The bookmakers had no need of a crystal ball to place Spain, Germany and Holland at the top of the betting. Throw in France as fourth favourites and you have a semi-final line-up for the European Championships that is hard to refute.
Remarkably the bookies have England as the best of the rest, investing perhaps in the idea that credentials on paper don’t always match plausibility on the pitch, as Chelsea demonstrated in winning the Champions League against the odds.
Should Group D follow the pattern of the warm-up games against Norway and Belgium and yield narrow wins from fleeting possession against France and Sweden, then a route to the semi-finals that does not embrace Spain would be the reward for England.
That’s the good bit. The bad bit is called Germany or Holland; the most likely adversaries in the penultimate round were England to slip stealthily through the draw.
The chances of that are slim if Hodgson fails to lift England above the dreary functionality so far displayed. And neither would it be in the national interest. History bestows its own damning verdict on the methods employed by the mother country in tournament play.
It might be a good thing were a reconstituted France, unbeaten in 20 games, to rub our noses in it to rid us of the bleak vision that, at international level at least, too readily strips the joy from the fan experience.
Under Laurent Blanc, France have recovered impressively from the revolt of Knysna, where Patrice Evra led the players on World Cup strike following a dispute between coach Raymond Domenech and Nicolas Anelka. If England struggled to get the ball off Norway and Belgium, it won’t be any easier to muscle Samir Nasri, Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa and Jeremy Menez off it.
Group B, featuring Germany, Holland, Portugal and Denmark justifies the ‘group of death’ label, but also offers the winner a route to the final that does not cross paths with Spain, who head the other side of the draw. Given Portugal’s lamentable form coming into the tournament, Denmark, 10th in the FIFA rankings, constitute the biggest threat to German and Dutch equilibrium.
The pair come together next Wednesday in the eastern Ukraine city of Kharkiv, a match that could yet be a final rehearsal. Germany were the most attractive team at the last World Cup, flooding the starting XI with youth and exuberance.
The inclusion of 21-year-old midfielder Ilkay Gundogan is another bold step that mirrors the rise of Mesut Ozil, who was plucked from the under-21s and played like the great inside forwards of old, ghosting past defenders in the final third and finding the killer pass.
Coach Joachim Loew, his jet-black mop framing an inscrutable face, was the epitome of urban cool and sent out a team that was equally cutting edge, and this a team dismissed by the German cognoscenti before the tournament. Loew went for youth and flair, and were it not for the overwhelming presence of Spain in the semi-finals, might have taken yet another world crown for Germany.
It will be fascinating to discover how much of their imperious charm Spain have retained from the World Cup. No country has ever retained this crown.
With Carles Puyol and David Villa injured, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta arguably slowing and Fernando Torres short of confidence, Spain are perhaps not the force of old. But a force they certainly are.
The Dutch are tasked with the powerful motivation of reclaiming their footballing soul. After morphing into an ugly parody of their footballing forebears in an attempt to stop Spain two years ago, Holland appear ready to reassert the values of total football.
In Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Ibrahim Afellay they have an attacking quartet as good as any in the tournament.
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