Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in soccer correspondent Seung Y. Lee’s four-part preview of the Euros. Today he previews Group D: Ukraine, Sweden, France and England. Click here for Seung’s previews of Group A, Group B and Group C.
When does tragicomedy turn into comitragedy? Between it is a slim line, and with every passing day, England seems to be swerving towards the latter.
Euro 2012 was supposed to be the final farewell for the “Golden Generation” mode of superstars like John Terry, Frank Lampard, and Steven Gerrard. In the past few months, that dream has turned into a nightmare, a train wreck happening slowly but surely on live television.
Meanwhile, Ukraine, Sweden, and France are sitting back as they watch England implode. Group D is a tight group, as all four teams can make a push to get in the top two spots. Sweden is always a danger whenever their talisman striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic is on the field, France is coming into the tournament with a 21-game unbeaten streak, and Ukraine has home-field advantage throughout the tournament.
But nonetheless, all the lights are focused on England. This group is England’s to lose.
Best Game: England vs Sweden, June 15
Nov. 15, 2011 was a glorious day in English football history. After 13 attempts and 44 years, England finally defeated Sweden, 1-0, at Wembley Stadium. Drawn in the same group in World Cups in 2002 and 2006, England vs. Sweden was a match made in heaven.
And of course they meet again in the same group in 2012. Assuming France wins Group D, England and Sweden are the two likeliest candidates to fight over the second place spot. England is at a disadvantage with the absence of star striker Wayne Rooney due to a suspension. It will be interesting to see what England sans Rooney can do to create goals against a disciplined — but not very talented — Swedish defense.
Ukraine is the tournament’s mystery team. With all but two players playing in the Ukrainian Premier League, very few fans outside of Eastern Europe know any players on Ukraine’s squad list.
Few names on Ukraine ring a bell. 35-year-old striker Andriy Shevchenko, possibly the most famous Ukrainian of the past 20 years, is captain of the Ukrainian national team. As one of the best goalscorers of the 2000s, this tournament will be Shevchenko’s final farewell in his illustrious international career. All of Ukraine would love to see their hero play a successful campaign in front of the home crowd.
Ukraine’s Best Player: Anatoliy Tymoshchuk
Since Shevchenko’s decline, Ukraine has struggled to find a face for its football team. Although Tymoshchuk is nowhere near as flashy and entertaining as Shevchenko, he has been the anchor of the Ukrainian national team.
Tymoshchuk normally plays the defensive midfielder position, but when necessary he can step back to center back. His experience playing for Bayern Munich in Germany should be crucial to a defensive lineup that has rarely played opponents outside its homeland.
Keep an Eye On: Andriy Yarmolenko
Whenever an Ukrainian forward with high potential comes through the ranks, Ukrainians always ask, “Is he the heir to the great Shevchenko?” Many strikers came and went without filling in Shevchenko’s boots until Andriy Yarmolenko came along. The 22-year-old Yarmolenko gives reasons to believe that he can be the next great Ukrainian striker.
As a teammate of Shevchenko, Yarmolenko plays at left wing rather than forward. Despite playing at the flanks for much of the regular season, Yarmolenko still scored 13 goals for his club. Due to his obscurity outside Eastern Europe, Yarmolenko will be one of the biggest surprises in the tournament.
Odds of Survival: 40 percent. Too many unknowns and obscurities make it hard for me to gauge Ukraine’s true potential in the competition.
With the exception of striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden is a rather boring team to talk about. There’s nothing outstanding about the Swedes. They are always well-coached and organized. They always qualify for the World Cup or the Euros, only to drop out of the tournament without making a splash. They are the quintessential third-place team: good enough to not finish last in the group, but not good enough to advance to the next round.
But with England, the presumptive second-place team of Group D, spiraling out of control with every paranoia-filled day, Sweden can very well sneak past England to advance. Sweden is everything England is not: a low-key team flying under the radar and finishing its job without making much noise.
It’s always safer to bet on a small, steady ship than the Titanic.
Sweden’s Best Player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
If a mad scientist asked me to help him build the perfect footballer, I would design a 6’ 5″ striker with a soft first touch, supreme ball control skills, and a deadly nose for the goal.
Basically, Zlatan Ibrahimovic without the attitude.
His only Achilles heel is that he can be a terrible teammate whose arrogance overshadows his immense footballing artistry. But when Ibrahimovic is focused and shuts his mouth, he is one of the top five players in the world.
Now is the time for the 30-year-old superstar to make a name on the international stage. Coming off his best season yet with AC Milan, Ibrahimovic is in amazing shape heading into the Euros. Unlike in Milan, Ibrahimovic probably will not play upfront by the opposing defense. He will play closer to the midfield as the offensive playmaker, with manager Erik Hamren’s permission to roam around and create chances when necessary.
