I just did an online poll thing where, by picking the winners at each stage, you picked who won at EURO 12. I lied to myself a bit and said England would win (something only 2% of respondents said). But in looking at the four groups, I was sort of stunned. Obviously I know the groups, or at least I thought I did, I remember the draw back in December, I remembered that England got Ukraine (testing my ethnic allegiances), I remembered that Denmark got screwed in the group of death, but I guess I had forgotten just how much strength there was in these four groups. So, to refresh everyone's memories, here are the four groups, ordered by their seeding pools:
Republic of Ireland
I mean look at those nations, look how many strong, powerful countries are in this tournament. There are only, maybe, 2, 3, or 4 that could be considered push-overs. Though considering Greece won just two tournaments ago, it's probably safe to say that all of these countries have good shots.
I suppose, ultimately, so much strength is what is to be expected when Europe hosts a championship with only 16 nations. UEFA sends 13 teams to the World Cup, this tournament is just three more, however at the World Cup there are 19 other teams, and other than the likes of Brazil and Argentina, most of them can't hold a candle to the elite of Europe. So while England may not have done well in their group stage, we only had to face Algeria, the USA, and Slovenia; at EURO 12 we have to get past Ukraine, France, and Sweden.
The optimist can look at this draw very easily: Ukraine and Sweden are crap teams, and France has been painfully underachieving since they lost in the final of Germany 2006. But that's... not really true. While France did finish 29th out of 32 at the last World Cup, they have been on a rather terrifying unbeaten-streak recently. They have gone 18 matches without a loss, including a 2:1 victory over Germany in February. Sweden, while England did just beat them last fall, it was the Three Lions' first win over Sweden since 1968. And Ukraine, they're the home team in ever match, so that can't be discounted, and further still, at their last international tournament in 2006, they finished eighth overall, one spot behind England and one ahead of Spain. None of these teams can be discounted. Despite what happened in 2010, if England fail to win two of these games, there is virtually no chance of them making it through to the next round.
But ultimately, that's the nature of this tournament. In qualifying, teams were able to face 4 or 5 other teams home and away (a total of 8 or 10 games) in order to show their talent and ability to go on to the next round. One bad game did not doom a team. Just five of the 14 qualifying teams went undefeated (and this included the likes of Greece, but not the Netherlands), only two of them recording all wins. At the tournament proper, however, teams will have just three games to prove they are good enough to move on or bad enough to be sent home. And three games is enough for anything to happen.
Ultimately, that's the beauty of this sport. Matches that are expected to be one-sided end up being shockingly competitive, the underdog often managing to actually win (take Chelsea overtaking Barcelona or Bayern Munich in this year's Champions League). Matches that are supposed to be completely competitive, end up being dreadfully one-sided (take Man United failing to show up in either recent Champions League final against Barcelona).
Since the last World Cup, Spain has lost to England, Portugal, and Italy. Germany has failed to beat both EURO hosts and lost to France. Netherlands have lost to Sweden, Germany (an embarrassing 3:0 loss), and Bayern Munich (a club who couldn't beat Chelsea).
The opening round will come down to every game. If a lower-ranked team can scrape out a win, or even a draw, against one of the top teams, it could mean their advancement in the tournament. If Republic of Ireland can get a win against Italy, or Sweden a win against England, it could mean they move to the next round.
In the Group of Death, for the two teams who will be desperately fighting for advancement, Denmark and Portugal, their match against each other will be huge. The loser will have no realistic shot of advancing, and the winner will still have to get something out of Germany and the Netherlands, but at least they'll have those three points. And the two are not strangers, Denmark and Portugal drew each other in the qualifying tournaments for both this competition and the previous World Cup. In each competition, Denmark won the group for direct qualification and Portugal just managing to get through in the play-off. In EURO 12 qualifying they split their matches, 2:1 for Denmark and 3:1 for Portugal, in World Cup qualifying Denmark won away 3:2 and drew at home 1:1. After four years of playing each other, their match at EURO 12 will truly be a culmination of this rivalry.
I think we all know who the top teams are in this tournament, the teams to be, the teams most likely to win: La Roja, Oranje, and Die Mannschaft. But Germany has failed two overcome Spain in two consecutive tournaments, as I stated earlier Spain has lost to three "lesser" teams in this tournament in the past two years, and the Netherlands lost to Sweden in qualifying. None of these teams are unbeatable. And really, any nation in this tournament could win.