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Euro 2012: Group A Preview, Analysis and Predictions for Historic Tournament, Winners
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Even though it's impossible to call any Euro 2012 group easy due to the immense amount of talent, Group A definitely seems like the most navigable of the bunch. Since there's no dominant team, it should provide plenty of intrigue as well.
The group features the Czech Republic, Greece, Poland and Russia. Each side has its fair share of top-end talent, but depth will be an issue. So the two teams that advance will likely be the ones which receive the best play from some unsung heroes.
Let's take a look at all four teams, some of the key factors that will ultimately decide the group and make a prediction on how the things will play out.
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Biggest Strength: Offensive firepower
The combination of Milan Baros and Tomas Rosicky give the Czech Republic a dynamic attacking duo that will put pressure on any back line. They have scored a total of 61 goals during international duty and should once again be the focus on the team's attack.
Another player to watch is Tomas Necid. He will probably come off the bench, but the 22-year-old rising star has a great chance to make an impact, even in limited minutes. Since Baros and Rosicky are both getting older, it's important to get him some valuable experience.
Biggest Weakness: Experience on defense
No defender on the Czech Republic's roster has more than 34 appearances. While playing time isn't always a big concern, during a big tournament like Euro 2012 it certainly helps, especially since the players haven't played together much.
Tomas Sivok should provide some stability in the middle, but otherwise there are plenty of questions that won't get answered until the team plays a couple of games in the tournament. And by then it might be too late to make adjustments.
Key Player: Milan Baros
Baros didn't have a great league campaign with Galatasaray, scoring just eight goals in 28 games. The Czech Republic will need him to find much better form if the team has any hope of advancing beyond the group stage.
He does have a track record of success in the European Championships. He scored five goals during the 2004 tournament, so perhaps another opportunity to play in the major event will spark him to have a strong showing.
Make or Break Match: Russia (June 8)
The Czech Republic open the group stage with a tough test against Russia. If it can secure at least one point, it would provide a huge boost to the team's chances of moving on since the Russians have the most complete team in Group A.
On the flip side, a loss will put the Czechs behind the eight ball right away and fighting from behind in these type of tournaments is always difficult since so much is out of a team's control. So a quick start will be key for the Narod'ak.
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Biggest Strength: Technical defense
Greece doesn't have much star power and won't play the most exciting style of football, but the Galanolefki are still able to be successful because they play smart. That makes them a threat to emerge as a sleeper team.
The biggest key for Greece will always be limiting mistakes in the defensive third. Socratis Papaststhopoulos has really improved over the past few years and should become the anchor of the back line. The pressure will be on him to keep everybody on the same page.
Biggest Weakness: Goal scoring
Scoring goals will be a struggle for Greece. The only two players on the team with more than 10 international goals are Nikos Liberopoulos and Theofanis Gekas, both of whom are past their primes. And nobody else appears ready to step up quite yet.
Since they plan on locking teams down defensively, it will only take a handful of goals to survive the group stage, but it's far from a guarantee for the Galanolefki. That means there are going to be plenty of tense moments along the way.
Key Player: Theofanis Gekas
Knowing Greece will be locked in a lot of close battles, Gekas' contributions will be crucial. If he can have a brief resurgence up front, suddenly the Galanolefki become a dangerous team with the ability to win the group outright.
If he's unable to generate any momentum, that's when Greece will get into trouble since there aren't many other outlets to produce scoring chances. That's a lot of focus on the veteran, but he's been through enough battles to handle it.
Make or Break Match: Czech Republic (June 12)
The second game of the group stage could very well end up deciding the second team that will advance from Group A. It's an interesting clash of styles with the Czech Republic looking to push the pace and Greece looking to defend and counterattack.
Situations like that usually favor the more patient team, which would be Greece. That said, if the Galanolefki spend too much time having to defend, sooner or later they are going to give up a goal. So it's a delicate balance that will probably go right down to the wire.
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Biggest Strength: Home-field advantage
Poland is co-hosting Euro 2012 with Ukraine, so it should receive plenty of crowd support no matter where the team plays throughout the tournament. That should give the players an extra boost of motivation, especially during key moments.
