By Chris McDonald
The co-hosts will be looking to improve on their last and only appearance at a European Championship four years ago, when they crashed out in the first round after two defeats and a draw.
Player Match Of The Day pundits have heard of: Wojciech Szczesny
The Arsenal player has not only threatened to provide the long-term solution to the club’s long-term David Seaman-less goalkeeping woes, but also briefly flirted with being a true rarity: a footballer who is interesting on Twitter. That is until he tweeted that Arsenal team-mate Aaron Ramsey looked “like a rapist”, apologised, and promptly disappeared.
Player Match Of The Day pundits won’t have heard of (but should have): Robert Lewandowski
The 23-year-old striker just won the double in Germany with Borussia Dortmund, where his 30 goals in 46 games and all-round ability to lead the line saw him outshine Bayern Munich’s 41-goal Mario Gomez. He’s rumoured to be a target of Manchester United, so enjoy him while he’s still likeable.
Liverpool connection: Jakub ‘Kuba’ Blaszczykowski was heavily linked with the Reds under Rafael Benitez. A team-mate of Lewandowski’s at Dortmund, the nippy right-winger has been overshadowed by German golden boy Mario Götze at club level, but is captain of his national team. He also once out-Rosenthaled Ronny Rosenthal.
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Champions in 1960 and three-time runners-up (all as the Soviet Union), Russia looked primed for a resurgence after impressing at Euro 2008 under Guus Hiddink. They’ve lost their way a little since then, but are easily the most talented team in a poor group.
Player Match Of The Day pundits have heard of: Andrey Arshavin
The attacking midfielder-cum-forward’s portly arse and fading influence most mirrors Russia’s post-2008 decline. Honourable mentions for Yuri Zhirkov (better than he showed at Chelsea), Roman Pavlyuchenko (about as frustratingly inconsistent as he was at Spurs) and Pavel Pogrebnyak (good in a limited way at Zenit, poor at Stuttgart until reborn at Fulham).
Player Match Of The Day pundits won’t have heard of (but should have): Aleksandr Kerzhakov
After a brief, largely unsuccessful spell in Spain at Sevilla, the forward returned home to Zenit St Petersburg via Dynamo Moscow and has been one of the best players in Russia in recent seasons. Pundits argue that his ability to drop off the front and link up makes Russia’s attacking play more fluid and less predictable. Another player to look out for is Alan Dzagoev, a 21-year-old attacking midfielder who has suffered from confidence issues but can pick a pass and unlock defences.
Liverpool connection: In 2008, Zenit St Petersburg’s combustible-but-influential midfielder Roman Shirokov was pressed into action as a makeshift centre-back by then-Zenit (now Russia) coach Dick Advocaat to cover for the loss of defender Martin Skrtel to Liverpool.
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Shock winners in 2004, Greece finally parted ways with the mastermind of that triumph, 73-year-old hair dye aficionado Otto Rehhagel, in 2010. That said, the German’s fingerprints are still all over the this team, whose modus operandi under current coach Fernando Santos remains to bore the entire planet out of existence.
Player Match Of The Day pundits have heard of: Georgios Samaras
The lank-haired Celtic striker has never been what you’d call prolific, either at club level or internationally (seven goals in 54 caps), but his is the head Greece will look to aim their various punts and set-pieces at.
Player Match Of The Day pundits won’t have heard of (but should have): Sotiris Ninis
Parma-bound Panathinaikos attacking midfielder/winger Ninis offers much of what Greece lack: pace, dribbling ability, exciting things like that. Unfortunately, it appears that the 21-year-old will start the tournament on the bench. Instead, keep an eye out for 20-year-old Schalke centre-back/defensive midfielder Kyriakos Papadopoulos.
Liverpool connection: With Sotirios ‘The Kyrgan’ Kyrgiakos retired from international football since August 2010, nada.
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Winners as Czechoslovakia in 1976 thanks to Panenka’s Panenka’d penalty in the shoot-out against West Germany, the Czechs have made a habit of being good without winning at the Euros since they and Slovakia parted ways. They finished runners-up in 1996 and reached the semi-finals in 2004 – a tournament they arguably should have won. This time they probably won’t be good and almost certainly won’t win.
Player Match Of The Day pundits have heard of: Petr Cech
Polyglot, fashion icon for narcoleptics and still a very good keeper, freshly crowned Champions League winner Cech will be looking to make amends for his late horror show against Turkey in 2008. Arsenal’s Tomas Rosicky also had a decent second half of the season, but has only just been passed fit for the Czechs’ opener.
Player Match Of The Day pundits won’t have heard of (but should have): Petr Jiracek
OK, so I probably should have amended the header here because this is a relatively raw, inexperienced and talent-light squad, obvious old-guard names such as Cech, Rosicky, Milan Baros, Tomas Hubschman and Jaroslav Plasil aside. Exciting up-and-coming names are at a premium, but Jiracek’s performances for Viktoria Plzen earned the central midfielder a move to Wolfsburg in Germany, where he has been joined by young winger Vaclav Pilar.
Liverpool connection: Reds can get nostalgic over Baros’ fondness from staring intently at his feet (and nothing else) as he runs. But aside from the perma-hunched striker, Vladimir Smicer works in an administrative capacity above coach Michal Bilek.
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