Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Champions League draw

‘Big ears’: Europe’s biggest prize, the Champions League trophy. 
This season’s champions league is still to reach the knockout stages and yet it has already managed to serve up some of the best football in recent memory. Group D for example, coined by many as the group of death, and for good reason, pitted the champions of Spain, England, Germany and Holland against one another, creating an almighty display of football over the six matchdays. Matchday one kicked off with one of the best ties of the tournament thus far as Spanish champions Real Madrid entertained Manchester City at the Bernabeu. When Aleksandar Kolarov’s freekick beat Iker Casillas in the 85th minute to put City 2-1 in the lead it looked as if they would go on to win the match but two quick fire goals from Benzema and Ronaldo ensured that all three points would remain at the Bernabeu and City would be going home with nothing. This was the first of three defeats for City in what can only be described as another disappointing performance in Europe’s elite competition as they became the first English team to fail to win a single group game. Real Madrid were joined in the knockout stages by Group D winners Borussia Dortmund who, having won four matches and drawn two, are one of only four teams that remain undefeated so far this season, along with Juventus, Malaga and fellow Germans Schalke. All four teams incidentally winners of their respective groups.

On top of the antics provided by Group D we had numerous other great European showings from the likes of Shaktar Donetsk, Celtic and Champions League debutants Malaga, all of whom showed their true European credentials and each fully deserve their place in the last 16. Displays of magic from Shaktar’s Willian, the resurgent return of the old lady of Juventus to European football, the strong display from the financially troubled, new boys Malaga, the impressive performance and result from Ajax as they beat Manchester City at home and the failure of Chelsea to progress to the knockout stage, making them the first holders to fail to make it out of their group have all added to the spectacle of this year’s Champions League.

Looking at the draw now and it has produced some very interesting ties indeed none more so than the matchup between Real Madrid and Manchester United, one that sees Cristiano Ronaldo make his first return to Old Trafford since leaving the club in 2009. This is perhaps the highlight of the round of 16, but the draw, held in Nyon, Switzerland, managed to produce many other mouth watering ties and incredibly the result of the draw turned out to be exactly the same as in the rehearsal draw the night before. One such tie was Ac Milan vs Barcelona, one that is a repeat of the knockout stages last year where the two went head to head in the Quarter Finals, which resulted in a 3-1 Barcelona win. As is expected nowadays Barcelona top the possession stats for the competition having garnered 75.5% thus far with Milan having averaged a somewhat lesser share of possession at 48.4%. You have to feel that with both Messi and Barcelona in such fine form Milan would have to produce something very special to progress to the quarter finals. The only thing that lingers over Barcelona is the unfortunate loss of Head Coach Tito Vilanova and it remains to be seen who will be drafted in to take his place for the time being. With the outstanding Stephan El Shaarawy firing on all cylinders and the potential of an unsettled Barcelona camp AC Milan will fancy they have a decent chance of getting a result. Celtic demonstrated to the world on matchday four that Barcelona are in fact beatable during their heroic display at Celtic Park that finished 2-1 and went a long way to seeing Celtic progress through to the knockout stages for the first time since 2008.
Adulation as Celtic beat Barcelona 2-1 at
 Celtic Park (@MatchPhotos).

Following their progression into the knockout stages, Celtic saw themselves drawn against a very impressive Juventus side, that managed to achieve an unbeaten season on their way to becoming the champions of Serie A last term. What’s most interesting about this tie is it pits the team that have had the most shots per game, Juventus (21) against the team that have conceded the most shots per game, Celtic (19.5). That is not to say that the goals will fly in, but it does imply that Celtic will have to be on top of their game defensively over both ties. Interestingly Celtic have also had the lowest amount of possession (33.7%) among the teams that remain in the competition and have spent the greatest amount of time in their own half (36%).

Although the return of Cristiano Ronaldo to Old Trafford makes the headlines of the tie between Real Madrid and Manchester United, it will be about much more than just Ronaldo. It sees Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho go head to head again for the first time since Jose’s Chelsea days as two of the World’s biggest clubs fight it out for a spot in the quarter finals. Manchester United made qualification to this round very easy, winning their group with two matches to spare, in what was considered a fairly easy group nonetheless. Real Madrid on the other hand had the most difficult of the groups, as already mentioned but managed to progress without any problem, scoring the highest number of goals whilst they did it. Domestic form between the two has been very different, Real Madrid have had a very poor start to the season and currently sit in third position, 13 points behind leaders Barcelona. Manchester United on the other hand are in the driver’s seat, top of the league, 6 points above champions Manchester City. It is hard to imagine Real Madrid can win the league from this position and therefore it is likely that Jose Mourinho will put all of his eggs into one basket and focus on Champions League success. Manchester United are a tougher obstacle than he would have liked at this stage of the competition, but Madrid are still favourites to progress and you feel Manchester United would need something special to come out victorious against Real Madrid over two legs.

