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EURO 2012 FORWARDS & PLAYMAKERS

STANDARD BEARERS
The big names who lead by example

mesut-ozilIf one player encapsulates the essence of the modern Germany team, it has to be brilliant playmaker MESUT OZIL. Just one of several members of the squad with overseas roots, the Ruhr-born 23-year-old of Turkish lineage is a symbol not only of the benefits of sporting multiculturalism but a sea change in the attitude to the game in the country.

Not so long ago, the German style was synonymous with power, endurance, engagement and brute force. But the new millennium brought with it a radical rethink and, under Bundestrainers such as Jurgen Klinsmann and current incumbent Joachim Low, the emphasis has switched to technical expertise, quick movement, invention and risk-taking - all qualities the Real Madrid star has in abundance.

Ozil’s club-mate and Portugal captain CRISTIANO RONALDO undoubtedly has much riding on this European Championship. Invariably sensational with Manchester United and then Real Madrid, he has, for the most part, come up short in major international tournaments, a mystifying state of affairs for someone with his world-class ability.

cristiano-ronaldoOnly with an on-song Ronaldo can the Seleccao entertain any hope of making progress from the “group of death" that is Pool B. In the goalscoring form of his life in the Premier League with Arsenal, Holland’s front-man extraordinaire ROBIN VAN PERSIE also has a lot to prove this summer. Certain mischief- makers in his homeland like to point out that Van Persie has a poorer international strike rate than fellow national-team marksman KLAAS-JAN HUNTELAAR - 25 goals in 62 games for Van Persie, 31 in 50 for Huntelaar - and that, up to now, RVP has not exactly covered himself in glory in tournament action, scoring just four goals in two World Cups and Euro 2008. Such talk is a little unfair, though, with the analysis conveniently forgetting that Van Persie has spent most of his Oranje career on the left wing. As he has proved with Arsenal, he is an altogether different proposition through the middle.

Featuring up front for teams designed to be solid and sturdy rather than artistic, the likes of Sweden's ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVIC and NICKLAS BENDTNER of Denmark will both be carrying a very heavy load in June. Provided Ibrahimovic sparks into extravagant life, the Swedes have a chance, while Bendtner, for all his critics in England, is the best hope of goals the Danes have. Just as precious for the Republic of Ireland is record goalscorer ROBBIE KEANE, who is still a menace at the point of attack or slightly deeper.

ON THE UP
Those that are rising to the challenge

fernando-torresDespite DAVID VILLA'S non-availability through injury and FERNANDO TORRES’ dramatic loss of confidence, Spain boss Vicente Del Bosque need have no worries about who to select as his solo striker. Intelligent, strong and anything but a slouch technically, Athletic Bilbao's FERNANDO LLORENTE can make a difference in all manner of ways. And with those creative geniuses Andres Iniesta and Xavi delivering right to his door, the 27-year-old should be one to watch. It is incredible to think that he was once considered surplus to requirements by ex-Athletic coach Javier Clemente.

At the start of last season, DANNY WELBECK was only the sixth-choice front man at Manchester United. But how the 21 -year-old has turned his fortunes around, impressing during a loan spell at Sunderland, becoming a United regular this term and now looking a good bet to take the place of suspended England talisman Wayne Rooney in the opening two games of Euro 2012. Another great example of United's flair for producing attacking all-rounders of considerable verve and self-assurance.

Although Greece have bags of experience up front, the suspicion is that the likes of Georgios Samaras, Fanis Gekas, Angelos Charisteas and Dimitris Salpigidis are either over the hill or a little short of high-end international requirements. One way to freshen up the forward line might be to bring young PAOK Salonika striker STEFANOS ATHANSIADIS on board They could do a lot worse.

After excelling at schoolboy, youth and under-21 level, Nuremberg front runner TOMAS PEKHART could soon establish himself in the senior Czech side. A star of the European Under-17 championship back in 2006, he is ready for the step up.

zlatan-ibrahimovicWORK IN PROGRESS
The options are still open for some

For Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, the Euro 2012 clock is ticking ever faster and ever louder. The championship is only a few weeks away and doubts still persist as to the composition of the Azzurri front line and the identity of his No! 0. Experiments follow experiments, yet nothing quite works out.

