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Euro 2012 Preview, Predictions: England, France, Sweden, Ukraine

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Chances are the word "Ukraine" conjures up two images for most Americans:

1. Kramer and Newman playing the game "Risk" on a New York City subway.

2. The Chernobyl disaster.

Hey, but you want to talk about disasters, how about the Ukraine national soccer team. Am I right?

Please, try the veal.

UKRAINE

I love 'em:

Umm, four years ago I would have wrote Andriy Schevchenko has a hot (American) wife, but I'm trying to mature as a blogger (and move out of the basement.) So, yeah, not a lot about Ukraine jumps off the page in the likeability scales. If you're a tactics nerd that prays to the altar of English scribe Johnny Wilson, then old Dynamo Kiev teams of Valeriy Lobanovsky probably mean a lot to you -- or at least they're something you can say to other "soccer snobs" to try to sound more intelligent.   

I hate 'em:

Human rights violations anyone

Bottom line:

Maybe everybody on Ukraine's team ought to give Michel Platini and the nice folks at UEFA a nice Steve Brule-style kiss for allowing the nation -- despite a growing cloud of human rights violations -- for hosting the tournament. Hard to see Ukraine even sniffing the final 16 without hosting rights.

Let's not pretend anything here either. Ukraine has a 35-year-old Andriy Schevchenko, a pony-tailed Andriy Voronin, a bunch of dudes on Dimino Kyiv in the mix, plus players from such esteemed clubs as Illichivets Mariupol and Tavriya Simferopol.

I'm not Wilson or somebody pretending to spend my free time watching grainy feeds of Eastern Bloc club soccer. Ukraine is by far the weakest team in the field and if they sniff the knockout stages that's more an indication of the terrible job done by the other three teams in this group than it is anything else.

SWEDEN

I love 'em:

If anything, you have to love Sweden for helping my friend Jared choice the term, "The Swede," which applies when you, despite your best intentions, keep failing at life -- or any situation. For instance, the last couple weeks I've been the personification of the Swede (go through my Twitter timeline from Saturday night if you don't believe me.) ... Spotify just might be the greatest invention ever. Please sign up for an account and subscribe to my playlists, ok. ... Swedish meatballs at Ikea, hell, all the food at the Ikea cafeteria except for that disgusting fish platter, is amazing. The particle board furniture, less so.

I hate 'em:

If Cristiano Ronaldo, with a wink, wears the "black hat" as a cartoon villain on the soccer field, Zlatan Ibrahimovic isn't too far behind. Ibrahimovic is approaching 1990s wrestling levels of villainy. You have expect him to play the match in jorts and chokeslam somebody when the ref isn't looking. He's a heel. He knows you hate him. In fact he probably loves that you hate him ... as he goes home to sleep in a big bed atop a pile of money and a beautiful woman. What's infuriating about Ibrahimovic, aside from his Champions League foibles at Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan and even mighty Barcelona, is he can get away with being a massive asshole because he can score goals like this and you can't.

Bottom line:

Ok, in fairness, Ibrahimovic isn't the RVD of Sweden, as in the "whole F'n show" but he's pretty darn close to it. As he goes, so goes the team since he's the one true superstar in the side and since he's such a temperamental player, his play has an effect on the rest of the squad.

Sweden, in a sense, got a raw deal with the schedule. It opens with Ukraine, who is by far the whipping boy of the group, yet it's on home soil and if the hosts are ever going to do anything it's going to be in the first match when they try to impress. Had Sweden draw France or England -- without Rooney -- in game one, it's a much different equation.

Also, the youngest player on Sweden's roster is 24 (keep an eye on AZ's Rasmus Elm, and defender Martin Olsson, looking for a move away from relegated Blackburn.) So there's a sense that this team is what it is. If France and England self-destruct, Sweden is going to be there to move into the next round, that is unless Ibrahimovic is simply unplayable in the three group games. The question, is Ibrahimovic, the guy who ripped Arsenal to shreds pulling the strings of the Milan attack in their first leg of the Champions League knockout game, or the guy who scored a bulk of his goals in Serie A from the penalty spot?

Just like Ronaldo, for the all ink and awards at the club level scooped up by the big Swede, one of these days he's going to have to do something tangible on the big international level, right?

ENGLAND

I love 'em:

It might not be love, but there are few things in sports quite as fun as following the England team and its inevitable failures. It's sports Schadenfreude at its best.  ... No sense listing it all, but lots and lots of very good music has come from England, in case you've been living under a rock. ... Knock me all you like, I've always had a soft spot for the Wayne Rooney experience.

I hate 'em:

John Terry. The end.

No need to discuss why Terry is among sport's most unlikeable, clueless, perspective-less, pile of human fecal matter. He doesn't deserve it.

What should really gall you, especially if you have a fond spot in your heart for the Three Lions, is that the English FA basically had to bend over backward in its planning for the Euro to accommodate Mr. Terry -- as he awaits a trial for racial abuse of Anton Ferdinand.

RACIAL. ABUSE.

Let it sink in.

