Editor’s Note: This is the second in soccer correspondent Seung Y. Lee’s four-part preview of the Euros. Today he previews Group B: Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and Portugal. Look for analyses of Groups C and D in the coming days. For Seung’s preview of Group A, click here.
I see European football in tiers. The top tier is composed of Europe’s seven best national teams: England, France, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal (SPEFING, for short). The second tier is composed of the next top seven national teams: Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Ireland, Croatia, Russia and Turkey.
Group B has three of the SPEFINGs and Denmark, arguably the best team in the second tier. The group has two title contenders in Netherlands and Germany, with Portugal led by Europe’s best player, Cristiano Ronaldo.
In the end two nations will blame the unfair draw for killing their tournament dreams, and two will have to be satisfied with surviving the lion’s den.
Best Game: Netherlands vs Germany, June 13
One of my favorite sports books is called “Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football” written by David Winner. Winner devotes an entire chapter to highlighting the rivalry between Netherlands and Germany, the greatest rivalry in all of Europe.
While both superpowers have clashed many times in the past, the most important match was the 1974 World Cup Final, a match the Netherlands lost to West Germany, 2-1. The day of the World Cup final is called “De moeder aller nederlagen” (“The mother of all defeats”). A Dutch playwright once called the loss “the biggest trauma that happened to Holland in the twentieth century, apart from the floods of 1953 (which killed 2,500 people) and World War II.” Other Dutchmen likened the defeat’s trauma to how the Americans felt after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Thirty-eight years later, the mutual dislike for the opposing side still exists passionately on both sides. In a tournament where the two teams are leading title contenders, where the loser faces a serious chance of humiliating early elimination, you can bet this game will be treated like the Euro final itself.
The Dutch will not attempt to defeat their opponents by stopping them from scoring; They’ll win by outscoring their opponents. That’s the beauty of Dutch football. Netherlands is stockpiled on offense. The Dutch have a bevy of weapons at their disposal, including leading goal scorers from two different leagues — Robin van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
With all Netherlands’ bench talent, it must be fun being manager Bert van Marwijk. Is Dirk Kuyt, the ever-industrious right winger, looking tired at the 70-minute mark? We can either go with Luciano Narsingh, the winger who led the Dutch league in assists, or Ibrahim Afellay, the nimble-footed midfielder who plays for FC-freaking-Barcelona.
But defense wins championships, and that’s Netherlands’ main question. Can they repeat their 2010 success with another average defensive lineup? Having goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg helps, but can the defense stop the attacks of Cristiano Ronaldo, Christian Eriksen and Mario Gomez?
Netherlands’ Best Player: Wesley Sneijder
This award can really go to any of the other attacking players (van Persie, Huntelaar, Dirk Kuyt, Arjen Robben, or Rafael van der Vaart) but Sneijder is the conductor that keeps the Clockwork Orange ticking. Despite being only 5-foot-7, Sneijder is always the biggest man on the pitch. There’s no Dutch possession without Sneijder touching the ball and directing its movement.
Keep an Eye On: Arjen Robben
He’s the magic man in the Netherlands lineup. When you see goals like this, this or especially this, can you disagree? He is a near-perfect winger with blazing speed and supreme technical ability. There will be at least one Robben goal in this tournament that will wow people.
Odds of Survival: 75 percent. The Dutch should be able to get past the Portuguese and the Danes, as long as their thinner-than-expected defensive dam holds up.
Of the four teams sucked into this group of death, Denmark has to be the most tragic. Boasting a well-rounded mix of youth and experience led by 20-year-old midfielder Christian Eriksen, the Danes were the favorite dark horse before the group draw. 2012 was supposed to mark the return of the once-revered Danish Dynamite, just like when Denmark shocked the continent by winning the 1994 Euros.
But unless they can pull off a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, Denmark’s time in the Euros will last just three games.
Denmark’s Best Player: Christian Eriksen
About once every five to seven years, the Scandinavian countries produce a world-class superstar. In the late 90s it was Norway’s baby-faced goal machine Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. In the mid-to-late 2000s it was Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a perfect striker flawed by his arrogance and douchebaggery.
This year Christian Eriksen is The Scandinavian One. Playing for Ajax Amsterdam, he is already a superstar in the Netherlands for his nimble footwork and razor-sharp passes. (See this video of Eriksen against England.)
