Tricksters, driving forces and goal-machines - the players expected to shine at Euro 2012
Euro 2012 is finally upon us and over the next three weeks fans can sit back and enjoy 16 teams competing on 31 games to decide Europe's no.1 nation.
Here we look at some of the tricksters, driving forces, goal-machines and young guns England could come up against in Poland and Ukraine.
Mesut Ozil (Germany)
Agile, smart and opportunistic, it’s little wonder Germany’s 23-year-old playmaker is nicknamed der Rabe (the Raven) in his homeland. No player in European club football’s elite has created more goals than the lavishly gifted schemer, who scored five times in qualifying and could form part of a mouth-watering midfield duo with the equally precocious Mario Goetze under the banner ‘Gotzil’. “There is no copy of him,” believes Ozil’s manager at Real Madrid Jose Mourinho, “not even a bad copy.”
Christian Eriksen (Denmark)
Don’t let the neat blond hair and choirboy looks fool you, the 20-year-old Dane has the talent, maturity and desire to excel at Euro 2012. Creator-in-chief, Eriksen made four assists in Denmark’s final three qualifying ties, including a lucid pass for Michael Krohn-Dehli’s opener in a 2-1 win over this summer’s Group B opponents Portugal. “He’s a player I really like with all my heart,” says Ajax deity Johan Cruyff. “You can compare him with Michael and Brian Laudrup.”
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
The serial record botherer has enjoyed another blockbusting season in Madrid. Sixty goals from the Madeira-born winger’s 55 La Liga-winning appearances – to go with seven goals in Euro 2012 qualification, including a trademark dipping free-kick against group winners Denmark – barely do another season of delicious dribbles, electric pace and muscular all-round game justice. “He has to win at all times and that makes him one of the best players in the world,” says A Selecao boss Paulo Bento.
Fernando Llorente (Spain)
A 6ft 5in striker who towers over defenders literally as well as metaphorically, Llorente has been in sparkling form in Athletic Bilbao’s run to the Europa League Final, along with fellow squad member Javi Martinez. With David Villa out of this summer’s European jamboree, the 27-year-old could be the Plan B Barcelona lacked in the Champions League semi-final against Chelsea: a strapping centre-forward to occupy defenders while Spain’s gaggle of impish schemers buzz around him.
Sebastian Giovinco (Italy)
Since leaving hometown club Juventus for Parma in 2010, the 5ft 4in Formica Atomica (Atomic Ant) has restored his reputation as one of Calcio’s highly rated trequartistas. Still just 25, Giovinco scored eleven and created another 16 goals in all competitions in 2011/12 and could be the inventive presence Italy need to unlock serried opposition defences. “He’s more than just an interesting player. He’s also proving to be ice cool in front of goal,” says Azzurri boss Cesare Prandelli.
Robert Lewandovski (Poland)
One of three Borussia Dortmund players in coach Franciszek Smuda’s squad – right-back Lukasz Piszczek is wanted by Real Madrid and Polish captain Jakub Blaszczykowski were also the bedrock of the double-winning squad – the 23-year-old averaged better than a goal a game last season. From a sporting family – his father is a former Judo champion, while mother and sister Milena played professional volleyball – the skilful forward is Poland’s second youngest goalscorer, his canny movement a feature of the co-hosts’ game.
A leggy midfielder blessed with rare vision, if Kevin Strootman
can replicate his fine displays for PSV Eindhoven at international level, he could be the Netherlands’ under-the-radar star. France’s athletic midfield screen Yann M’Vila
, 21, has reportedly been an Arsenal target for some time and provides Laurent Blanc’s Bleus with the platform to allow Samir Nasri, Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema.
In cherubic centre-back Kyriakos Papadopoulos
, diminutive winger Giannis Fetfatzidis
and playmaking midfielder Sotiris Ninis
Greece have a core of under-22s who will provide the bedrock for future generations. Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be Sweden’s captain and go-to goal threat but 24-year-old midfielder Rasmus Elm
’s Eredivisie form for AZ Alkmaar demands attention. Tall with good vision and a ferocious long-range shot, he is highly rated.
A fixture on the right of CSKA Moscow’s midfield before breaking a toe in March, Alan Dzagoev
will go into Euro 2012 refreshed. The hard-working midfielder scored three goals in Russia’s last two qualifiers and is described by former boss Guus Hiddink as “very clever”. A versatile 22-year-old attacker who can play on either wing or as a central striker, Andriy Yarmolenko
's left foot is so highly prized he is touted as Ukraine's most promising talent since Andriy Shevchenko.
Relishing Sunderland life under Martin O'Neil, left-wing flyer James McClean
combines electric pace and a savage shot with a never-say-die spirit to which coach Giovanni Trapattoni can relate.
For all the latest information from the tournament check out our Euro 2012 news section, or our updates direct from UEFA.