Problems mount for Euro contenders
LONDON – With a week to go until the start of Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine, injuries and off-pitch controversies have already begun to shape the outcome of the tournament.
None of the 16 teams competing in the quadrennial showpiece have enjoyed a hiccup-free build-up to the event, and the main contenders have been among the most obviously inconvenienced sides.
Reigning world and European champions Spain are bidding to become the first nation to win three consecutive major tournaments, but they must attempt to do so without record scorer David Villa and talismanic centre-back Carles Puyol.
The Barcelona pair have both fallen victim to injury, obliging coach Vicente del Bosque to make unwanted adjustments to a team that have swept all before them since embarking on the road to glory at Euro 2008 in Austria and Switzerland.
Victory in the final in Kiev on July 1 would give this Spain team legitimate claim to the title of the greatest international side in the sport’s history, but midfielder David Silva knows that La Roja’s rivals will not stand idly by.
“We can always dream about it, of course, but we have to be conscious of the fact that the other teams are equally strong, of the potential of the other teams, and the fact that winning is very demanding and you must suffer a great deal,” said Silva.
“It can happen, but nobody should think that it is going to be easy.”
Drawn alongside Italy, Croatia and the Republic of Ireland in Group C, Spain begin their campaign in Gdansk on June 10 against an Italian side rocked by the impact of yet another investigation into match-fixing in the country.
Left-back Domenico Criscito was forced to withdraw from the tournament after being implicated in the affair, while Juventus pair Gianluigi Buffon and Leonardo Bonucci have both had accusatory fingers pointed in their direction.
Coach Cesare Prandelli subsequently made the startling declaration that “it would not be a problem” if Italy had to withdraw from the competition.
However, the turmoil is not necessarily a portentous sign. Italy is no stranger to football controversies, and their World Cup successes in 1982 and 2006 both unfolded beneath the shadow of off-pitch scandals linked to match-fixing.
Whereas Prandelli will draw on a core of Juve players buoyed by their roles in the club’s first Serie A title success since 2003, his Germany counterpart Joachim Loew must hope his sizeable Bayern Munich contingent can shake off the disappointment of their penalty shootout loss to Chelsea in the Champions League final.
Like Spain, Germany enjoyed a perfect record in qualifying, and having been drawn alongside Denmark, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and beaten World Cup finalists the Netherlands in a finely balanced Group B, they can afford no time for self-pity.
Both Germany and Holland will have designs on the Henri Delaunay trophy, but habitual contenders England have had to downsize their ambitions after a build-up punctuated by setbacks.
Roy Hodgson was only installed as coach on May 1, following the abrupt departure of Fabio Capello, and he has already had to witness the withdrawals of key midfielders Jack Wilshere, Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard due to injury.
“I’m satisfied with the group we’ve put together. I believe in the group,” Hodgson insisted. “I’m disappointed to have lost two senior players (Barry and Lampard), but on the other hand, it’s a great opportunity for someone else.”
He also has problems in attack, with Wayne Rooney suspended for England’s two opening Group D matches against France and Sweden.