The Daily Cal Guide to the Euros: Group A (The Eastern bloc party)

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Editor’s Note: This is the first in soccer correspondent Seung Y. Lee’s four-part preview of the Euros. Look for analyses of Groups B, C and D in the coming days.

Soccer is a never-ending and benevolent sport.

Once every two years, the game gives us either the World Cup or the Euros, the epilogues to a 10-month-long regular season that prolong the world’s never-ending thirst for more.

June 8 is only a few days away, but the hype and scrutiny surrounding the 16 participating teams seems to stretch the wait into eternity. Writers around the world are previewing the tournament, and as the Daily Cal soccer correspondent, I decided to throw my hat in the ring too.

This is your Daily Cal guide to Euro 2012.

Group A: Poland, Greece, Russia and Czech Republic

What are the odds that four of the six nations east of the Berlin Wall end up in the same group?

It’s not as low as getting hit by lightning, but seeing Poland, Russia, Greece, and the Czech Republic end up in the same group is fascinating. It’s like the Warsaw Pact reunion party, although capitalism has trumped communism for 22 years. I’m curious to see if any of the smaller three nations have bad blood left over against Russia. (And yes, I know Greece was not part of the Soviet bloc.)

This is by far the weakest group in the tournament. All four teams have near-equal chances of advancing to the quarterfinals. While Russia and Poland have more star power than the Czech Republic and Greece, they don’t have enough to set them apart from the pack. This group could be decided on one or two lucky goals or blown mistakes.

So, you know, like Russian roulette.

Best Game: Russia vs Czech Republic, June 8th
Lots of people are writing off the Czechs from advancing and writing in the Russians as the team to beat in this tournament. I beg to differ. While the Czechs really have no superstars other than goalkeeper Petr Cech, the team is loaded with veterans who played with each other for a decade. Although the Russians had a solid Euros campaign in 2008, I’m not sold they can do the same in 2012. The fate of Group A might be decided on the first day of the competition.

Poland

First rule of this guide: don’t follow the FIFA rankings. Co-host Poland has the lowest ranking of the 16 countries at No. 65, but the arithmetics of the FIFA rankings favor teams that have won a lot in qualifiers. Because Poland automatically qualified in the Euros as a host, their rankings took a beating.

The FIFA ranking arithmetics also favor teams who’ve done well over the past four years, and to be frank, Poland has been terrible over the past several years (Since 2007, Poland has fallen 38 spots. Ouch.)

But just in time for the Euros, a new young crop of football stars has emerged. With players like forward Robert Lewandowski and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny having breakout seasons in Germany and England, respectively, Poland has a high likelihood of shining right at home.

Poland’s Best Player: Jakub Błaszczykowski
It’s a good thing no one calls him by his last name.

Błaszczykowski, better known as Kuba, is the captain of the Polish national team and a symbol of the youth football renaissance in Poland. The 26-year old was pivotal in leading his club to its second consecutive German Bundesliga title. The crafty winger adds much-needed speed and playmaking ability to a team historically known for its physical, uncreative football style.

Keep an Eye On: Wojciech Szczesny
Poland has had a string of great goalkeepers over the years, but it seems that the Poles have found their best yet in Szczesny, the 22-year-old goalkeeper phenom. Szczesny — probably the least phonetic way to pronounce “Chesney” — became the starting goalkeeper for one of the biggest football clubs in the world at age 20 and now is considered one of the best shot blockers in the world. With the 6-foot-5 giant between the posts, the Polish defense has it easy in Euros 2012 — and likely for the next 15 to 20 years.

Odds of Survival: 70 percent. The host factor should give the young Poles a motivation boost to push them into the quarterfinals.

Greece

If Poland’s the hare with all its speed and youth, Greece is the old, slow tortoise of Group A. There’s nothing really flashy or exciting that draws non-native football fans to root for Greece. With few players making a splash internationally, Greece on paper is the weakest team in the entire tournament.

But it’s no different now than it was in 2004, when Greece shocked the football world by winning the Euros. With the last remnants of the 2004 team still lingering in the 2012 squad, this tournament can be the turning point of Greek football. If successful, the defensive-minded approach that defined Greek football will survive. If not, Greece will be anxious to turn to a new chapter in its history.