The Special One: Can Robin van Persie inspire Manchester United to victory over Real Madrid? (@MatchPhotos).
Arsenal complete the trio of British teams through to the knockout stages making it past the group stages for a thirteenth season in a row. Arsenal will face last season’s runners-up Bayern Munich who have started the season in great form in this year’s Bundesliga having conceded a meagre 7 goals from 17 matches.  Arsenal have had somewhat of a shaky season and if they are to avoid a third successive elimination at this stage of the competition they will need to pick up their game significantly. Arsenal are well known for liking to get the ball on the deck and play football but it is Bayern Munich who have the much better statistics in this area at this stage. Bayern Munich have had an average of 61% possession thus far and have occupied the opposition half for the largest amount of time, jointly with Barcelona (35%).

Paris Saint Germain’s return to the Champions League saw them collect the largest tally of points throughout the group stage, collecting 15 points from five wins and a single loss. Not only that but superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic leads the way in the assists chart having laid on 5 assists for his team mates whilst becoming the first player to score for six different teams in the Champions League. PSG will face Valencia in a match that truly could go either way. Valencia have never been an easy team to beat and have some recent pedigree at this level, unlike PSG. A lot also hinges on whether or not Zlatan manages to turn up on the big European stage which he has failed to do in the past. This match could go either way but on paper you’d have to say it favours Paris Saint Germain’s collection of superstars.

Also making their return to the knockout stage this year are Borussia Dortmund, matched up against Shaktar Donetsk. Shaktar have had a very good tournament thus far, playing their part in sending defending champions Chelsea into the Europa League. Star man Willian has been exceptional, especially in his displays against Chelsea, racking up four goals and two assists on his way to helping his team progress. Dortmund have also had an impressive campaign so far having topped their group containing Manchester City, Real Madrid and Ajax, whilst remaining unbeaten. Both teams play a similar brand of attacking; flowing football and each possess some hugely talented footballers. Expect this to be one of the best fixtures of the knockout stage.
Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion is never an easy place to get a result. (@MatchPhotos).
Perhaps the most surprising member of the last 16 line-up comes in the form of Malaga who qualified for the Champions League for the first time in their history and thereafter we forced to sell many of their best players; the likes of Santi Cazorla and Salomon Rondon to raise the funds needed to save the club. Despite these evident troubles they managed to top a group containing AC Milan, Zenit St Petersburg and Anderlecht whilst remaining undefeated. Their opponents Porto, despite losing their two main goalscorers in the past two seasons; Rademal Falcao and Hulk, still possess a strong squad that knows how to win these types of games. They have managed to keep hold of midfield linchpin Joao Moutinho, despite renewed interest from Tottenham and many other potential suitors from around Europe. Of the players left in the tournament only Xavi (757) has completed more passes thus far than Joao Moutinho (493). The highlight of this matchup is likely to be the two highly talented youngsters Isco and James Rodriguez, Isco in particular has been exceptional for Malaga throughout their campaign so far.

The remaining match sees Galatasaray hosting Group B winners Schalke. Galatasaray, who finished second to  Manchester United having qualified ahead of Cluj on head to head managed to beat Manchester United on matchday five, albeit a weakened Manhcester United side as they were ensured top spot after victory in matchday four. Galatasary’s Burak Yilmaz is also currently joint leading goalscorer with Cristiano Ronaldo, both of whom are on 6 goals. Schalke meanwhile were unbeaten on their way to beating Arsenal to top spot of Group B and although Schalke have showed some promising form in the Champions League they have been having a torrid time of it on the domestic front having collected only two points from their last six games. As a result Manager Huub Stevens was replaced by Under 17’s coach Jens Keller. Schalke will hope that Jens Keller has what it takes to quickly turn around the fortunes of the club and to get them back to winning ways after the winter break. A key factor for Schalke will be holding on to star striker Klaas Jan Huntelaar and other key players such as Lewis Holtby and Julian Draxler during the January transfer window. On Champions League form alone you would fancy Schalke to progress to the next round but anything can happen in the Champions League and frequently does.
The Hunter: Schalke will have to keep hold of prized asset Klaas Jan Huntelaar if they are to progress.
This seasons Champions League knockout stage contains representatives from 9 different nations and has already displayed why it is Europe’s elite club competition. Barcelona and Real Madrid stand out as the top two contenders but every team left in the competition is there on merit and stands a great chance of progressing through the tournament. There are certainly six teams at least that stand a reasonable chance of going all the way but one thing is for sure, we are in for some brilliant football over the next six months. Enjoy.


