the best German team of all time,” former Germany player and coach Franz Beckenbauer.

“Everyone needs a little luck, and we’ll maybe need a bit more than the rest,” Denmark coach Morten Olsen.

Have your say
Who will be the leading goalscorer at UEFA EURO 2012?