There’s just a couple of days to go until the start of the tournament and the excitement is building. Will the Spanish sweep everyone away? Will the Germans play with their usual ruthless efficiency? Will we inevitably get knocked out on penalties? While you’re mulling over all of that, here are ten names to keep an eye on this summer:
10. Antonio Cassano – The Italians may be going into this tournament under the cloud of a match-fixing scandal once again, but despite facing the Spanish in their group, they will fancy their chances of seeing off Ireland and Croatia. Imperative to their hopes is Cassano, the AC Milan forward who has just recovered from heart surgery that was thought to be career-ending initially. Cassano has been something of an enigma throughout his career, never quite hitting the heights that his obvious talent deserves, especially in international colours. Cesare Prandelli’s side are not as strong as previous Azzurri outfits and they will therefore look to the returning Cassano to provide a threat in the final third.
9. Robert Lewandowski – As the host JUDI POKERnation, Poland expects. Which means the pressure is placed firmly on key man Lewandowski’s shoulders. He starred for Borussia Dortmund this year, scoring 30 goals in all competitions, helping his side to a first league and cup double and Manchester United are now reportedly having a closer look. The Poles may fancy their chances in a weak looking Group A and therefore their talismanic striker has to deliver on the international stage.
8. Alan Dzagoev – As with Poland, the Russians will fancy their chances of progressing from Group A. Their best hopes lies with the wide players, one being familiar to English fans already and the other not so much. Andrey Arshavin is well known at this level, but watch out for Dzagoev, who at 21, will provide the main attacking thrust for Dick Advocaat’s side. Superb at club level for CSKA Moscow this season, Dzagoev could help the Russians on their way to another superb campaign.
7. Sokratis Papastathopolous – The 2004 Champions Greece were well-known for their solid defence so it is no surprise to see the 23-year-old centre back tipped as the man to make the difference for them. Papastathopolous captained AEK Athens at the age of 19 and has subsequently tried his hand elsewhere in Europe. Although spells at Milan and Genoa didn’t pay off, he found his form on loan at Werder Bremen this season, marshalling their defence to good effect. As with everyone else in Group A, the Greeks will fancy their chances and with Papastathopolous at the heart of their back four, expect their challenge to be built on solid foundations once again.
6. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – Everyone remembers the Theo Walcott disaster of the 2006 World Cup when Sven picked him as an untested teenager. Oxlade-Chamberlain will hope to avoid comparisons to his Arsenal teammate and the early signs are good. He showed some promising touches in the two warm-up games and his Premier League displays so far indicate the youngster isn’t afraid to mix it with the big boys. England could use his pace and trickery out wide in the latter stages of games to run at tired defences and therefore the former Southampton man could provide England with a secret weapon in their campaign.
5. Nelson Oliveira – You could be forgiven for thinking Portugal are taking to the field with only one man this summer, but in reserve they have a player who is looking to follow in his idol’s footsteps. The 20-year-old may only have three caps to his name, but he made the cut for the final squad, having demonstrated the sort of ability that Ronaldo displayed at the same age. Oliveira may not be a regular for Benfica yet, but that doesn’t mean he won’t feature for Portugal this summer. He could prove very handy as an impact sub in the Group of Death and the Portuguese will hope he can replicate the form he showed at last summer’s U21 European Championships. Step aside Ronaldo, the young pretender is here.
4. Fernando Llorente – Having to wait in the shadow of David Villa and Fernando Torres for the initial part of his international career must have been frustrating for Llorente, but the Bilbao frontman is ready to show the world what he can do this summer. With Villa injured and Torres woefully out of form, Llorente will lead the Spanish line and hopefully add the firepower to the wonderfully gifted midfield behind him. 29 goals in all competitions this season suggests he has the ability to do so and Spain need him to find his best form if they are to retain the trophy.
3. Kevin Strootman – The Dutch are raving over the prospects of this 22-year-old and considering some of the great central midfielders they’ve had in their time, Strootman must be something special. Once again, Manchester United have been linked, though understandably, PSV are reluctant to sell given the impact Strootman can provide. Could prove to be a key cog in the Dutch side, though his place in the starting XI depends on the tactics coach Bert van Marwijk decides to employ. If the flamboyant Dutch are unleashed at this tournament, expect Strootman to be at the heart of it.
2. Christian Eriksen – Although the young Dane went to the 2010 World Cup, he was simply too young to make much of an impact. However, two years later, at the age of 20, Eriksen is ready to announce himself to the rest of Europe. The Danes are in the proverbial ‘Group of Death’ with Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal and therefore they will need something special to qualify. Eriksen could be the man to provide it, many of Europe’s top clubs already have their eyes on him and the Ajax man has the skill set to ensure Denmark could cause a few surprises.
1. Mario Gotze – Considering how many young talents the Germans have to offer, being described by Matthias Sammer as ‘one of the best talents that we’ve ever had’ is quite something. Gotze has everything in abundance though, pace, skill and creativity, that helped his club side Borussia Dortmund to glory this season. All the top clubs are vying for his signature, but his price tag is already at a hefty level. Performing at Euro 2012 would increase this even more and with Germany expected to go well this summer, Gotze could well light up the tournament.