Wednesday, 11 July 2012

St George's Park - the key to the future

As the keys to St George’s Park were finally handed over to the FA last week it seems only right to explore how this £100 million project is expected to turn around the fortunes of English football, enabling us to compete with the very best in the world and perhaps even emulate the iconic success of ’66.

St George’s Park will soon be the home of English football, a ‘centre of excellence’ for all of England’s representative teams. It will be the base for the England’s men’s team but will also be home to England’s disabled side, women’s side and the youth teams at every level. More importantly though St George’s Park will be central to improving the quality of English coaches and increasing the numbers of English coaches in the game. Coaching is seen as the ‘golden thread’ leading to international success and when you look at the number of English coaches in relation to that of Spain, Germany, Italy and France, four of the most successful countries in Europe, it becomes clear why we haven’t won an international tournament for 46 long years. In the latest UEFA report England had 2,769 registered coaches holding the highest available coaching qualifications (UEFA’s B, A and Pro badges) whilst Germany had 34,970, Italy 29,420, Spain 23,995 and France 17,588. Is it really any wonder that we are unable to compete with the very best nations when we only have a fraction of the number of top class coaches they have? Without a large network of top coaches how are we supposed to find, nurture and develop youngsters into world class players? How are we supposed to create a philosophy that dictates how all English players should play when we have a distinct lack of qualified coaches to implement that philosophy? And how can we teach our players the technical ability that is required to be successful at the very top when we only have one UEFA qualified coach for every 812 people playing the game in our country?

To be successful on the international stage you need to have world class players that are capable of winning the games. Spain for example have Xavi and Iniesta, two of the worlds very best players, with a support cast of numerous extremely talented footballers, all of which possess extraordinary technical ability and composure on the ball, willing to receive the ball and pass it on anywhere on the field. England however lag far behind in this sense, resting most of our hopes on our one truly world class player, Wayne Rooney. The technical ability of our players is far below what it should be and this was proven all too clearly at Euro 2012. Roy Hodgson knew it and as a result opted to play a disciplined defensive game focused around conceding very few goals and hoping that we could nick a goal or two at the other end. Nevertheless whenever we were in possession of the ball we lacked composure and the technical ability to create many chances. Against Italy in the Quarter-final we misplaced almost one third of our passes, on top of the fact that we attempted less than half the amount of passes Italy did. This was telling and ultimately fatal as it led to a miserly total of just 4 chances created. Italy on the other hand created 31 chances and although neither team were able to put their chances away, Italy, guided by the majestic Andrea Pirlo demonstrated just how large the gulf in class between the two sides was.

 Herein lies the problem; we have a distinctly average crop of players that struggle to maintain possession of the football, even against weaker teams we seem to struggle to take hold of the game. In both of our pre-tournament friendlies we ended up seeing less of the ball than the opposition, Norway and Belgium, ranked 24 and 53 respectively, both of which failed to qualify for Euro 2012. Seeing less of the ball means fewer chances can be created and when you do get the ball the pressure is on to do something with it. Technical ability again crops up as it is the cornerstone of flowing, attacking football and without it, as England have proven, it is very hard to achieve anything. Germany had a similar problem back in 2004 that culminated in the sacking of Rudi Voller from his position as national coach and a complete overhaul of German football. Jurgen Klinsmann was drafted to lead the ‘German revolution’ deciding upon a new philosophy for the German national team and leading them back in the right direction. The ‘German revolution’ is now bearing fruit with Germany having made it to the final and two semi-finals of the last three major international tournaments, not to mention the host of very impressive youngsters that are playing at the very top level of European football and the many that are closely following in their footsteps. A German-esque revolution is something English football is in desperate need of, not mimicking the German way but taking the idea of reform and implementing it into the English game.

