Football

Euro 2012: Year of the underdog?

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Dzagoev is one of Russia's young stars (©GettyImages)
Dzagoev is one of Russia's young stars (©GettyImages).

With the first match-week of Euro 2012 drawing to a close, a dramatic, exciting and high-scoring tournament has largely favoured the unfancied teams so far. Could 2012 really be the year of the underdog?

Already Chelsea have upset the odds to secure Champions League glory. Manchester City's spending power may not encourage much empathy, but City's comeback from an eight-point deficit in the Premier League was a remarkable feat built on an underdog spirit.

Elsewhere Athletic Bilbao's talented young team reached a Europa League final and Newcastle threatened to gatecrash the Champions League party. And, after the opening matches of Euro 2012, all three of the favourites to take home the trophy have stumbled to a disappointing first result.

Germany, Spain and Holland's disappointment is not yet cause for panic but each will still share growing concern. A win, draw and loss respectively means each of the countries have fresh priorities for their second group stage encounter, and none of the three have underlined their pre-tournament favourite credentials.

Germany opened with a win, but the manner of the victory, powered unconvincingly by a strained effort and a stuttering attack, went against all the expectations of a smooth, vibrant, and youthful German side.

Reigning champions Spain's 1-1 draw with Italy was more notable for Spanish coach Vicente Del Bosque's decision to abandon tactical conformity and instead opt for six midfielders and no strikers.

Spain have plenty of the ball at the best of times, and with six highly-capable passers on the field, Xavi and co certainly kept hold of the ball. But, until Torres came on up front with 15 minutes to go, Italy looked the more dangerous.

Holland have forward problems of their own, only their dilemmas are largely of their own making. Their shock 1-0 defeat to Denmark was populated by missed chances, with Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben the principal offenders. The loss now leaves Bert van Marwijk's side facing an uphill battle just to escape the group, with tough fixtures against Germany and Portugal to come.

While three of the world's top four teams stumble in Ukraine and Poland, some of the competition's underdogs have begun in fine form. Russia have been the pick of the bunch. Admittedly, Dick Advocaat's side found themselves in a relatively simple group, and Czech Republic will not prove to be their sternest opponents.

But a 4-1 victory is nonetheless mightly impressive and, Andrei Arshavin, away from the critical calls from the Emirates Stadium, has reprised his role as chief creator of a talented Russian team. Alan Dzagoev, two-goal hero against the Czechs, and Igor Denisov also impressed, while their defence, built around their CSKA Moscow stalwarts, Sergei Ignashevich and Aleksei Berezutskiy, has been solid.

Likewise, Holland's conqueror's Denmark, revealed their template for survival in the 'Group of Death'. Faced with the challenge of negotiating the Dutch, Germans and Portuguese, Morten Olsen's team will summon the spirit of 1992.

A highly-talented defence, led by Simon Kjaer and Daniel Agger, are screened by a pair of holding midfielders, allowing Cristian Eriksen, Dennis Rommedahl and Michael Krohn-Dehli to create in the final third.

The presence of a Premier League striker, Nicklas Bendtner, does not mean the frontman is expected to score the goals, as Bendtner's main task is to bring others into play high up the pitch. With three points already in the bag, Denmark are poised to eliminate one of the favourites at this early stage, and Holland look the most vulnerable.

Croatia, whose commanding result over Ireland's puts them in an excellent position, can look forward to tough matches against Italy and Spain, and be reasonably confident of causing an upset.

Against Ireland they were technically immaculate, playing a short, sharp passing game that was kept ticking over by the metronomic play of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.

Unheralded forwards have begun this tournament well, with Robert Lewandowski, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Mario Mandzukic grabbing early goals. All three could be crucial to any underdog success, and Croatia certainly possess a formidable strike partnership in Mandzukic and Everton striker Nikica Jelavic.

So while the favourites have struggled, the lesser lights have flourished. Russia, Croatia and maybe even Denmark may have been some people's dark horses before the tournament, but their fast starts have given their fans hopes of a special tournament.

The precedent for these teams is there. Czech Republic in 1976, Denmark in 1992, and most recently Greece in 2004 have all upset the odds and triumphed on the continental stage. A window of opportunity could be edging open in this group stage, and several are poised to take advantage.

Topics:
Internationals
Football
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