Prandelli’s biggest worry undoubtedly concerns his strike force. Italy were found wanting in this area at both Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, and the overwhelming impression is one of far more questions than answers. Will prolific Udinese marksman ANTONIO Dl NATALE and Internazionale's  PAOLO PAZZINI ever deliver for the national team? Can Prandelli, he of the well-thumbed book of ethics, trust notorious Manchester City bad boy MARIO BALOTELI? How sharp will GIUSEPPE ROSSI be after spending much of the season on the sidelines with damaged cruciate ligaments? Is it too late in the day for Nazionale new boys ALESSANDRO MATRI (Juventus), SEBASTIAN GIOVINCO (Parma), and Roma pair FABIO BORINI and PABLO OSVALDO to fully settle in?

A further headache is who to select on the shoulder of the strikers in the coach’s preferred 4-3-1-2 system. Florentines RICCARDO MONTOLIVO generally has struggled to look the part, STEFANO MAURI of Lazio blows hot and cold, while the naturalised Brazilian THIAGO MOTTA - who was deployed in the role in a recent friendly against the USA - is of much more use to the rear. Giovinco or Rossi could be a snug fit there but the all-important question is whether they will see enough of the ball. Veteran deep-lying playmaker ANDREA PIRLO - for whom this will be his sixth international tournament - does play a international tournament - does play a lot of long balls, effectively taking the trequartista out of the equation.

robin-van-persieAt the same time as France's coterie of high-class strikers - KARIM BENZEMA, LOIC REMY and OLIVIER GIROUD - go from strength to strength, Les Bleus boss Laurent Blanc has to face up to the fact that none of the candidates for the position of midfield provider-in-chief are in the best of sporting health. SAMIR NASRI has, on the whole, failed to live up to expectations following his big-money move last summer from Arsenal to Manchester City. After a sensational start in the international arena, Sochaux’s MARVIN MARTIN has gone off the boil somewhat. And as for erstwhile golden boy YOANN GOURCUFF, a fragile psyche and even more delicate ankle have conspired to make him mortal. Nasri may be in pole position but the word is that he and Blanc do not see eye to eye.

If Poland are to make any sort of headway on their home patch this summer, they have to pay immediate attention to a long-standing deficit: a certain lack of playmaking razzle- dazzle. Part of the problem is that coach Francziszek Smuda cannot decide whom to give the keys. One day LUDOVIC OBRANIAK is the man in possession, the next it’s the turn of the Turkey-based ADRIAN MIERZEJEWSKI It really should be a simple choice. Obraniak has been in sparkling form since leaving Lille for Bordeaux in the January transfer window, while Mierzejewski is unable to hold down a regular spot at Trabzonspor.

klaas-jan-huntelaarBearing in mind the predilection of Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin for battle-hardened experience, the natural assumption is that he will stay loyal in June to long-serving front-men ANDRIY SHEVCHENKO and ANDRIY VORONIN. Both are national treasures, both have put in the hard yards, and in the case of Shevchenko only the stony-hearted would not love to see the 35-year-old bow out from international football on such a high-profile occasion. Blokhin's difficulty, though, is that a case can equally be made for keeping the pair on the bench. Shevchenko is a shadow of the forward who once had the football world begging at his feet and Voronin, for all his trademark energy, is not a dependable finisher.
Should Blokhin be brave, he could go for younger models ARTEM MILEVSKYI, Shevchenko's Dynamo Kiev team-mate, YEVHEN SELEZNYOV of Shakhtar Donetsk, Simferopol’s ANTON SHYNDER or ROMAN BEZUS of Vorskla Poltava.

Decisions for Russia coach Dick Advocaat as to the central striker in his 4-3-3. Does he pick ALEXANDER KERZHAKOV of Zenit, ROMAN PAVLYUCHENKO of Lokomotiv Moscow or PAVEL POGREBNYAK, who is currently in England with Fulham?


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