We are less than 24 hours from the start of the year's most exciting and entertaining soccer tournament, Euro 2012. 16 of Europe's best national teams will play for a title that is contested every four years. ESPN's family of networks will carry every match of this year's tournament, which is being co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine.
Below are my previews and predictions for each group in the order I see them finishing, and my predictions all the way to the final. Each country's FIFA World Ranking is in parentheses.
Group A - Russia (13), Czech Republic (27), Poland (62), Greece (15)
Russia is the class of this group and is coming off an impressive 3-0 thumping of Italy in a recent tuneup friendly. Czech Republic is widely seen as being on the down swing, but its veteran squad might be up for one last run. Poland and Greece kickoff the tournament Friday, and Poland will likely ride the home crowd support to an early victory to put Greece in trouble from the get go...but much like South Africa in the 2010 World Cup that wave of emotion will not last long enough.
Group B - Germany (3), Netherlands (4), Portugal (10), Denmark (9)
Undoubtedly the best group in this competition. Germany has a very young and talented squad with some of the finest players in this tournament and one of the most talented goalkeepers in the world. Netherlands fields a strong and balanced squad, but they will be challenged by Portugal and Denmark. Don't look for many blowouts in this group. If Cristiano Ronaldo can get into some open space in the Netherlands-Portugal match, they can pull off an upset and throw the entire tournament for a loop. In the end, I think this group will mostly go as the rankings dictate.
Group C - Spain (1), Italy (12), Croatia (8), Ireland (18)
Defending champion Spain is the class of the tournament and none of its groupmates compete with their firepower on paper. Italy is dealing with another match-fixing scandal, but they rallied together and overcame similar off-field issues to win the 2006 World Cup. There is no doubt they will try to leverage a similar "Us against the World" mantra. Croatia could be the cinderella story of the tournament if they can beat a tough Ireland squad in the first match.
Group D - England (6), France (14), Ukraine (52), Sweden (17)
England and France both have undergone heavy turnover since the last World Cup, changing coaches and operating philosophies. The top spot will be heavily contested; England has looked good since Roy Hodgson took over the reins and the French are out for some vindication after an embarrassing 2010 World Cup. Co-host Ukraine could make life miserable for its groupmates, but I don't think have enough to advance past the group stage, and Sweden does not have enough starpower to keep up with the rest.
Netherlands over Russia - Russia will play a pack it in and counterattack style against the high-caliber offense of the Dutch, but that won't work over 90 minutes.
Spain over France - France will give Spain a good match in the first half, but the second half will be too much for Les Blues to stop.
Germany over Czech Republic - The easiest draw of the quarterfinalists, Germany will have no trouble dismantling its opponent here.
Italy over England - What should be the closest match of the quarterfinals, though likely not the most entertaining given Italy's defensive-minded approach, will likely be won on penalty kicks.
Spain over Netherlands - This could be the most entertaining match of the tournament, as both squads love to run up and down the pitch and move the ball around with impressive speed and motion. We could easily see a 4-3, back and forth match, but in the end the best midfield in the world will win out.
Germany over Italy - These traditional rivals once again will play in a heated affair, but Italy does not have the offensive threats possessed by Germany and will not be able to keep up its defense-first mentality once Germany gets on the scoreboard.
Spain over Germany - You can't ask for much more than the first and third ranked teams in the world playing in this final (especially since the #2 team, Uruguay, is not in Europe!) so this would be a great way to decide the Euro 2012 champion. Both teams have great talent at forward, feature the two best midfields in the world, and have some holes in their defense which could lead to a high scoring final. If it comes down to which team is hungrier, that has to be Germany given their close calls to winning many international tournaments in recent years. But Spain's core has been through this before and that will carry the best team in the world to a repeat championship.
Please comment and share your predictions...and enjoy some great soccer over the next month!