This is where St George’s Park comes into play. It is England’s answer to Spain’s La Masia and France’s Clairefontaine, it is the first step on the road to change and one that sets the foundations for the future. St George’s Park should create a much larger and stronger base of coaches across England with the FA hoping the number of coaches across England will more than double by 2018 to almost 250,000 across all levels, thus enabling us to better educate more youngsters that hold the potential to become great players of the future. In conjunction with the opening of St George’s Park the FA created a 275-page document, entitled ‘The Future Game’ which includes guidelines and requirements for the future develop of players and the new playing and coaching philosophy of the England national teams.

Now we must wait for the FA to officially open St George’s Park and from there it will be a good few years before we see the true rewards from the investment. By no means will it result in a sudden turnaround in fortunes but it should greatly improve the foundations of English football, creating a stepping stone for future investments and developments. Similarly St George’s Park alone will not transform the state of English football; there are many other areas which needed amending, chief among them the relationship between the FA and Premier League. It is said that to have a successful national league the national team will suffer and it couldn’t be truer than in England. The Premier League is considered as the best league in world football and that is largely a result of the vast numbers of foreign players that now play in our league. It is easier, and usually cheaper to buy a good player from the continent than it is to buy a young English player or to develop your own, which has greatly affected the number of top youth players being developed in England. This is just one of many difficulties that face English football but at least now, with the arrival of St George’s Park it is clear we are making a change for the better and a brighter future for English football lies on the horizon. I am not saying we are going to win a World Cup or European Championship within the next decade but I am more confident now than ever before that we might just see an English victory at an international tournament in our lifetime time.


Thursday, 29 December 2011

Red and Blue: a review of the season so far

This coming weekend not only marks the end of 2011, a very eventful year indeed, but it also marks the half way point of our football season which has been every bit as eventful. After 179 games and 509 goals it seems only logical to rewind 5 months, back to August to review the season so far, starting from the very beginning.

The likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea all made big money signings during this summer’s transfer window, just as you would expect of the big teams. Manchester City spent in excess of £80 million on Sergio Aguero, Samir Nasri and co adding to their ever increasing transfer bill that is likely to continue to increase at a substantial rate for some time yet.  Contrastingly Manchester United invested in youth players, bringing in Ashley Young, Phil Jones and Athletico Madrid hot shot David De Gea, to keep goal in place of the imperious Edwin van Der Sar at Old Trafford. Arsene Wenger was left with little choice but to spend during the transfer window after losing Cesc Fabregas, Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri. Wenger brought in a host of players to strengthen his squad including Mikel Arteta, Gervinho and German international Per Mertesacker. Elsewhere Chelsea continued their re-building process by adding Spanish magician Juan Mata and Belgian youngster Romelu Lukaku to the furniture at Stamford Bridge for a combined fee in the region of £45 million. Liverpool continue to invest in new players under the guidance of Kenny Dalglish spending big on Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing.

Although football is becoming a very expensive business and it is often necessary to overpay to get the top players it is occasionally the ‘less expensive’ players however that have the greatest impact on a team. Take for example, FWA Footballer of the Year Scott Parker who moved to Tottenham this summer in a deal worth roughly £5 million. Since his move across London from relegated West Ham he has given Spurs that extra bit of stability in midfield giving more freedom to the creative players in the team when going forward. This has enabled Spurs to mount a serious title challenge this season, which currently sees them sitting pretty in third place, 4 points clear of Chelsea heading into the new year. Fellow newcomer and top scorer this season Emmanuel Adebayor seems to be the answer to Harry Redknapp’s problem striker position, contributing 9 goals and 6 assists to Tottenham’s title push.

Having scored 14 goals in his last 13 appearances after being signed on a free transfer from West Ham surely makes Demba Ba one of the signings of the season. He has been integral to Newcastle’s brilliant if not surprising start to the season providing more than half of their 25 goals this season. Only Robin van Persie has scored more goals this season in the Premier League. Whilst Demba Ba has been providing the firepower up front the key to Newcastle’s strong start was a well organised defence that had only conceded 15 goals from their first 14 games. However an injury to Steven Taylor led to major defensive problems resulting in Newcastle conceding seven goals in three matches, four against Norwich City, outlining the importance Newcastle placed on their defence. It will therefore be interesting to see how Newcastle fare in the new year with Steven Taylor out for the rest of the season and Demba Ba on international duty with Senegal at the African Cup of Nations during January.