Even though it may not seem like a significant advantage, in a major tournament like this, any edge helps. Poland enters the group as an underdog, but at least the fans should help level the playing field a bit as the Bialo-czerwoni try to find a way to the knockout stages.
Biggest Weakness: Lack of offense
Aside from young star Robert Lewandowski, no other Polish player has scored more than nine times for the national team. So finding ways to generate scoring chances will be the biggest problem for the tournament hosts.
Lewandowski should carry most of the load, but defenses will be keying in to make sure he doesn't control the game. That means at least one or probably two other players will need to help him out if Poland is going to succeed.
Key Player: Wojciech Szczesny
Szczesny doesn't get enough credit for the role he played in getting Arsenal back into the Champions League for next season. There were times throughout the season when the Gunners were really struggling and he bailed them out.
He'll need to play a similar role for Poland. Since the team will have to sacrifice some defense just to score goals, there will likely be a couple real good chances per game against Szczesny. He needs to step up and make those big saves.
Make or Break Match: Greece (June 8)
It won't be the most fun match to watch, but that doesn't make it any less important. The two teams that will struggle most on offense start the tournament against each other. If Poland has any hope of moving on, it needs at least a draw.
The Bialo-czerwoni will have to decide if they are going to take a more aggressive approach and hope to keep Greece on its heels, or sit back and hope for a draw to stay alive. A loss in the opener will spell doom for Poland.
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Biggest Strength: Strikers
Russia's biggest advantage in the group is the team's group of strikers. Premier League players Andrei Arshavin and Pavel Pogrebnyak are both capable of taking over the game and Roman Pavlyuchenko can still make his presence felt as well.
With two other teams in Group A sorely lacking punch in the attacking third, those players alone should give Russia enough to advance. The Russians looked in form against Italy in a friendly, so they have to like their chances right now.
Biggest Weakness: Aging players
The biggest worry for Russians would be the team's dependence on older players. Players like Arshavin, Konstantin Zyryanov and Sergei Ignashevich are all on the wrong side of 30, which makes it tougher to predict if they can maintain a high level of play.
Since Russia doesn't have much reliable depth, a few injuries could really derail the team's hope of making a surprising charge. If everybody is able to stay healthy, they should be in good shape. If not, things could get close.
Key Player: Alan Dzagoev
Russia has the strikers to finish the job, but somebody needs to get them the ball. Dzagoev will likely play that role. The CSKA Moscow young gun has been on the rise over the past few seasons and appears ready to take the next step.
This looks like his best chance to have a breakout tournament. On a team with a lot of older players, he needs to provide some youthful exuberance to help power the team to the top of the group and beyond. He's the one to watch moving forward.
Make or Break Match: Greece (June 16)
If all goes according to plan for Russia, the team shouldn't need anything more than a draw in this match to advance. Should the Russians need that point, getting it against Greece won't be easy given the style of play.
It's a game where Russia's veteran leadership should help it avoid an upset. That said, the Russians can't take anything for granted or they'll be heading home much earlier than they anticipated. There are no guarantees.
Game to Watch: Russia vs. Czech Republic
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Russia and Czech Republic led the way in terms of being the most exciting game to watch in Group A. Since the other two teams will be more reliant on strong defense, there's a good chance those games will turn into slow-paced affairs.
At least in this game, there will be a good chance to see some scoring chances and a couple goals. Since it's the first game, it also gives both sides an opportunity to gain an early edge in the group, which would be huge for Czech Republic if it wants to advance.
Prediction: Russia 2, Czech Republic 1
Player to Watch: Petr Cech
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No player enters the tournament in better form than Cech. He made some amazing saves to help Chelsea complete a remarkable run through the Champions League and will need to carry that over to this tournament if the Czechs are going to move on.
The Narod'ak do have some concerns on defense, making Cech's play even more important. He must continue to play like one of the world's best goalkeepers for them to thrive, but it will be interesting to see how much the title run took out of him.
Getting eliminated during the group stage would be a major disappointment, so look for another strong tournament from Cech.
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2. Czech Republic
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