x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Euro 2012: great expectations and 10 key questions

Some World Cup flops and non-starters will be out to make amends. Gary Meenaghan analyses the tournament's vital issues.

Spain's players training this week at the Rozas sports centre, near Madrid, in preparation for their European title defence, which starts tonight when they play Liechtenstein.
Spain's players training this week at the Rozas sports centre, near Madrid, in preparation for their European title defence, which starts tonight when they play Liechtenstein.

The World Cup's list of notable absentees will get a chance to prove their worth once more when they get their European Championship campaigns under way tonight. Sweden, spearheaded by the returning Zlatan Ibrahimovic, welcome Hungary to Solna in what will be coach Erik Hamren's first competitive game in charge. Croatia, one of Europe's biggest casualties in not making the trip to South Africa this summer, travel to Riga intent on dealing Latvia their first home defeat in six matches, while Dick Advocaat has warned his Russian side that players such as Roman Pavlyuchenko (Tottenham), Yuri Zhirkov (Chelsea) and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov (Everton) should not expect to start against Andorra if they are not playing for their domestic sides.

Italy sit on the brink of a new beginning. Prandelli, the coach who took over from Marcello Lippi after the Azzurri's abysmal World Cup campaign, has called up five uncapped players for their clash with Estonia in Tallinn this evening. Defenders Luca Antonelli, Cesare Bovo, Lorenzo De Silvestri and Daniele Gastaldello are joined by Sevilla midfielder Luca Cigarini in a youthful squad unrecognisable to the one that crashed out in the group stages in South Africa. Experienced heads remain - none more so than Andrea Pirlo - but the focus will be on the young debutants and whether they can paint a bright future for Italy, who have failed to conquer Europe since 1968.

Craig Levein, the new Scotland manager, has presided over only exhibition matches since taking the reins last December. An impressive 1-0 win over Czech Republic, who are also in Group I, was followed by a 3-0 humbling by Sweden and the pressure is, as ever, on the coach to start his competitive reign positively. The Scots have been grouped with Lithuania in all four Euro campaigns since 1998 and will be looking to add to their record of four wins from six games in Kaunas. However, few know what to expect and with at least five players ruled out through injury, tonight's match will be decisive in determining Levein's abilities.

The last time Spain and Holland played a competitive match it was against each other in the most important game in world football. Tonight they travel to the European hinterlands of Liechtenstein and San Marino respectively and must be careful not to allow the lesser occasion influence them. Both will understandably be strong favourites, but football has a funny way of rendering such facts irrelevant. How will Vicente del Bosque motivate his world champions for a match against a Liechtenstein team ranked one place above Burundi? And while Holland could run riot against San Marino, ranked No 202 in the world, the clash has all the hallmarks of producing one of the game's biggest surprises.

Has a coach ever inherited a national team at such low ebb as Blanc received the French reigns last month? Humiliated in South Africa following a run of bad results, a very public dispute between then-coach Raymond Domenech and his captain Patrice Evra, and the subsequent suspension of three of the best players in the squad in Evra, Nicolas Anelka and Franck Ribery. Blanc welcomes Belarus tonight knowing things can hardly get much worse, but also well aware that anything but three points is not an option. He has retained nine players from the World Cup debacle, while calling upon four new faces in a bid to blend youth and experience. This revolution, unlike Evra's, will be televised.

Germany surprised many football followers this summer with their youthful side's attractive, fast-paced style of play. On their way to the World Cup semi-finals they won many admirers and scored more goals than any other team. Tonight they travel to Belgium, a side tipped to achieve big things in the near future courtesy of their creativity, pace and technical ability. Belgian coach Georges Leekens has an underestimated wealth of talent at his disposal - from Thomas Vermaelen and Maroune Fellaini to Eden Hazard and Steven Defour - and will be keen to lay down a signal of his nation's intent.

Capello has come in for incalculable criticism since England failed to perform at the World Cup. The Italian joined the Three Lions camp with one of the best managerial reputations in the world, yet has seen his name ridiculed by the notoriously fickle English media. His decision to take an ageing, injury-prone squad to South Africa backfired, forcing him to rebuild with relatively inexperienced youth. The new look England is undoubtedly talented, but the pressure is as apparent as ever ahead of tonight's match with Bulgaria and some sources are even suggesting defeat could spell the end for Capello.

Group B could stand for 'Believe'. Slovakia showed the world last summer what can be achieved with a little confidence. Having qualified for their first World Cup, Vladimir Weiss's men defeated world champions Italy on their way to the second round. They face Macedonia at home tonight looking to maintain momentum ahead of next week's clash with Russia. Likewise, the Republic of Ireland, having come so close to qualifying for South Africa, must now surely believe they can top a group that contains themselves, the three aforementioned sides, Andorra and, tonight's opponents, Armenia.

Northern Ireland have never qualified for a European Championships, while Wales have failed to appear at the continent's grandest showpiece since 1976. Both nations now, though, have young talented sides and will be keen to appear in Ukraine and Poland in 2012. Wales, with the likes of Craig Bellamy and Gareth Bale, will be desperate to start strongly against Montenegro, knowing that England, and the chance to claim British bragging rights, awaits later in the campaign. Meanwhile, the Irish came to within the final round of games from qualifying for the World Cup, and will be looking for revenge tonight over Slovenia, who claimed the final place in their qualifying group.

Portugal, were it not for a stalemate in their opening World Cup game with Ivory Coast, would have avoided Spain in the second round and who knows how far they could have gone. With full-back Fabio Coentrao excelling and Raul Meireles dominating midfield, Portugal showed glimpses of their ability, but, despite putting seven past North Korea, they lacked a goalscorer and relied too heavily on Cristiano Ronaldo, who remains impotent at international level.

The Real Madrid attacker is injured for tonight's match with Cyprus, so Portugal have a chance to discover if, without the need to constantly find an outlet in the world's most expensive player, they can actually become a more free-scoring unit. gmeenaghan@thenational.ae