Newcastle striker Demba Ba after his hat-trick against Blackburn at St James's Park
The transfer window is open for  two months allowing clubs plenty of time to strengthen their squads, but somehow transfer deadline day always seems to be packed full of action, often as a result of panic buying following  a disappointing pre-season. Keeping with deadline day tradition we had a flurry of transfers this season, most notably from Arsene Wenger and Andre Villas Boas with Wenger signing Mikel Arteta and Yossi Benayoun among others and AVB signing Raul Meireles from Liverpool. Leaving major signings until the last minute affected the form of both clubs. More so Arsenal but nonetheless Chelsea’s campaign didn’t get off to the smoothest of starts either with 4 defeats to their name already. Adding to a poor pre-season that involved an under par performance in the Emirates Cup, in which they finished third after draws to both PSG and Boca Juniors, Arsenal started the season in terrible form, losing to Liverpool, Manchester United, Blackburn and Tottenham, leading many fans to call for the end of Arsene Wenger’s 15 year reign at the helm of Arsenal. Andre Villas Boas’ start to Premier League life probably wasn’t as smooth as he would have hoped for as he has thus far failed to hit the heights Roman Abramovich would have been expecting, especially considering the amount he has invested into the club over the past few years. If it wasn’t for the €15 million Abramovich paid to release the young Portuguese manager from his contract at Porto, at the same time making him the most expensive coach in history, I fear his tenure at Chelsea may have been as short as his predecessors. Despite what can only be described as below par starts for both Chelsea and Arsenal they lie fourth and fifth respectively. In comparison Manchester United did their shopping early, giving their new signings plenty of time to settle into the squad during their pre-season tour of the States. This had the desired effect as United triumphed against rivals CIty in the Community Shield, before going on a sparkling run of form during the first few months of the season. All three new signings hit the ground running; Ashley Young showed his class with some stunning displays during United’s free scoring displays at the start of the season. Phil Jones has proved a revelation, featuring in all but two of United’s league games this season and David De Gea has shown he has the quality to become a world class ‘keeper in the future. Manchester United currently sit second on goal difference to Manchester City.

 Newcastle have slipped to seventh following their recent dip in form. Liverpool lie just above Newcastle in sixth place looking like a much better team this season under the stewardship of club legend Kenny Dalglish. Rounding off the top half are Stoke (8), West Bromwich Albion (9) and Everton (10). We have come to expect Tony Pulis’ Stoke to feature in the top half of the table joining the ever reliant David Moyes and his resilient Everton side. If Roy Hodgson can keep up his fine job at West Brom they will most certainly lose their rather unfortunate reputation as the ‘yo-yo club’.

Barclays Premier League table as of 29/12/2011
Norwich City sit just below Everton in eleventh place after an impressive start to the campaign from Paul Lambert and his men. Often newly promoted teams find it hard to come by goals which is why they end up going straight back down to the Championship. Norwich however have been able to rely on a very successful partnership between Grant holt and Steve Morison, which has produced 15 goals thus far and has made Norwich by far the top scoring newly promoted team this season. In fact, only the top 5 have scored more goals than Norwich City this term. However if it wasn’t for their strength in attack they would be in the midst of the relegation battle as they have conceded roughly the same number of goals as the bottom six. One point below them sit Aston Villa in twelfth, who, truth be told have struggled since parting ways with Martin O’Neill who led them to three consecutive sixth place finishes. Nonetheless you would expect them to be in the top half of the table come the end of the season especially as they finally seem to be getting to grips with life after Ashley Young and Stewart Downing. In thirteenth place are Fulham who have had a rather subdued start to the season under Martin Jol. The one bright spark in an otherwise average season for Fulham has been the form of their American talisman Clint Dempsey who has once again shown why he is arguably the best footballer to come from the United States, having contributed 7 goals and 4 assists to Fulham’s cause already this season. Newly promoted and the only Welsh team to ever make it to the Premier League, Swansea sit in fourteenth, one place above Sunderland.  Swansea have proved a breath of fresh air to the Premier League as Brendan Rodgers has got them playing a stylish possession game that has enabled The Swans to average 56.2% possession so far this season. Manchester City and Arsenal are the only teams to have a higher average possession figure this season at 57.8% and 59.3% respectively. This is very impressive for a newly promoted side that have come out every weekend and stuck to their passing philosophy even against the ‘big’ teams. The Swans have averaged 544 passes per game this term which has led some to hail them as the Premier League’s Barcelona, bringing with it the nickname ‘Swanselona’.