Keep an Eye On: Ola Toivonen
While Ibrahimovic roams around the field like it’s his playground, Toivonen will be the lone striker digging himself deep inside enemy line to finish goal opportunities. Like Ibrahimovic, Toivonen is a huge, fast, versatile striker who can switch from striker to winger. Toivonen doesn’t have Ibrahimovic’s technical prowess, but Toivonen is a big target who can stockpile goals on any given day.
Odds of Survival: 50 percent. If a focused Ibrahimovic shows up to Ukraine, Sweden’s chances rise exponentially.
The French fiasco of 2010 was one of the most bizarre storylines in the World Cup. From players boycotting training and being eliminated in group stages, to the French government launching an investigation on the players’ mutiny, France was the laughingstock of the world.
It’s been a long road of redemption for Les Bleus over the past two years. New manager Laurent Blanc abandoned the older generation for a new crop of young players. Blanc’s transition has been highly successful, as France has not lost a game since Sept. 3, 2010.
With young stars like midfielders Yohann Cabaye, Yann M’vila, Marvin Martin, and forward Olivier Giroud having breakout seasons, France is the wild card choice for Euro 2012.
France’s Best Player: Karim Benzema
Winger Franck Ribery was the face of post-Zidane France, but Ribery led France to early exits in the 2008 Euros and 2010 World Cup. It’s not Ribery’s fault that France crashed out, but there needed to be a new face of French football.
That new face is Benzema.
As the leading striker for Real Madrid, Benzema’s game can be simply summarized as “powerful.” Armed with a howitzer for a right leg, Benzema is a big-bodied striker who can bully past defenders with his strength and speed. With Blanc’s devout support, the 24-year-old Benzema is foundation on which the new French team has been constructed.
Keep an Eye On: Adil Rami
If there’s one person more powerful than Benzema on the French squad, it’s probably center back Adil Rami. Over the past two years, Rami’s stock has skyrocketed thanks to his club’s success. A favorite of former center back Blanc, the 26-year-old — nicknamed “Shrek” for his strength — has started or appeared in 20 of Blanc’s 23 matches as France manager.
The most interesting thing about Rami is how he even reached professional football. In his late teenage years, Rami worked as a handyman for the small town of Frejus, playing football as a hobby. He started his footballing career with the amateur club in his town, which then played in the fourth division of French football. After playing two seasons in Frejus as an average offensive player, Rami moved to center back to cover for an injured teammate, a life-changing decision that propelled Rami into football stardom.
Odds of Survival: 65 percent. The newest generation of French football can turn a few heads in the Euros.
So, what has gone wrong for England? Here’s a short synopsis:
It started with the resignation of manager Fabio Capello, who’d had enough with the England Football Association undermining his authority as manager. After months of searching, England fell flat of public expectations by choosing Roy Hodgson, who just 18 months ago was the laughingstock of Great Britain for his calamitous experience as Liverpool manager.
Under Hodgson’s month-long tenure as England manager, the squad has been bitten by a nasty injury bug. First it was defensive midfielder Gareth Barry, who sprained his groin in a friendly. Then came Lampard, who injured his thigh in training. (This could be a blessing in disguise for England. Despite playing with each other for a whole decade, Lampard and Gerrard never found a way to coexist.) But the worst injury came last Sunday in a friendly against Belgium, when starting center back Gary Cahill broke his jaw in a freak collision with goalkeeper Joe Hart.
Including striker Wayne Rooney’s two-game suspension for intentionally kicking a player, England has FOUR starters unavailable for its first Euro match against France. Given the perennial problems with England’s depth, it could be a very frustrating Euro 2012 for England fans.
England’s Best Player: Joe Hart (until Wayne Rooney returns)
It feels odd to write that England’s biggest strength is their goalkeeper, because over the past several years, they’ve had some really frustrating experiences with their goalkeepers. The 25-year-old goalkeeper for Manchester City was the best keeper in the English Premier League. With England’s defense looking shaky after the loss of Cahill, Hart will be heavily relied on to make the big stops to keep England’s hopes alive.
Keep an Eye On: Scott Parker
Perhaps no one currently in the English Premier League had a better two-year period than Scott Parker.
Once considered an average player who probably missed his big shot at Chelsea, Parker is now the midfield anchor for Tottenham and England. At the age of 31, Parker will be participating in his first international tournament.
With the absence of Frank Lampard, Parker will play in center midfield alongside Steven Gerrard. The defense-minded, hard-tackling Parker is an excellent foil to Gerrard’s attacking strengths. In contrast to Gerrard’s declining speed and mobility, Parker is tireless and moves everywhere around the field to get the ball back to his team. For opponents, he’s a pest. For teammates, he’s a blessing.
Odds of Survival: 45 percent. Rooney’s two-game absence might be one too many for England to survive.