All of us at ISN are excited about the European Championships. We reached out to some of the biggest experts in the game to get different perspectives into one of the world’s biggest sporting events. Our experts include ESPN’s Ian Darke and Steve McManaman, AFC Cleveland manager Andy Hoggarth and Australian midfielder Carlo Manna (also from AFC Cleveland).
1. Who is your favorite to win the European Championship?
Hoggarth: Obviously you have to be looking at Spain with the talent they have and their recent record, but my pick for this year’s winner is Germany. I think so often the German team gets overlooked as a potential winner in these tournaments, but they are always there or there about. I think the Bundesliga is one of the most interesting leagues to watch on television as it is always high tempo, good skill and vision and is made up of typical hardworking German teams. With their work ethic and arrogance I don’t believe Germany will be far off from winning the competition.
Manna: I think Spain are the favorite, but Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy are teams good enough to win it all.
Darke: Everybody is saying it is between Spain and Germany and the Netherlands. I just wonder whether someone is going to sneak up on the rails like Greece did in 2004.
McManaman: I fancy Spain. I know that it is an easy pick after what we’ve seen in the last couple of years. On paper they have a relatively straightforward group. They’re full of confidence and they’ve got wonderful players.
2. Who is a darkhorse team to watch for?
Hoggarth: I am not really sure of the darkhorse as I think the cream will really rise in this year’s tournament. If I had to pick an outsider though I would probably go for Russia or Croatia as I believe they have a lot of grit and determination to match their talent and if teams take them lightly then shocks will occur. If they can get everything off the field sorted then one of those two teams may surprise us on it.
Manna: Portgual could surprise and get out of the group stage.
Darke: Poland are on a good run. They haven’t conceded a goal in the last 5. I think the home advantage is going to tell for Poland. Who knows what Poland can do? They couldn’t have a better draw. They are an improving side.
McManaman: I would pick Poland as one of the darkhorses. They’ve got a goalscorer who is in good form and a good goalkeeper as we know. The home advantage will certainly help them.
3. Who is the best player in the competition?
Hoggarth: I think coming off what they have done over the last couple of years the top player of the tournament could be Van Persie of the the Netherlands or Ozil of Germany. If either of them can find the form that they have displayed for club and country recently then they will be very exciting to watch. For the good of the game of soccer I hope people get to see alot of Xavi as I think just because he isn’t the flair player or top goalscorer, the job he does and his quality of play is first-class. He sees passes and different passing angles that are unbelievable and his ball retention is something that people need to take notice of as he very rarely wastes a ball.
Manna: Cristiano Ronaldo is the ultimate attacking player. He can score with his head, both feet, and off free kicks. He is a complete player.
4. What are your expectations for England?
Hoggarth: I really don’t know what to expect for England this year. As a nation we always expect England to have a chance of winning the competition, rightly or wrongly so. I initially thought that the late appointment of Roy Hodgson was going to reduce the media pressure, but obviously all the recent press with Rio Ferdinand has brought that focus back. I think Roy is the right man for the job and if we can get to the semifinals of the competition then we can count that as a successful tournament to build on.
McManaman: There are no big expectations on them. They should qualify out of the group regardless of the team they put out. They are very difficult to beat. Their defense is always very strong. I certainly wouldn’t have them winning the tournament if they got as far as the quarterfinals.
5. What did you think of Hodgson’s squad selection for England?
Hoggarth: I thought the intial selection was pretty good and obviously the exclusion of Rio was always going to be a big talking point. I think you always have to be concerned with a player such as Rio when games are played in quick succession. I fully understand all of the concerns now with not taking Rio and taking Kelly from Liverpool instead. Personally once it became apparent that Cahill was injured I would have preferred to see Micah Richards included as I think he provides better cover for more positions and would have actually had him on the list before Rio Ferdinand. Overall I think the rest of the squad is ok and the only other slight changes I would have considered would maybe to take a player in the Michael Carrick mold in case Scott Parker gets injured. I would also like to see us include a player such as Joe Cole and give him some freedom to roam as I think we have lacked the creativity that other teams have for many years now since the days when Paul Gascoigne was in his prime.
6. How will Italy’s chances at the tournament be affected by the recent match-fixing scandal?
McManaman: I think the whole shadow that is over Italian soccer at the moment is terrible. Giovanni Trapattoni said whether this is true or not, the fact that it is another allegation after what has gone on in the past is seriously damaging. Italy is coming into this tournament with some terrible results, some really poor performances. I don’t think I have seen an Italian side as weak as this in a long, long time. It’s sad to say as they are one of our superpowers in European football. I don’t think these allegations will help whatsoever. I think it has a lot of negativity. If the Italian government wanted them to leave the tournament they would have. The stigma that is going around with the Italian side now is not helping them at all. They need to lose it and concentrate on the football as soon as possible, but it seems to be more deep rooted than we ever thought.
Darke: They are in complete disarray at the moment. It is impossible to believe that everything going on back home will not affect this squad of players. They may not even qualify from the group and that would be a catastrophe for them after what happened at the World Cup. Ireland and Croatia are capable of causing an upset for Italy. At the moment I’d say you fear for them.