If there is one up-and-coming player you need to know in the 2012 Euros, it’s definitely Christian Eriksen.
Keep an Eye On: Simon Kjaer
Center-back Kjaer — pronounced Keyar — was a hotter commodity than Eriksen just two years ago. His stock has substantially dropped since, but little of his club-level struggles is evident when playing for the national team. Alongside captain Daniel Agger, Kjaer should have a solid Euros.
Odds of Survival: 10 percent. Unless Germany or Netherlands implodes, little Denmark can’t play alongside the big boys.
“Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”
That famous quote has taken a twist in the past 16 years. Germany always wins — except in the biggest game. The Germans always fall short of their championship potential in tantalizing fashion.
The Germans are yet again the favorites. In terms of pure talent and untapped potential in every player, this is probably the deepest German side we’ve seen in decades. The Germans can only get better from here on out for the next decade — most are under 25 years old. Germany has the youngest-ever squad to grace the Euros. All pre-tournament expectations for the Germans are trophy or bust. There’s no doubt they will win every game in group play and make a very deep run in Poland and Ukraine.
But can the German win the biggest game of all this time?
Germany’s Best Player: Bastian Schweinsteiger
Bastian Schweinsteiger is the best central midfielder in the world.
Built like a tank and with movement like a locomotive, Schweinsteiger is known for his hard, precise tackles that put fear into the hearts of opposing teams. On offense, “Schweini” is cerebral and precise, the midfield connection between the defense and the offense. He also has a knack for scoring goals from far out of the penalty box, tallying 23 goals in 90 appearances. Schweinsteiger had a rough game in the Champions League final against Chelsea, but any talks of him struggling in the Euros are hogwash.
Keep an Eye On: Andre Schurrle/ Mario Gotze/ Marco Reus
I couldn’t pick one because all three are so good. While Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller, and Lukas Podolski are the three attacking midfielders to start the tournament, Schurrle, Gotze, and Reus can overtake their starting spots at any time.
Schurrle is the goal scorer of the bunch, earning the honorary No. 9 number for Germany. He’s the most physically gifted of the three, with a combination of strength and speed reminiscent of Podolski.
Gotze is the playmaker and best-known of the three, giving Denmark’s Christian Eriksen a run for his money as the most talented 20-year-old in the world. His stock has soared exponentially since leading Borussia Dortmund to a title repeat in the Bundesliga.
Reus has a little bit of both Schurrle and Gotze in him. While small and speedy like Gotze, Reus has a goal-scoring knack like Schurrle, netting 21 goals this season.
Odds of Survival: 90 percent. Sorry Spain, but Germany has the best team in the Euros and will likely win the tournament.
I’m tired of hearing Portugal called “Cristiano Ronaldo and 10 little dwarves.” All the lights are always directed at Ronaldo wherever he plays, but Portugal has world-class talent across the team.
The Portugese have a solid center midfield pair in Joao Moutinho and Chelsea’s Raul Meireles — two young, versatile players with quality midfielding tools. Despite losing veteran center back Ricardo Carvalho after his sudden retirement last year, Portugal displays a solid backline led by Fabio Coentrao and Pepe.
Portugal is the fourth best team in Europe. It’s just a shame that two of the three better teams are also in this group.
Best Player: Cristiano Ronaldo
I have nothing new to add to the legend of Ronaldo. If you know nothing about him, watch this Youtube classic from 2006 and learn. He’s now, like, five times better.
Keep an Eye On: Helder Postiga
The main problem with Portugal over the past few years has been their lack of a goal scorer up front to complement Ronaldo. Without a secondary threat in the offense, the opposing defense focuses on containing Ronaldo. Most of the time, it works.
Postiga is the next best attacking threat to Ronaldo. As the starting striker for Portugal, Postiga has the second most goals on the squad next to Ronaldo. There is a huge drop of talent from Ronaldo to Postiga, who currently plays for a mediocre Real Zaragoza club. But if Postiga can get his groove on and find the back of the net as he occasionally does, Portugal has a chance of making it out of the group stage.
Odds of Survival: 25 percent. Unless Ronaldo goes out of his mind and scores, like, six goals in three matches, Portugal has a slim shot.
Check back tomorrow for a preview of Group C: Spain, Italy, Ireland and Croatia.