The European regular season is over. Champions League winner, Chelsea, is winding down its celebration. It is time to turn our attention to Euro 2012.
The quadrennial European championship tournament is June 8 to July 1 in Poland and Ukraine. Other than the World Cup, this is considered the hardest tournament to win because the field is made up of Europe’s top 16 teams.
So, who’s going to win? Let’s ask an elephant and a pig. Really. Remember Paul the Octopus, who got famous for making predictions during the 2010 South Africa World Cup? Well, Poland has decided to employ Citta the Elephant to predict match results, and Ukraine is using a so-far-unnamed pig. Neither animal has offered its picks yet, but here’s what we know.
Spain enters as the heavy favorite and will try to win an unprecedented third major title after taking the 2008 Euro championship and the 2010 World Cup. The Spanish all-star roster includes most of the players from South Africa, such as Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Iker Casillas.
Spain is in Group C along with Italy, Ireland and Croatia. Italy has been flying under the radar, but it could be a dark horse to make a deep run. The Italians are much improved from the 2010 World Cup and have lost just two of their past 10 matches. Gianluigi Buffon is still in goal, and Mario Balotelli and Sebastian Giovinco lead the attack.
Another team on the rebound from South Africa is France. Les Bleus seem fully recovered from their dreadful performance and near-mutiny in South Africa. New coach Laurent Blanc has made a huge difference, and captain Hugo Lloris seems to have the locker room intact. The French are 6-1-3 since 2011, and three of those wins were against Brazil, Germany and England at Wembley. Franck Ribery is back, and young guns Loic Remy and Karim Benzema can be lethal.
France is in Group D with Ukraine, Sweden and England.
Other than Spain, the team most likely to win Euro 2012 is Germany. The world saw in 2010 what the Germans could do, and that young squad is more experienced and hungry than ever. Bayern Munich’s players will be particularly motivated after their heartbreaking penalty-kick loss to Chelsea in the Champions League final.
Germany is in a difficult Group B, however, with Netherlands, Portugal and Denmark. The easiest group appears to be Group A — Poland, Greece, Russia, Czech Republic. Look for Russia, the 2008 semifinalist, to advance. The Russians have Igor Akinfeev as goalkeeper, and depth at all positions.
U.S. Roster Set
Closer to home, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann on Friday named his 23-man roster for the upcoming exhibition matches and World Cup qualifiers.
Five players are from Major League Soccer. Four each are based in Germany and Mexico, three in England, two each in Scotland and Denmark, one apiece in Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal.
“We have chosen the 23 players who are in the best form right now and ready to get the job done,” Klinsmann said. “These guys have put in a tremendous amount of hard work in the last 10 days, and they are hungry to get started with the matches.”
Midfielder Joe Corona, who plays in Mexico, is the only new player. He scored four goals in Olympic qualifying for the U.S. under-23 team, which did not wind up making the London Games.
The U.S. has exhibitions against Brazil on Wednesday at Landover, Md., and Canada on June 3 at Toronto. The team then turns its focus to qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. They open June 8 against Antigua and Barbuda at Tampa, then play at Guatemala on June 12.
Strikers vs. MLS
The Fort Lauderdale Strikers head to Palo Alto, Calif., on Tuesday to face the San Jose Earthquakes of MLS in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup, a knockout tournament that includes amateur and professional teams of all levels.
“This is a chance to make a name for themselves, to represent our league and prove we’re not that far behind those MLS guys,” said Strikers coach Daryl Shore, whose team plays in the second-tier NASL. “That said, we know we face a very tough challenge. San Jose is a very good, experienced team. But with a few lucky bounces, soccer can be a funny game. On any given night, the little guys can beat the big guys.”