With just a week left until the start of Euro 2012, excitement is understandably building across the continent.
Regarded by many as a tougher tournament to win than the World Cup, there are simply no easy matches in this competition as 16 top teams battle for one of only two major trophies on offer every four years.
It also offers players a chance to showcase their abilities on the biggest stage, and no position will be under bigger spotlight than goalkeeper, where one mistake can be the difference between success and failure on the big stage.
And, in preparation for this summer’s festivities, GiveMeFootball takes a closer look at the best players between the sticks going to Poland & Ukraine.
Igor Akinfeev – Russia
A quick glance at Euro 2012 group stage will tell you that Group A is the weakest, and will probably be decided by the odd goal in matches between Russia, Greece, Poland and the Czech Republic.
Whilst Premier League stoppers Petr Cech and Wojciech Szczesny are between the sticks for their respective countries, it’s Akinfeev who could be the decisive factor in who progresses to the quarter-final stage.
Just 26-years-old, the 51-cap international still has plenty of experience, making his debut for CSKA Moscow in 2003 and then his country the following year.
Previously linked with Manchester United, Akinfeev has stayed loyal to CSKA and represented his club in both the Champions League and Europa League over the past eight years.
A safe pair of hands, quick to meet on-rushing strikers and incredible reflexes – Akinfeev is certainly one to watch this summer.
Iker Casillas – Spain
A living legend in Spanish football, Casillas has been capped 130 times for his country, wearing the armband in victory at Euro 2008 and the World Cup in 2010.
The record appearance maker for his country, Casillas made his debut in 2000, and shows no sign of relinquishing the No.1 spot despite pressure from Victor Valdes and Pepe Reina. Young Manchester United keeper David De Gea can’t get near the squad, let alone a starting space.
Success with Real Madrid this season could be a pre-curser for summer glory, and Casillas was at the heart of that glory as skipper for Jose Mourinho’s side.
Great positional sense, a wonderful shot-stopper and excellent communicator, Casillas is a last line of defence to fear - if you can get the ball off their players.
Joe Hart - England
Great things have been expected of the 25-year-old for many years, with Hart first bursting onto the scene at Shrewsbury Town before earning a move to Manchester City in 2006.
A loan to Birmingham City was the key moment in Hart’s career, with the youngster showing he could handle the pressures of the Premier League. He returned to the Etihad Stadium to take the number one spot from Shay Given.
Fabio Capello gave Hart his first chance in a 2008 friendly, and was selected for the 2010 World Cup without featuring in South Africa. Failure in the tournament saw a change of focus though, and the Citizens stopper would become first choice.
Impressive agility, unerring confidence and an innate ability to make athletic saves, Hart is certainly a keeper for this tournament, and the next decade to follow.
Maarten Stekelenburg - Netherlands
Stekelenburg had to wait for his chance between the sticks in Holland, with legend Edwin Van der Sar retiring in 2008 after making 130 international appearances.
The 29-year-old former Ajax stopper was next in line, making his debut in 2004 and playing understudy to the Manchester United goalkeeper for the next four years before he called time on his career.
One of the stars of the country’s trip to the final at the 2010 World Cup, the current Roma No.1 is a commanding presence between the sticks, standing over 6ft 5in but able to get down low to make saves.
In the ultra-tough Group B this summer, it could be a battle of the keepers as Germany, Denmark and Portugal all look to reach the knockout stage of the competition.
Manuel Neuer – Germany
Another player who had to bide his time before getting a crack at the international number one spot, but injuries propelled the 26-year-old to first choice in 2010 and he hasn’t lost it since.
After making his debut against the UAE the year before, Robert Enke’s shock death and then and injury to Rene Adler meant he was the main man between the sticks in South Africa.
He helped his country reach the semi-final, showing impeccable form throughout, which subsequently continued for club and country. His performances with Schalke in the Champions League the following year were exceptional, leading to a Bayern Munich move in the summer.
Regarded as one of the world’s best, Neuer is the latest great German goalkeeper after Oliver Kahn, and played every minute of every qualifying game ahead of this summer’s tournament.
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