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Group A: Poland, Greece, Czech Republic, Russia

Perhaps the biggest battle facing Russia and Poland will be dealing with the expectation from fans and media. The experience of the Russian squad, along with Dick Advocaat’s astute management, means they are expecting nothing less than to win the group and are already looking to see which of the teams in Group B they would prefer to face in the quarter-final.

Of the co-hosts, Poland seem best equipped to make an impact on the tournament, despite being the lowest ranked team in the competition. Their two-year build-up has been far from seamless but the group gives the young Polish side a real chance of making the knockout stages, which would allow them to consider the tournament a success.

Greece would seem to be Poland’s biggest obstacle and they meet in the traditionally cagey tournament opener on Friday. That may not throw up too many answers and so results in their second game could be the most crucial.

Fernando Santos has established a more attacking Greece side than Otto Rehhagel’s 2004 winners, and there is optimism that a group of players, some of whom are playing in their third straight European Championships, can advance from the group.

The pressure is off the Czechs, for whom scoring goals seems to be a major difficulty, but if the group stays tight, with lots of draws, as is a distinct possibility, then they will have a chance of sneaking second place.

Key player: Robert Lewandowski (Poland)

The Borussia Dortmund striker scored over 20 goals in the Bundesliga this season and could be the difference in a group full of cautious, tense fixtures.

Key match: Poland v Russia, Tuesday June 12

Group B: Holland, Denmark, Germany, Portugal

The  group of death’ is the toughest of all to call, though fans of Germany and Holland, as World Cup semi-finalists and runners-up respectively, have some right to expect that they will be looking forward to a quarter-final. But there is not one fixture in Group B that won’t have neutrals eagerly plotting their evening in front of the television.

Germany go into the tournament with the youngest squad but it is also one of the most impressive, justifying their position alongside Spain as outright favourites. Joachim Loew has a settled side spearheaded by tournament goal-machine Miroslav Klose. There is quality throughout and great strength in depth with the likes of Mario Gotze waiting in the wings.

The Dutch will field almost the exact XI that ground their way to the final in South Africa two years ago. Klass-Jan Huntelaar has been prolific both in qualification and also for Schalke in the Bundesliga this season but is by no means certain of a starting place as Bert van Marwijk may opt to play Robin van Persie up front on his own, with Dirk Kuyt, Wesley Sneijder and Ibrahim Afellay prompting from deep.

Portugal’s midfield trio look lightweight in comparison and their centre-back pairing are vulnerable, but in Cristiano Ronaldo they have a player who can win a match on his own.

Denmark finished ahead of Portugal in qualification and in playmaker Christian Eriksen they have their own match-winner but if Holland and Germany hit the ground running, they could struggle to keep up.

Key player: Wesley Sneijder (Holland)

Sneijder has struggled to find the form he produced in Inter Milan’s Champions League-winning season in 2010 but in such a tough group the Dutch will need him pulling the strings if they are to avoid going out at the group stage.

Key match: Portugal v Holland, Sunday, June 17

Group C: Spain, Italy, Rep of Ireland, Croatia

It is hard to imagine a worse build-up to a tournament than the one Italy have endured. Police raids on the team hotel and the forced withdrawal of players who are under investigation have culminated in the coach, Cesare Prandelli, saying he would have no problem if they were to withdraw from the competition.

On the pitch, things don’t seem much better and the 3-0 friendly defeat to Russia on Friday night showed evidence of a team disintegrating. For much of the first half of that game Italy looked sharp, with Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli linking up well in attack. Defensively, things were less assured — particularly from set-pieces — and when things started going against them, there didn’t seem to be much heart for the fight.

Ireland must avoid defeat against Croatia and if they go into the final fixture against the Italians with a chance of qualification, the pressure could tell on Italy.

The mood in Croatia has turned against coach Slaven Bilic, who leaves as soon as their involvement in the tournament ends. Their laborious style of play has come in for fierce criticism and Bilic is targeting victory against Ireland as a means of not only putting three points on the board but also lifting the spirits.

That just leaves Spain who, given the flaws of the other three teams, should really win the group, but tiredness in the squad will be a factor. The last time a team went into a tournament as reigning World and European champions (France in 2002) things didn’t go too well and Ireland and the others must hope that history repeats itself.

Key player: Xavi (Spain)

The only real question mark over Spain concerns just how tired their players may be (particularly those from Real Madrid and Barcelona) and Xavi is as a good a barometer as any as to how much energy they actually have.

Key match: Croatia v Ireland, June 10

Group D: Ukraine, Sweden, France, England

Roy Hodgson has done the first part of his job well in so far as it appears the players have bought into his ideology but whether he shows the ambition needed to win matches remains to be seen. For once, the expectations levels are low which may free the players from pressure but the lack of ability in the squad will mean there is only so far that will get them.