After only two wins from his first thirteen games Steve Bruce became the first managerial casualty of the season after being dismissed as manager by Sunderland after 98 games in charge spanning more than 2 years. That gave Martin O’Neill the perfect opportunity to rejoin the Premiership as manager of his beloved Sunderland and has since led The Black Cats to two wins, and seven points from his first four games in charge. The bottom half of the table is propped up by Queens Park Rangers (16), Wolverhampton Wanderers (17), Wigan Athletic (18), Bolton Wanderers (19) and Blackburn Rovers (20). Many had tipped either Steve Kean or Owen Coyle to win ‘the sack race’ after both Blackburn and Bolton made dreadful starts to their seasons. Bolton have lost 14 games and won 4 this season, continuing their current record of consecutive games without a draw, which currently stands at 34. Blackburn however have only lost 11 games, but have drawn 5 and only won 2, one of which was a giant victory against Arsenal. As with both other newly promoted teams, QPR look as though they have what it takes to stay up this season, with a decent squad, manager and plenty of cash available for Neil Warnock to dip into the transfer market if necessary. As ever it looks like the relegation battle will be going down to the wire come the end of the season with as many as 7 or 8 teams fighting for survival.

Life for English teams hasn’t been so rosy in European competition with Tottenham, Manchester United and Manchester City all failing to progress further than the group stage in their respective compeititons. City were welcomed into the Champions League for the first time by being drawn into a group with Napoli, Villarreal and German giants Bayern Munich. A third placed finish behind Munich and Napoli meant they would join rivals United in the Europa League whilst Chelsea and Arsenal both progressed through to the knockout stage of the competition. Tottenham also failed to make it out of their group meaning they were knocked out of the Europa League all together which could turn out to be advantageous as we move into the second half of the season, with Spurs chasing a return to the Champions League.

2011 also played host to the 20,000th Premier League goal, scored by Aston Villa youngster Marc Albrighton against Arsenal on 21st December. Minutes earlier in Manchester United’s match against Fulham, Ryan Giggs scored his first Premier League goal of the season meaning he has now scored in every one of the 20 seasons since the Premier League replaced the old Division One.

Derby day scarves: a tale of two Manchesters
So eighteen games down, twenty to go and United and City top the table with 45 points apiece with an identical record of 14 wins, 3 draws and one loss. The only thing that separates the pair is City’s superior goal difference which came as a result of the thrashing they dished out to United at Old Trafford back in October. Chelsea have already fallen 11 points behind and AVB has recently said the title is out of their grasp. Although Arsene Wenger is not likely to give up on the title quite as easily as AVB has done it will require a valiant effort from his Arsenal side to bring the title back to London. It seems local rivals Tottenham are now fly the flag for London, being the only team realistically within reach of the two Manchester clubs, 7 points behind with a game in hand. A lot has been said of Tottenham’s ‘title challenge’ and whether or not they have what it takes to bring the first division title back to White Hart Lane for the first time since 1960-61 season. Until Spurs can prove their title credentials it looks to be a battle between the Red and Blue of Manchester.

Rest assured we are in for a spectacular year of football ahead. Happy New Year.


Friday, 9 December 2011

Implications of the Euro draw

However painful it was watching the build up to the much anticipated Euro 2012 draw, it was certainly worth the wait. The draw threw out some treats and also some very interesting clashes, altogether making for a very appealing summer of 2012 in Poland and Ukraine. Group B, branded ‘the group of death’ is certainly the highlight of the draw, pitting the World Cup finalists, Netherlands against the third seeds, Germany, a Portugal team sporting one of the most in form forwards on the planet, Cristiano Ronaldo and a vastly improved Denmark squad, spurred on by the phenomenal talent of youngster Christian Eriksen. All four teams have every chance of progressing through to the quarter finals, thus making for a very competitive group, showcasing some of the finest talent from across Europe.