Yep, Fabio Capello balked that the English FA decided it, you know, just might not be the best idea to have its national team represented by a turd like Terry. Sad it took the racism allegations for England to finally do it, but hey, as the sign at Stamford Bridge says -- "CAPTAIN. LEGEND. LEADER."

Let me also add a mocking, "hero," because if anyone fits the describe of hero it's not first responders or good Samaritans, it's this man, John Terry.

You get what you ask for England.

Bottom line:

Weird scenario with England this year ahead of the tournament. Usually, before the start of every major competition, despite all their self-loathing England fans tend to talk themselves into believing that this is the year the Three Lions head the hoodoo dating back to 1966 -- nevermind the fact England winning a tournament in 2012 probably would spell the end of the world, particularly on the heels of Chelsea claiming the Champions League on penalties last month.

This year, hard to find anyone, I mean anyone aside from by buddy Suppe with any fleeting praise over England's chances.

A week ago, there might have been a sense England could surprise at the tournament. Whatever Roy Hodgson decides to do with the side -- well a compact set of two four-man defensive lines -- he can't tell Theo Walcott, Jermaine Defoe, Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain not to have pace. Throw in Glenn Johnson and Ashley Cole on the outside and England's outside players, and attackers are fast.

So with the defense all sorts of a mess now that Gary Cahill broke his jaw and Rio Ferdinand didn't get a call to play next to Terry and their best shielding option -- Gareth Barry -- also hurt, why not just play balls to the wall and throw everything forward? Sitting back, waiting for the other opponent to blink? Sure that works with some teams, but with England eventually the other shoe is going to drop. Joe Hart is going to get blinded by the sun and lose a ball. Terry is going to fall over his own disgustingly misguided ego and allow a soft goal. If it's 0-0 or 1-1 late in a match, something bad is going to happen to England. In the words of George McFly, it's their density.

Instead of counter-punching, England should utilize its 1-v-1 skill and speed and take games to teams and try to bridge the gap until Rooney is back from his two-game ban vs. Ukraine.

Realistically England's tournament boils down to one thing -- can it beat Sweden without Rooney? In turn, that might mean putting trust in Andy Carroll up front -- no wonder England fans are the most irrationally insane group of fans out there. Carroll -- bolt of lightning strike me down -- was actually considered to be an up-and-coming player, not the butt-end of a joke.

Even if you're the biggest fatalist in the world, how does England even without Frank Lampard and everyone else not have enough to get past a Sweden team that, Ibrahimovic aside, is very ordinary. Olof Mellberg -- washed up years ago -- is still in the mix for this team!

Yet that's how English fans think. Seb Larsson, an afterthought when he's at Birmingham City or now Sunderland, but put him in a yellow Sweden top and he's a worldbeater. Insane.

If England can't find a way to beat Ukraine, then it deserves all the ridicule we'll all give it on Twitter.

And even if it does play well, it probably gets Spain in the quarterfinals.

Like I said, it's fun to take perverse pleasure in this team's shortcomings.

FRANCE

I love 'em:

Lots and lots of attacking talent. ... YOU FRENCH PIG!!!!!

I hate 'em:

Decades of staler than an old fart jokes about France's capitulation to the Nazis in WWII have ingrained a certain distrust for Americans toward the French. ... Karim Benzema was one of my most hated opponents in "FIFA 12." ... Coach Laurent Blanc put his foot in his mouth when he said the French youth system should enact quotas to protect itself from training players who'd eventually trade their allegiances to other nations.

Bottom line:

Call me crazy, but it says here France has a nice tournament. (Stop laughing.)

France can't be any worse than it was at the World Cup, but its essentially cleaned house from top to bottom.

Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema -- each left off the 2010 roster for South Africa -- are coming off title-winning seasons at Manchester City and Real Madrid. Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa were both excellent this season at Newcastle United. Franck Ribery needs no mention. Mathieu Debuchy, with a good tournament at right back, is coming to a Premier League club near you for a lot of money. Same for midfield anchor Yan M'Vila, who is an injury concern at the moment.

There's a lot to like about the attacking options at Blanc's disposal, even without Loic Remy -- meaning Oliver Giroud, with only five caps, will have to carryover his form from Ligue 1 champion Montpellier in backup of Benzema.

The indelible line I'll remember from Euro 2008 was Adrian Healy proclaiming, "IT'S A DUTCH OVEN AND THE FRENCH ARE TOAST." This tournament there's a great chance, if everything clicks and Blanc gets the squad selection correct, France can run all the teams in this group off the field.

Yes, like everybody else, it's defense doesn't inspire much, with Phillipe Mexes and Adil Rami decidedly average, but which contender doesn't have issues? If Blanc was wise, he'd let the workmanlike Gael Clichy start at right back over the suddenly erratic Patrice Evra -- the last lingering trouble from the doomed Les Bleus 2010 squad.

After the debacles at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, France can't do much worse. Expecting a title here or even a place in the final might be a bridge too far for this group, but remember France for Brazil 2014.

Group winners: France
Runners up: England

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