When it comes to the reputation of the European Championship, the group stages have a lot to answer for.
The perception, of course, is that the tournament is the highest-quality that international football has to offer. However, it’s difficult to argue that case when it’s been 50 years since the World Cup final was even contested by a team resembling a surprise package while the Euros has been won by teams as moderate as Greece and Denmark in the last two decades.
The real interest lies in the circumstances that conditioned the latter two shocks because, when you look at it, it’s not the competition as a whole that is of the highest level. It is, very specifically, the group stage.
Quite simply, no other international competition offers such a concentration of quality so early on. Indeed, it isn’t European elitism to say that the worst team in UEFA’s flagship tends to be a good deal superior to the worst team in the World Cup. Just compare recent tournaments: in Euro 2008, there was an Austria side that ran finalists Germany very close; in 2010, there was a North Korea side that got hammered 7-0 by Portugal.
On the whole, the general level of the Euros is lifted that bit higher. There are fewer chasms in quality. The offset, though, is that this can have a hugely distortive effect on the latter rounds. Because a trio of tough games tend to be so close together, one single bad result can suddenly see a bigger team bow out. Just look at Italy in 1996, England and Germany in 2000, Spain in 2004 or France in 2008.
In the World Cup, the groups tend to be more forgiving. As such, the latter stages - 2002's surprises aside - tend to be populated by the prestige sides. Contrast that with the European Championship where, through a burst of momentum over a brief spell of games, a lesser side can suddenly go a long way. Although the groups look more congested, that does create unexpected gaps.
Indeed, that may be the case this summer, particularly in the first half of the draw. It isn’t inconceivable that a team like Poland or – yet again – Greece pick up confidence from their opening games only to then take advantage of one of the favourites suffering fatigue from a complex Group B. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that the unfancied and underrated Danes could oust Netherlands and Portugal.
With all of that in mind, we’ve attempted to boil this most buoyant stage of the European Championship down to its key questions...
Group A: Can any of the other three sides be lifted by the slipstream of Russia’s run... or even break it?
When you properly examine the evidence, there’s only one clear winner in Group A. Indeed, it arguably makes them a very genuine threat to be winners of the tournament as a whole. Not only do a properly cohesive side like Russia enjoy the third best unbeaten run going into the competition - they have not been beaten since February 2011 - but they’ve also produced its best recent defensive record.
And, even more promisingly for Dick Advocaat, neither Czech Republic nor Greece have exactly offered the kind of goal threat of late that either breaches such defences or wins big games. While the Greeks look to frustrate and then force an opening from a set-piece, the Czechs tend to play the ball about to little penetration.
Second place in this group could well come down to results against the Russians.
In short, it’s going to be unexpected if Poland are overturned, but then the unexpected is exactly what Poland offer. As hosts, they’re quite difficult to properly analyse since they’ve only played friendlies over the past two years. Compounding that, manager Francizek Smuda has cultivated almost an entirely new team in that time so a young side will, essentially, be playing their first competitive match in the opening fixture.
Yet the Poles, who have the second youngest squad at the tournament, aren’t just fresh in terms of age – they’re fresh in terms of attacking ideas. The Borussia Dortmund core – particularly potential Golden Boot-winner Robert Lewandowski – offers a vibrant dynamism absent in Greece and Czech Republic.
Add to that, then, the intangible effects of home advantage and all of the emotion swirling around their second fixture, against Russia, and we might have the elements that alter this group going into the last games.
Prediction: Russia first, Poland second
Group B: Will it be structure or star quality that tells?
This pool isn’t just the most competitive in the tournament – it’s also by far the most dazzling, the most glamorous, the most box-office.
Just consider the attractions that immediately catch the eye. First, there’s one of the greatest players in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo. Then, there’s one of the greatest forwards in the world in Robin van Persie. He’s aided by Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder. Ahead of all that, there’s the current darlings of international football: a dynamic, free-flowing Germany who have recently been scoring three goals a game.