Greece’s Best Player: Giorgos Karagounis
Karagounis has been Mr. Greek football for the past 15 years, and it seems Euro 2012 will be his grand finale. The former Inter Milan player was crucial in Euro 2004, adding an offensive layer to a midfield focused on wearing opponents down with its energy and physicality. Eight years later, he still plays the crucial role of handling the ball and connecting the defensemen to the forwards.

The 35-year-old is on his last legs right now. But after playing 116 games for your homeland, who wouldn’t be?

Keep an Eye on: Sotiris Ninis
Is Ninis the future of Greek football? God, I hope so. Ninis is the most exciting player in Greece right now and will likely start as the creative attacking midfielder for the otherwise very dull Greek offense. The 22-year old, who was called the “Greek Kaka”, still has a lot to develop, as injuries constantly derailed his development. If there will be Greek goals in the tournament, Ninis will likely be in the middle of it all.

Odds of Survival: 30 percent. Midnight struck on the Greeks long ago. The 2004 magic is old news.

Russia

I’m hesitant to call Russia the hands-on favorite to win this group. While I can’t deny that the Russians are definitely making a lot of noise about their collective talents, it’s a lot more noise than substance.

Russia’s attacking corps are not as good as many make them out to be. Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko — their two best strikers — have declined a lot since Russia’s semifinal run in 2008. First of all, It’s foolish to use Russia’s success from four years ago to extrapolate into the future. Second, Russia was coached by Guus Hiddink, who is known to overachieve with his players in big tournaments.

I’m not dismissing Russia from advancing to the next round; They are possibly the most talented team in Group A. But Russia’s not all that great.

Russia’s Best Player: Andrei Arshavin
After Arshavin scored 4 goals against Liverpool in 2008, I thought he would become one of the best strikers in the world.

Well, that never fully materialized.

Arshavin’s not good enough to play regularly for his Arsenal team. The Russian captain is more of a leader and a symbol of his squad — not the main goalscoring threat. But since this is the best Russia has for now, we’ll just say Arshavin is Russia’s top player.

Keep an Eye On: Alan Dzagoev
The 2012 Dzagoev is what the 2008 Arshavin was all about: an explosive player that has barely scratched his full potential. The 21-year-old has already solidified his starting position as the attacking midfielder for Russia. As the best young talent in Eastern Europe, Dzagoev has a higher ceiling than Arshavin had, and he seems to be perfecting his game by leaps and bounds.

Odds of Survival: 55 percent. Despite its depth and superior talent, I’m not fully convinced that Russia can make it out alive in this group of surprises.

Czech Republic

Remember when the Czech Republic team was No. 2 in the world heading into the 2006 World Cup?

Probably not, because they silently fell out in the group stages that year. It’s impressive to consider that a nation of just over 10 million people was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Brazil and Germany. The Czechs unfortunately have since made a name for choking in big tournaments, most notably the 2008 Euros when they blew a 2-0 lead against Turkey in the last 15 minutes to lose 3-2.

The Czechs’ starting lineups are filled with veterans, nearly all aged between 27 and 31. But depth will be a huge problem, as the bench players are nowhere as talented and experienced as the starters. With a huge dearth of young Czech talent rising through the ranks, this might be the last time we see the Czechs in any major football tournaments for a while.

Czech Republic’s Best Player: Tomas Rosicky
The name is probably foreign for most of you, but if you have been a lifelong USA soccer fan, this should refresh some painful memories from the 2006 World Cup. Aside from a rocket leg that hasn’t been seen much since, “The Little Mozart” is a passing midfielder who can thread the ball past any defensive line. At age 31, this is likely Rosicky’s last international stage to conduct his masterpiece.

Keep an Eye On: Milan Baros
Despite having five forwards on the team, Baros is the only goal-scoring option on the squad. Because the other four forwards are either out of form, inexperienced or incompetent, Baros will likely be the lone striker in the lineups with no one to substitute for him. Thank goodness that Baros has at least been a prolific scorer for his nation — netting 41 goals in 88 appearances — or the Czechs would have trouble even finding the goalpost.

Odds of Survival: 45 percent. The veteran starting lineup could make the Czechs a dark horse candidate in Group A.

Check back tomorrow for a preview of Group B: Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and Portugal.