Germany has the most impressive record going into the competition with ten wins from ten qualifying games, made more impressive by their youthful squad. Germany will turn up to next summer’s competition with a squad far superior to the one that humiliated England last summer and finished a respectable third place to Spain and the Netherlands in South Africa 2010. You have to remember Germany’s squad for the World Cup 2010 was a squad largely made up of the very successful under 21’s squad, meaning it was a fairly inexperienced squad. Since then however key players such as Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Thomas Muller, Mario Gomez, Mats Hummels and Manuel Neuer have established themselves at some of the best clubs in Europe; learning from and competing against the best players in Europe whilst gaining valuable experience that can help Germany hit the heights it should be reaching. These young players make up the core of the German national team, combining with experienced players such as Bastian Schweinsteiger and Phillip Lahm to build a solid squad capable of challenging for the Euro 2012 crown. The final piece in the jigsaw is their 19 year old sensation, Mario Gotze, fresh from winning the Bundesliga title with a youthful Borussia Dortmund, whilst also being awarded ‘Golden Boy 2011’, following in the footsteps of the likes of Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney and Sergio Aguero, all to have won this prestigious award. The man in charge of this exciting squad, Joachim Low, certainly knows his stuff too, cementing Germany’s status as real contenders.

Mario Gotze of Borussia Dortmund - 'Golden Boy' 2011

Neighbours Netherlands also have a host of world class players; Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben the pick of the bunch. The Netherlands don’t have the strongest squad in the competition, but as always will definitely be there or thereabouts come the end of the competition. The fitness of premier league duo Robin van Persie and Rafael Van der Vaart will be key as they will be relied upon to produce the goals. Seventh seeds Portugal, although heavily reliant of Cristiano Ronaldo, will forever be a danger in big competitions and could cause Germany and Netherlands problems. And finally Denmark, already written off by most, are a handy team with a point to prove and nothing to lose.

In comparison then Group A seems a breeze. Of course, there are no easy games when it comes to the European Championships, but the four teams that make up Group A: Poland, Greece, Czech Republic and Russia are unlikely to still be in the competition come 1st July. Saying that Greece stunned the world by winning Euro 2004, so it is possible for any one of the 16 teams  that have qualified to go on and win the competition. You would fancy Russia to progress through to the last eight, after that it is harder to predict as any one of the three teams left over stands a fair chance of progressing to the knockout stages. 

If there is one team that would love to win this tournament more than any other it may be Spain. Outright favourites, and for obvious reason, the current World and European champions will be vying for a place in history by becoming the first team ever to win back to back European championships. For this however they will first have to navigate through a tricky group consisting of Croatia, minnows Republic of Ireland and four time world champions Italy. Although Italy has an ageing squad and disappointed at last year’s world cup their pedigree in big competitions speaks for itself and is the reason they are the most successful team in Europe having won four World Cups and a European championship. Realistically it would only be a disastrous campaign that would stop Spain advancing from their group, through to the quarter finals. It is expected that Spain should finish top of their group, which could, god forbid result in a clash with the mighty Three Lions.

This leads perfectly onto Group D: co-hosts Ukraine, England, France and Sweden. From an England perspective it is a tricky group although the expectation will be to qualify, preferably top of the group to avoid a potential quarter final meeting with the World Champions, Spain.

We can beat Spain we’ve done it once we can do it again.

It isn’t that simple, unfortunately. Spain are a whole different animal when there is silverware on offer. In the friendly at Wembley England played a very lacklustre Spanish side that didn’t really get out of third gear. Not to take anything away from the result for which England played admirably well in defence and on the counter, but Spain have a lot more to offer than what they showed at Wembley back in November. Assuming that Spain do finish top of their group, England will need to top their group too in order to avoid that unwanted quarter final showdown. That is easier said than done. A re-energised French outfit, led by manager Laurent Blanc will be looking to put an abysmal world cup behind them and show the rest of Europe that they are still one of the top teams. Laurent Blanc has created a solid defence that only conceded four goals in the entire qualifying stage. Youngster Yann M’Vila is one to watch, touted the next Claude Makelele and for good reason, he controls the French midfield enabling the likes of Karim Benzema and Frank Ribery to press forward in search of goals. France will undoubtedly make it hard for England as will familiar rivals Sweden, led by powerhouse Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Although Ibrahimovic can be disappointing from time to time, on his day he is one of the best forwards on the planet and will most certainly be a handful for England’s defence, whether that be John Terry, Gary Cahill, Phil Jones, Phil Jagielka or any other defenders in Capello’s book. Another helping hand for Capello and his men is the fact that UEFA have very kindly reduced Wayne Rooney’s ban to two matches, meaning he will be available for the final group game against Ukraine. With recent performances things are looking on the up for England giving us good reason to be optimistic ahead of the ever approaching finals next summer.