Robert Lewandowski scored the opening goal in the 2012 European Championship as co-hosts Poland settled for a draw against Greece. Hours later, Russia set the tournament for Group A with a 4-1 victory against the Czech Republic.
Poland may regain its footing after the draw. The squad features forward Lewandowski, midfielder Jakub Blascykowski and defender Lukasz Piszczek, all key players in Borrussia Dortmund’s Bundesliga triumph.
Greece pulled a major upset by winning the tournament in 2004, but is the weakest team in this tournament. The Czech Republic has neither the sufficient firepower up front nor a disciplined enough defense to get much further.
Meanwhile, Russia showed all of the discipline that the Czechs lacked. Its defense was well organized, its midfield effective and its offense comfortable. The Russians look unlikely to break under pressure, and may repeat their 2008 feat of reaching the semifinals, or do better.
Group A is easily the tournament’s weakest, but Group B is by far the most difficult. Consider Denmark, a decent team with a solid qualification record for major tournaments and rising young players such as Simon Kjaer and Christian Poulsen.
Ordinarily, Denmark would be favorites to at least progress to the next stage. Here, the Danes are faced with three formidable opponents.
Germany is considered by many to be the favorite, World Cup finalists Netherlands have a strong defense that recently acquired an equally tough attack, while Portugal is blessed with Cristiano Ronaldo, the best player headed into the tournament.
Watch out for the Germany versus the Netherlands derby on June 13. Though the Germans won this fixture 3-0 last November, expect a narrower score line. The Dutch have a strong team, and this defeat does not show their true potential.
Portugal may have a strong attack, boasting the likes of Ronaldo and Nani, but the rest of the team is not nearly up to standard. There is no strong creative influence in midfield, nor a powerful right back. Questions remain over the goalkeeper. Passage to the quarterfinals will be an uphill struggle.
Group C will open on Sunday with one of the most highly anticipated group stage games, Spain versus Italy. Spain reaches the Euro Cup amidst injuries and slipping standards.
This is trivial compared with the cloud overshadowing Italy. With the country in the midst of a match-fixing scandal, the police searched the Italians' training camp, and Domenico Criscito could not participate because of accusations. And Prime Minister Monti suggested the entire team withdraw.
Moreover, Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni, an Italian, has never lost to his home country. Ireland and Croatia will hope to spring a surprise, but the odds are not on their side.
Ireland is reliant on players from the English second division, while their star player Robbie Keane plays for Los Angeles Galaxy, of Major League Soccer. This tells you all you need to know about their chances against Spain, whose squad is studded with Barcelona and Real Madrid players.
Croatia is recovering from the loss of forward Ivica Olic. The effect of his injury is wildly over-rated. He is an aging player who is a substitute at Bayern Munich. Striker Nikica Jelavic, who had an explosive impact at Premier League side Everton, is someone to watch.
In Group D, the French are wildly optimistic after a 21-match long unbeaten run. They will face England, Ukraine, and Sweden. Les Bleus are itching to get back into the fight without supremely unpopular coach Raymond Domenech.
The new man in charge, Laurent Blanc, has built a new team over the past two years. In contrast, England manager Roy Hodgson has had two games to build a team.
Questionable personnel picks have led many observers to suspect that Hodgson is not taking into account the players’ form. Manchester United defensive mainstay Rio Ferdinand was excluded, while Stewart Downing, who hasn’t had a season of England appearance within memory, found his place.
Sweden will hope to be carried by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, while Ukraine will rely on its host status. This barely hides the fact that Ukraine’s squad is based almost entirely at home. Few players have any experience in the top leagues, with Bayern Munich’s Anatoliy Tymoschuk a notable exception.
Still, the Euro Cup has always been the venue where the strong stumble and the weak triumph. Let’s see how much that changes over the coming weeks.