As the European Championships fast approach us, commentators and fans alike have been offering their opinions as to who will win the tournament.
The reigning World and European champions, Spain, still appear to be the team to beat, and continue to be lavished with a number of extremely talented players.
Germany’s young players could have a real impact if they click, and the Dutch have terrific striking options with the top scorers in the Bundesliga and the Premier League in their squad.
Even France, who imploded so catastrophically in South Africa two years ago, appear to be a much more united squad with some excellent players.
Beyond that, it appears some nations have been completely written off.
Even England, whose ever-optimistic media seem to have them as favourites for every tournament, are expected to fail.
Another nation to have been excluded from talk of tournament winners is Croatia.
Although a small country of around 4.3 million inhabitants, Croatia has produced some marvellous footballers who ply their trade in some of Europe’s top leagues. Take one look at the squad their ever-impressive coach Slaven Bilic has assembled for the championships – it would be sheer folly to dismiss them as “no-hopers.”
In midfield, Tottenham’s little magician Luka Modric will pull the strings. He has enjoyed yet another consistent season at the centre of Harry Redknapp’s team, and will be relied upon by Bilic to provide a cutting edge for his national side.
To the right of him will probably be Darijo Srna, a veteran of past tournaments with 91 caps, and having seemingly been around the Croatian national team for an eternity. Captain of the side, Srna provides a wonderful example to his compatriots and his experience could prove vital to assisting the Croatians reach their goal.
Ivan Persic has enjoyed a decent campaign with Borussia Dortmund, winning the Bundesliga, although he has been sparingly used from the start by Dortmund coach Juergen Klopp. He has however demonstrated his considerable ability in his fleeting appearances, including an outstanding dipping volley from the edge of the penalty area against Arsenal in the Champions League.
Up front, the Croatians have arguably one of the most in-form strikers in Europe in Nikica Jelavic. After leaving Rangers in January for Premier League Everton, the skilful frontman has taken the English scene by storm, scoring 11 goals in just 16 appearances.
Goals against Manchester United (twice), Tottenham and Liverpool have silenced the many doubters of his ability, and proved he is able to compete with the very best. He won Premier League player of the month for April, and in doing so became the first Croatian recipient. This is all the more remarkable an achievement given he shares the league with the ultra-consistent Modric.
If Jelavic hits top form, he really could do some serious damage against the illustrious opponents the Croatians will face.
Russia is another nation which could make a real impression, and they are probably favourites to top Group A, where they will face Poland, Greece and the Czech Republic.
Most expect them to struggle beyond the initial stages, and on paper that certainly appears likely to be the case. All but two of their squad play outside of Russia, but 12 of them come from CSKA Moscow or Zenit St Petersburg who both featured in the knockout stage of this seasons Champions League.
Some well-known names also make up former Rangers manager Dick Advocaat’s selection. Yuri Zhirkov, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Andrei Arshavin all impressed in flashes in the Premier League, and have undoubted ability to compete at the top level.
Pavel Pogrebnyak joined Fulham in January and made a fantastic impact, scoring six goals in 12 appearances, including a “perfect” hat-trick against Wolves.
With a number of players in their late 20s or early 30s, experience could be key, and under veteran coach Advocaat the Russians are another who certainly should not be taken lightly.
Finally, co-hosts Poland, who are available at odds of up to 50/1, seem to have been largely ignored.
With home backing and a decent looking squad, they will be looking to make their mark in probably the biggest matches in their nation’s history.
In attack they have the impressive Robert Lewandowski who hit 30 goals for Borussia Dortmund and who will be relied upon having proved his ability at the top level.
In goal will likely be Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczesny, who although prone to the odd error has proved himself to be a highly competent and talented ’keeper.
Under Franciszek Smuda, a manager for almost 30 years, they have a leader of massive experience, and he will have the hopes and dreams of his homeland placed upon him.
Croatia, Russia and Poland. Not being talked about just now in general terms, but over the next few weeks these three countries could emerge as major contenders for the tournament.
Nick Thompson writes his own blog, which you can find here
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