The European Championship is under way and already the first major upset has taken place with Denmark defeating Holland 1-0. Holland, a pre-tournament favorite, shot 26 times without finding the back of the net, as if to show that this tournament will be won by the team that knows how to finish.
Group D gets under way with a clash between two former world champions England and France. The Lions have to undertake the tournament in Donetsk, with a new coach, Roy Hodgson and losing Frank Lampard and Gary Cahill in defense.
For once they can count on a solid goalkeeper in Manchester City Joe Hart. Hodgson will also depend on veterans John Terry as center halfback, Ashley Cole on left back, Glen Johnson on the right and possibly Lescott to replace Cahill.
The English midfield still has plenty of talent with Steven Gerrard, James Milner and Scott Parker leading the way. Up front Wayne Rooney will miss the game for a suspension, and big Andy Caroll will start with Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck. The English, for once, are approaching this European Championship with something approaching humility, and it might well serve them if they were to win this first important game.
France have had a resurgence under coach Laurent Blanc after their humiliating performance at the South African World Cup. Benzema has emerged as a world class striker for Real Madrid under Mourinho. In midfielder, Bayern's Ribery, Manchester City’s Nasri, and Chelsea’s Malouda can hold their own with any team.
Blanc also has a strong defense in Rami, Mexes of AC Milan, and Evra of Man U. Solid Hugo Lloris is a very secure goalkeeper and Blanc has a good solid bench as well with Ben Arfa, Louis Saha, Menez and French champion Olivier Giroud.
Physically the French are in better shape and haven't had the injuries, and suspensions of the English team. Coach Blanc has had a longer time to gel his team together, and so I must give a slight edge to the French team in this first game. But it's very close, and as both teams have very talented player it should be an excellent game.
The second game of Group D in Ukraine features home team Ukraine versus Sweden to be played in Kiev. The Ukraine national team has had numerous problems as of late, being eliminated by the Greeks for the World Cup in South Africa. The Ukraine Federation gave the team to former legend Oleh Blokhin in the hopes of advancing, at least to the second round.
The Ukraine team relies on Bayern's midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, heart and soul of the team. Andriy Shevchenko is still a force at age 35, but sees his diminishing skills hurt by injuries. He can still change a game however with his great talent. Blokhin has Butko, Kucher, and Selin in defense.
In midfield they have Tymoshchuk, Rakitskiy and Yarmolenko. Up front, Shevchenko and Milevskiy will try to damage the Swedish team. The Ukraine national team is largely based on Dynamo Kiev and will be playing in front of their home crowd which is an added value of course.
The star of Sweden is A.C Milan’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has won 8 titles in 10 years with Inter, Barcelona and AC Milan. His physical size and great skill are intimidating and Ukraine will have their hands full to stop him. John Elmander will join him up front, but look for Feyenoord revelation in 20 year old John Guidetti. He was the top scorer in Holland for Feyenoord and adds speed to this Swedish front line.
In midfield, coach Erik Hamren can count on Larsson, Elm, Kallstrom of Lyon and Svensson. The Swedish defense features Isaksson of PSV in goal, Lustig, Mellberg, Olsson and the other Martin Ollson of Blackburn Rovers. The Swedish are a solid, but not spectacular team that are dependent on their superstar Ibrahimovic to win the game for them.
The Ukraine team has to put on a good display for their home crowd, but risk playing the way Poland did against Greece. If Ibrahimovic is allowed space he will punish the Ukraine team and the home crowd as well. Despite the advantage of playing at home, I have to give the Swedish team the edge in this first game.