Euro 2012 hosts given little chance
WARSAW - Poland get the honour of opening Euro 2012 tonight against surprise 2004 winners Greece but it would take a major upset to see either team or co-hosts Ukraine progress as far as the July 1 final in Kiev.
Instead, few people would disagree with Uefa president Michel Platini, who has predicted a repeat of the 2008 Spain-Germany final, as a major football championship goes behind the former Iron Curtain for the first time.
Holders and world champions Spain arrive aiming for an unprecedented three titles in a row for a European country, while Germany are intent on avenging their defeat in 2008 and two years later in the World Cup semifinal.
But some believe that La Roja's fluid passing game that has worn down opponents in the past is vulnerable.
Vicente del Bosque's side is also missing talismanic defender Carles Puyol and all-time record scorer David Villa through injury, while question marks remain over the form of Chelsea striker Fernando Torres and Puyol's Barca central defensive partner Gerard Pique.
Germany, for their part, have looked like the natural heirs to the Spanish crown after a young and vibrant Mannschaft impressed at the 2010 World Cup and qualified for Euro 2012 with a perfect record. Friendly defeats at home to France in February and last month to Switzerland, though, have raised last-minute doubts.
Germany team manager Oliver Bierhoff, scorer of the golden goal that brought the country its last European crown in 1996, has been trying to downplay expectations.
Should either Spain or Germany fail to shine, the Netherlands are obvious candidates to take advantage and add a second European title to the one they won in 1988.
The Dutch have no shortage of class but they have a tendency to self-destruct. This time round, coach Bert van Maarwijk's decision to play one striker up front could be the spark for dissent in the Oranje camp.
Van Maarwijk has chosen Arsenal star Robin van Persie - fresh from 30 goals in the English Premier League - over Schalke 04's Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who top scored in the Bundesliga last season with 29 strikes.
"I already said that I am disappointed and angry," said Huntelaar after the squad's first training session in Poland.
Any discord could be fatal in the so-called "group of death", opening the door to out-of-form Portugal or solid, if unspectacular, Denmark.
Of the others, injury-hit England for once travel with such low expectations in Roy Hodgson's first campaign in charge that even making the quarterfinals could be hailed as a success.