By Rob McDonald
Going into a tournament amid a match-fixing scandal for the second time in a decade, Italy will be hoping that 2012 will prove to be a repeat of 2006 even if they’ve only gone past the quarter-finals once in the last four Euros (when they finished runners-up in 2000).
Player Match Of The Day pundits have heard of:Mario/Wario Balotelli
This perennial human tornado is the most prominent example of the split-personality disorder that afflicts modern footballers. And the idiocy. Balotelli is actually brilliant but doesn’t care about being brilliant. A lot of Italy’s hopes will depend on which of the Balotellis show up. Either way, poor people all over Poland and Ukraine should expect lifts and cheques to be doled out left, right and centre.
Player Match Of The Day pundits won’t have heard of (but should have): Antonio Di Natale
The best striker of the last decade that no one cares about. Spearhead of the ever-evolving Udinese, his past omissions from the Azzuri squad have been oft-mind-boggling. Thankfully, Cesare Prandelli has decided to go with the talented Neapolitan rather than that duffer Marco Boriello.
Liverpool connection: The omission of part-time toilet-hogger Alberto Aquilani will be met with derision by those Liverpool fans disappointed at missing the opportunity to tell everyone what a shithouse he is. Ditto Andrea Dossena.
Support if you like: gambling
Boss. You know they’re boss, they know they’re boss. Reigning world and European champions, filled with all your favourite players, have more medals than toothbrushes. Boss.
Player Match Of The Day pundits have heard of: Fernando Torres
Inspiration for a thousand crap jokes, the pseudo-Josemi impressionist is only 28. This is often forgotten; he is entering what should be a centre-forward’s prime. Which is really funny*.
Player Match Of The Day pundits won’t have heard of (but should have): Jesus Navas
A Spanish winger. Misnomer? No. The Andalucian has HD blue eyes, feet that run on turbo and a brilliant cross. He is Theo Walcott with a brain. He is Spain’s Plan B (not lobbing the ball forward to Llorente – not everyone’s Plan B is Robert Huth-ing it) and could see his stock rise this month with Vicente del Bosque emphasising width more than in previous tournaments.
Liverpool connection: Far too depressing to write about. Apart from Pepe Reina, whom we might get to see leading mad celebrations again come July.
Support if you like: holding hands on the beach, handsome men, beautiful women, all that is good in the world
*Unless he remembers how good he is again, then it’ll be really unfunny.
Republic of Ireland
This is Ireland’s first tournament since the 2002 World Cup and their first European Championship since 1988. The Irish expelled the ghost of Thierry Henry’s hand when they defeated Estonia in a play-off to qualify for Polkraine, even if it did involve Giovanni Trapattoni boring the entire Emerald Isle to death.
Player Match Of The Day pundits have heard of: Shay Given
One of the best goalkeepers of recent years to some (but not all), Given has been the consistent heartbeat of the side throughout his career (as 121 caps will testify). His experience will be the guiding light that Ireland look to… as they defend for their lives.
Player Match Of The Day pundits won’t have heard of (but should have): Glenn Whelan
The Stoke midfielder could combine with Darron Gibson to form the central-midfield pairing that can kick the ball the hardest. Whelan doesn’t get the credit he deserves at club level for actually being quite good.
Liverpool connection: It’s a dream come true for Robbie Keane to play for his boyhood nation. The diminutive scamp is mainly remembered for furiously pointing at things during his six months on Merseyside. He also scored against Arsenal.
Support if you like: green stuff, The Black Stuff, being more popular than the English, Oscar Wilde, pinging it
Reached the quarter-finals in 2008 but haven’t truly reached the heights of 1998 since the turn of the millennium. Their last tournament under the watchful yet dead-looking eyes of Slaven Bilic, the Croatians will be hoping to recapture some of their old magic.
Player Match Of The Day pundits have heard of: Luka Modric
AKA the one that Damien Comolli got right. The fleet-footed Modric is the creative force that propelled Spurs into the Champions League and yet somehow remains one of the most underrated midfielders in Europe (if you mention his lack of assists, you have no soul). He will need to drag Croatia kicking and screaming if they are to give Bilic a good send-off.
Player Match Of The Day pundits won’t have heard of (but should have): Darijo Srna
The Shakhtar Donetsk captain is another of European football’s unsung heroes and will play a pivotal role if Croatia are to progress. At 30, Srna’s career as the European Dani Alves (albeit playing as a midfielder for his country) has fewer years ahead than behind, but his deft right foot still has plenty to offer.
Liverpool connection: Igor Biscan, the mazy-running, 11-toed phenom from Dinamo Zagreb never really reached full capacity during his time at Anfield (or indeed anywhere else), but he certainly left a lot of good memories. Sadly, few of those were with his country – he hasn’t play for Croatia since 2001.
Support if you like: the perennial dark horse, red and white checks, Krist Novoselic, Zvonomir Boban, rakija (and arguing where it came from)