When it comes to international football (alright, alright, soccer) tournaments, there are three certainties: One team will overperform, one will vastly underperform, and England will lose a heartbreaker, but more on that later. First, let's run through the groups:
Group A - Czech Republic, Greece, Poland, Russia
Many times when a poorly-ranked host nation is seeded, they end up in a killer group (think South Africa, hosts of the 2010 World Cup drawing Uruguay, France, and Mexico). In that light, Poland and its supporters should be overjoyed at their draw. With Lewandowski leading the line, they may have a shot of advancing, but with an Arsenal keeper as your last line of defense, qualification is guaranteed to be an adventure.
Russia is the clear class of the group, but beyond that it is really anybody’s game. Greece will play solid in the back, favoring a strong defense with timely scoring, while the Czech Republic seems poised to falter with little depth. Petr Čech may be out of miracles after seeing Chelsea through penalties in the Champions League Final, but hopefully the Czechs won't need one in order to progress.
Predicted finish: Russia, Poland, Czech Republic, Greece
An aging Čech and Milan Baroš are not enough to overcome an impressive Russian side and a hungry Polish team playing off the home crowd.
Group B - Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Portugal
Ah, the Group of Death. There’s one in every tournament and Euro 2012 is no different. Every game in this group will be an entertaining affair with points and goal differential at a premium. Netherlands and Germany seem to be the class of the group, but with Ronaldo and his 46 club goals at their disposal, Portugal will be a threat. Denmark would appear to be the minnows of the group, but they could probably ease to victory in a much weaker Group A.
Three weeks ago I would have picked Germany and Netherlands to cruise but on the heels of Germany’s embarrassing 5-3 defeat to Switzerland and their offensive offense as of late, combined with the Dutch's late loss to lowly Bulgaria, things may not be what they seem. These sides will either learn from their failures or suffer early exits and the embarrassment of a failed knock-out stage qualification. Not exactly what's expected from two apparent contenders for the continental crown.
Predicted finish: Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Portugal
Some players just don’t have it when they put on the national team shirt (et tu, Messi?) and Ronaldo is no exception. Good looks don’t win games; good looking football does. Portugal will be the surprise underachievers while Germany and the Netherlands will learn from bad defeats and move on to the knock-out stages.
Group C - Croatia, Ireland, Italy, Spain
Match the FIFA ranking with each side in this group: 1, 8, 12, 18. If you guessed Spain, Croatia, Italy at 12, and Ireland at 18, you’re right! Surprised? You should be given that Croatia’s last decent win was against Turkey and they were thrashed 3-1 by a mediocre Sweden at the end of February. Just another lesson that FIFA rankings mean very little and are easily manipulated for a road win. (England picked up 540 points for a performance against Norway that netted a 1-0 win and caused a sudden spike in clinics from London to Newcastle full of supporters concerned they had contracted mono. Turns out they were just bored.)
Bottom line, the best teams will progress barring injury or racial epithets leading to undeserving bookings of the recipients (thank you, Mssr. Platini). The real wild card in this group is Ireland. They are organized and defensive under manager Giovanni Trapattoni, and are looking for a measure of redemption from Henry’s Goal-That-Wasn’t which denied them qualification for the 2010 World Cup. While a little luck is never out of the question, Robbie Keane and his last place LA Galaxy form will do little to worry either Italy or Spain.
Predicted finish: Spain, Italy, Croatia, Ireland
Nikica Jelavić, Niko Kranjčar, and Luka Modrić will provide an impressive attack, but a dearth of class in defense and central midfield will ultimately doom Croatia and their fantastic kits to only three games in the tournament. Side bets are now being accepted on how long it takes Mario Balotelli to storm off the pitch or plunge Italy into a Nicolas Anelka-esque event ,which will doom the Azzurri to underachievement in successive tournaments.
Group D - England, France, Sweden, Ukraine
The weakest side in this group is easily Ukraine. This is a side with really no claim to the tournament except as co-hosts with Poland and will do little to worry the back four of any of the other teams. Andriy Shevchenko, he of 6 goals in 16 games in the Ukrainian league (not exactly known for it’s classy defenders), has never been the same since a failed big money move to Chelsea which saw him crumble under the pressure harder thank Mark Sanchez in a 2-minute drill. Sweden seemed destined for a sweetheart pick here. A favorable group, a favorable travel schedule (0 miles, as all games are in Kiev as opposed to the 3200 England must travel between 3 games) and the sleeper golden boot candidate in Zlatan Ibrahimović, Sweden could be set to impress in a big way if they survive the group.
France, meanwhile, are looking for redemption after their showing in South Africa where they crumbled, mutinied, and proceeded to lose to the minnow hosts in their final game, heading home in disgrace. Time (and new managers) heal all wounds, and they ride an impressive 20-game unbeaten streak heading into the tournament, possessing top talent and depth in all positions but keeper. In a short tournament, and in a group with plenty of goal scorers, that dearth could prove to be their downfall. England enter the tournament in utter disarray, ravaged by injuries, manager resignations, and racism controversies (I’m looking at you, John Terry). Despite all this, Joe Hart’s fine form, Steven Gerrard running the midfield, Andy Carroll’s late season resurgence, and the quality of Ashley Young may be enough to carry the Three Lions through.
Predicted finish: Sweden, England, France, Ukraine
England survive Rooney’s suspension with draws against France and Sweden and beat Ukraine to go through while Sweden surprise everyone and win a surprisingly tight group.
Round of 8:
Russia v Netherlands: The Dutch show their class here and advance, though the Russians will make a game of it.
Poland v Germany: Both sides mistake the game for a WWII reenactment, though the result remains the same. Germany advance easily, overwhelming the Polish hosts.
Spain v England: Every part of my Three-Lion loving heart wants to pick England here, and that's exactly what I’m going to do. A fresh Wayne Rooney combined with the vaunted “No-One-Believes-In-Us!” factor lead England to the shock upset of the tournament.
Italy v Sweden: Two words: Zlatan. Ibrahimović. Mario Balotelli throws a fit after failing to pull off an ill-advised back heel, and 10-man Italy suffer an early exit at the hands of the Swedes.
Russia v England: England overwhelm the Russians and advance to the final, whipping the country into a state of frenzy and getting people to believe in a side that was written off well before the tournament began.
Germany v Sweden: Sweden’s run ends, but not before Ibrahimović cements his status as Golden Boot winner. Germany win a close game to advance to a grudge match final against England.
Germany v England: Remember, there are three certainties in every major tournament. Someone will underachieve (Portugal). Someone will overachieve (Sweden). And England will lose a heartbreaker on penalties.