It’s difficult not to be seduced by the idea that this group will be settled by star power... except for the fact that this has never been the case for any of these teams.
For one thing, Netherlands’ recent success has been built on tactical pragmatism rather than pure talent. Secondly, Ronaldo has never scored so regularly for a Portugal team that veers between fluid and functional a little too often. Most telling of all, the problems of the Portuguese allowed a solid Danish side to twice defeat them in qualifying and even finish first in the group. That, more than anything, illustrates how futile it is to judge this group on fame.
Because, only underlining that, Germany’s current brilliance isn’t really built on truly elite players – Mesut Ozil apart – at all. As we’ve discussed here before, it’s constructed on one of the most comprehensive infrastructure revamps ever seen in football. That gave them a cohesion and fluidity beyond every team in the tournament other than Spain. It also means the only real hope for the other three teams in this group is that, somehow, Germany get delayed and disrupted by the sheer awkwardness of the fixtures.
Otherwise, it’s a straight fight for second between three teams that are more evenly matched than anticipated.
The irony might just be that it takes a single moment of individual quality – from one of, say, Ronaldo, Van Persie or Christian Eriksen – to decide the group, even if they don’t define it.
Prediction: Germany first, Netherlands second
Group C: How much will recent events affect the natural order?
When this group was first drawn, it was the one that most cleanly conformed to the attempted accuracies of the seeding system. At the top, there was a Spanish side who were also top of the world. Just underneath them were an Italian team who have made a significant evolution since the 2010 World Cup and genuinely looked like they were in the competitive global second tier behind Spain and Germany. In third, there was a Croatia who were not exactly consistent but were capable of really turning it on – as in the play-off against Turkey. At the bottom, then, were an Irish team who were exceptionally hard to beat but also found it equally difficult to beat anyone perceived to be better than them.
Is that still the case? In truth, it’s impossible to say.
Since December, the fatigue accumulated in four years of competing at all levels has become apparent with Spain. Croatia have known for several weeks now that this will be manager Slaven Bilic's last tournament, with his departure for Lokomotiv Moscow only following months of doubt about his current capacity for the job. Since the end of May, Italy have been rocked by yet another scandal. And, since Monday, the apparently unbending Giovanni Trapattoni has suddenly started toying with the idea of changing a rigid Irish formation that has been in place for four years.
If that’s the case, you would think all bets are off. Except, when you break it down, two broad truths still seem to apply.
Firstly, both Spain and Ireland are the two most consistent teams in the group in very different ways. One will expect to win every game; the other will make every game difficult to win. Secondly, for all their problems, both Croatia and Italy at least have the potential to be utterly brilliant.
Somewhere between those two truths lies the answer. We do know, however, that a recently fresher-looking Spain will pose all the questions. As with Russia and Germany, results against them may settle second place.
Prediction: Spain first, Italy second
Group D: Which teams will stay truest to themselves?
On the face of it, Group D is the easiest to split. Going through: France and England. Going out: Sweden and Ukraine. The only problem is that all of those teams themselves have multiple faces.
France, for example, have devastating options in attack but utterly debilitating ones in defence. Such a contrast has been reflected in results and performances, where Laurent Blanc’s side have oscillated between wondrous and woeful. Often in the same match.
Sweden, then, appear to be the French on a lesser scale. Overturning historical stereotypes, they look appealing up front but suddenly untrustworthy at the back.
England, of course, have had enough problems for a decade of tournaments but, when you objectively analyse it and try to divorce yourself from the extremes that tend to always pull the team either way, the overall talent of their squad probably remains in the top half of the tournament. What’s more, Roy Hodgson will at least attempt to provide them with a solid base. As it stands, England are a paradoxical mix of ructions and routine.
That’s still nothing compared to Ukraine, though, who are probably the most inconsistent team going into the tournament. They’ve verged from fine victories to farcical defeats. It’s quite possible that this group could see both too.
Again, though, it’s the greater potential of the two more established teams that make them favourites, so long as they live up to it.
Prediction: France first, England second© ESPN