WITH Euro 2012 now upon us, Matthew Stanger picks five players who are likely to catch the eye in Poland and Ukraine.
Alan Dzagoev, Russia
Russia are expected to top Group A, but they’ll need Dzagoev to inspire them past a tough Group B opponent in the quarter-finals.
A delightfully tricky playmaker, Dzagoev notched four goals in eight qualifying matches after establishing himself in Dick Advocaat’s starting XI following the country’s failure to qualify for World Cup 2010.
The 21-year-old has been in sparkling form this season and was instrumental in CSKA Moscow reaching the knockout stage of the Champions League.
Dzagoev recorded more key passes per game than Cristiano Ronaldo, Wesley Sneijder and Cesc Fabregas and Russia will be looking for a similar contribution in Poland and Ukraine.
The attacking midfielder is capable of unlocking even the most dogged defences and as the team’s creative hub, he’ll need to provide chances for Aleksandr Kerzakhov in attack.
Robert Lewandowski, Poland
Lewandowski’s rise to prominence has been quite remarkable.
Just four years ago the current Poland coach Franciszek Smuda, who was then manager of Lech Poznan, went on a lower-league scouting mission to assess the striker’s potential for a possible transfer.
Smuda left after 15 minutes, having decided that Lewandowski was nowhere near the calibre he required. However, after eventually earning his move into Poland’s top flight, and subsequently to Borussia Dortmund, the 23-year-old will now spearhead his country’s hopes at the Euros.
A few months ago you could have backed Lewandowski at 50/1 to be top scorer this summer, but after a flurry of bets he is now hovering around the 20/1 mark. The powerful striker is a household name in Germany after his 22 goals fired Dortmund to the Bundesliga title this season and his hat-trick against Bayern Munich in the cup final ensured a double success.
With excellent technique, strength to hold off defenders and a fierce shot, Lewandowski will be Poland’s biggest threat this month.
Kevin Strootman, Holland
A long-term Manchester United target, Strootman has forced his way into the Holland squad by sheer hard work.
The combative PSV midfielder, who has been compared to Roy Keane, ousted Nigel de Jong from the starting line-up for the last five qualifiers, but is tipped for a role as an impact sub at the Euros.
The 22-year-old is a strong tackler and assured in possession, capable of picking a pass to start a counter-attack. If Strootman impresses this summer, Sir Alex Ferguson may ask the Glazers to open the purse strings for a £14million move.
Olivier Giroud, France
Another player who is likely to be a starring substitute is France striker Olivier Giroud.
The 25-year-old led Montpellier to the Ligue 1 title this season with 21 goals and nine assists and has impressed in his recent performances for the national side. With France losing 2-0 to Iceland in a warm-up match at the end of May, Giroud was sent on to rescue the game and promptly assisted two goals on the way to a 3-2 victory.
Laurent Blanc was suitably delighted (as well as being relieved ) and will have no hesitations in sending the striker on against England on June 11 should his team need a goal.
Arsenal are known to have an interest in Giroud, but should he catch the eye at the Euros they may find themselves in a transfer tug of war.
Christian Eriksen, Denmark
Although he’s only 20, Eriksen already has 22 caps for Denmark and appeared at the World Cup in 2010.
The Ajax attacking midfielder is the leading creative talent for the Danes, and will carry their hopes in the ‘Group of Death’ against Holland, Germany and Portugal.
The skillful playmaker starred for Ajax in Europe this season, with only two players averaging more key passes per game in the Champions League.
Eriksen’s mazy dribbling and eye for a killer ball have caught the eye of many of Europe’s top clubs and after winning the Dutch league twice in two years he could be tempted to move to pastures new once his tournament is over.