Whether that gets England out of the group will depend on how they cope in their opening game against France, when Laurent Blanc’s side will surely dominate possession leaving Hodgson’s side to play a containment game, and also, perhaps most crucially, against a more adventurous Sweden side than we have seen in many years. Zlatan Ibrahimovic remains the main man in the Erik Hamren’s squad and is coming off the back of an impressive season for AC Milan.

Yann M’Vila’s injury in France’s friendly win over Serbia on Thursday has left the midfielder doubtful for the opening game against England and if the Rennes midfielder misses out, he will be a big loss for Blanc, but Franck Ribery’s return to form in the national side is a major plus.

As ever with France, everyone has a different opinion, but in the main there is a cautious air of positivity around a squad with plenty of explosive talent. A repeat of their triumph of Euro 2000 may be beyond them, but anything less than qualification from the group would be considered failure.

Like their co-hosts, Ukraine’s build-up has been far from ideal and a bribery scandal forced coach Myron Markevych to step down in April last year and under his replacement Oleg Blokhin there have been glimpses of a cohesive team, particularly in a 3-3 draw with Germany last November. Getting out of the group would seem unlikely but if they can go to their last game, against France with a glimmer of hope then the home support could tell.

Key player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden)

As always, the question with Ibrahimovic is whether or not he actually shows up, but there is no doubt he possesses the quality to expose the defensive weaknesses in the other three sides.

Key match: Sweden v England, June 15

 

Fixtures:

Friday, June 8

Poland v Greece, Group A, 5pm, National Stadium – Warsaw, Poland

Russia v Czech Republic, Group A, 7.45pm, Municipal Stadium – Wroclaw, Poland

Saturday, June 9

Holland v Denmark, Group B, 5pm, Metalist Stadium – Kharkiv, Ukraine

Germany v Portugal, Group B, 7.45pm, Arena Lviv – Lviv, Ukraine

Sunday, June 10

Spain v Italy, Group C, 5pm, PGE Arena – Gdansk, Poland

Republic of Ireland v Croatia, Group C, 7.45pm, City Stadium – Poznan, Poland

Monday, June 11

France v England, Group D, 5pm, Donbass Arena – Donetsk, Ukraine

Ukraine v Sweden, Group D, 7.45pm, Olympic Stadium – Kiev, Ukraine

Tuesday, June 12

Greece v Czech Republic, Group A, 5pm, Municipal Stadium – Wroclaw, Poland

Poland v Russia, Group A, 7.45pm, National Stadium – Warsaw, Poland

Wednesday, June 13

Denmark v Portugal, Group B, 5pm, Arena Lviv – Lviv, Ukraine ITV

Holland v Germany, Group B, 7.45pm, Metalist Stadium – Kharkiv, Ukraine

Thursday, June 14

Italy v Croatia, Group C, 5pm, City Stadium – Poznan, Poland

Spain v Republic of Ireland, Group C, 7.45pm, PGE Arena – Gdansk, Poland

Friday, June 15

Ukraine v France, Group D, 5pm, Donbass Arena – Donetsk, Ukraine

Sweden v England, Group D, 7.45pm, Olympic Stadium – Kiev, Ukraine

Saturday, June 16

Czech Republic v Poland, Group A, 7.45pm, Municipal Stadium – Wroclaw, Poland

Greece v Russia, Group A, 7.45pm, National Stadium – Warsaw, Poland

Sunday, June 17

Denmark v Germany, Group B, 7.45pm, Arena Lviv – Lviv, Ukraine

Portugal v Holland, Group B, 7.45pm, Metalist Stadium – Kharkiv, Ukraine

Monday, June 18

Croatia v Spain, Group C, 7.45pm, PGE Arena – Gdansk, Poland

Italy v Republic of Ireland, Group C, 7.45pm, City Stadium – Poznan, Poland

Tuesday, June 19

England v Ukraine, Group D, 7.45pm, Donbass Arena – Donetsk, Ukraine

Sweden v France, Group D, 7.45pm, Olympic Stadium – Kiev, Ukraine

Thursday, June 21

Winner Group A v Runner-up Group B, Quarter-final 1, 7.45pm

National Stadium – Warsaw, Poland

Friday, June 22

Winner Group B v Runner-up Group A, Quarter-final 2, 7.45pm

PGE Arena – Gdansk, Poland

Saturday, June 23

Winner Group C v Runner-up Group D, Quarter-final 3, 7.45pm

Donbass Arena – Donetsk, Ukraine

Sunday, June 24

Winner Group D v Runner-up Group C, Quarter-final 4, 7.45pm

Olympic Stadium – Kiev, Ukraine

Wednesday, June 27

Winner QF 1 v Winner QF 3, Semi-final 1, 7.45pm

Donbass Arena – Donetsk, Ukraine

Thursday, June 28

Winner QF 2 v Winner QF 4, Semi-final 2, 7.45pm

National Stadium – Warsaw, Poland

Sunday, July 1

Winners SF1 v Winners SF2, Final, 7.45pm

Olympic Stadium – Kiev, Ukraine

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