Stoppage Time: Spain's reign under threat at Euro 2012

Spain starts Euro 2012 as defending European and World Cup champions, so it has to carry the favorites tag into Poland and Ukraine. But, its pursuit of a unprecedented third straight major title is under threat.

Spain joined an elite club two years ago when it followed its Euro 2008 title with a World Cup championship. The only other countries to claim back-to-back major trophies were Germany (Euro '72 and '74 WC) and France ('98 WC and Euro 2000).

Although many of the core pieces of both teams remain in Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Iker Casillas, Spain will also be without Carles Puyol and David Villa as it pursues another crown this summer.

Make no mistake, Spain is still loaded and will not be an easy out. But there is doubt about whether its mini-dynasty can sustain another major tournament. Especially with Germany and the Netherlands both seemingly at their peaks.

The Germans, three-time World Cup and Euro champions, will be the huge threat with a young, talented roster that is eager to erase the disappointment of its Euro 2008 runner-up finish and 2010 World Cup third-place finish.

Both times, Germany had its title run ended by Spain.

Add the Netherlands to that category as well. The Dutch reached the World Cup final two years ago, but fell to Spain in extra time.

And while those three are the most talented, Euro 1992 and Euro 2004 proved a major tournament can produce surprises. Denmark captured the 1992 title, even though it only entered the tournament as a late replacement. Greece surprised in 2004, when it defeated host Portugal in the final.

Speaking of Portugal, also in the "Group of Death" with Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, it will try to ride superstar Cristiano Ronaldo to its first major title.

And Russia, a surprise semifinalist in 2008, and Croatia could both emerge as surprise packages this summer. That does not even mention four-time World Cup champion Italy or France, a side that is set to turn the page from a horrible showing in both Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup.

There's always the chance England puts everything together (but it's probably not a good idea to hold your breath), and co-hosts Poland and Ukraine will be tough outs on their home soil.

Sorry Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Ireland and Sweden supporters, this is not likely to be your time.

But Euro finals always produce breakout performances - from teams and players - and surprises, so sit back and enjoy once the tournament starts Friday.

It looks like a third meeting in major tournaments between Spain and Germany, either in the semifinals or final, could decide another tournament. But it is dangerous to look too far ahead.

Here goes nothing.


1, Russia

Outlook: Russia advanced to the Euro semifinals four years ago and with a weak group to navigate this summer, should be back in the knockout stage. Advancing beyond that point will be hard, as a Group B foe will await in the quarters.

Player to watch: Andrei Arshavin - Breakout star in Euro '08, led Russia into the semifinals, but has a lot to prove after poor half-season at Arsenal.

2, Poland

Outlook: Poland may not have even qualified for the finals if it was not a co- host, but Group A is easily the weakest - and homefield advantage should never be underestimated.

Player to watch: Robert Lewandowski - Incredible with Borussia Dortmund, but will need to carry club form into tournament for co-hosts to advance.

3, Czech Republic

Outlook: The Czechs are talented, but there's nothing scary about the squad as it embarks on Euros. Second place is certainly not out of the question, but it will not be easy for this team, even in the easiest group.

Player to watch: Tomas Rosicky - Incredible skill, vision, passing and scoring ability from midfield, but health always a concern for oft-injured star.

4, Greece

Outlook: Greece pulled off a miracle eight years ago to win Euro 2004, and the weaker group opens the door to a possible knockout stage appearance again this summer, but even that would be a shock.

Player to watch: Vasilis Torosidis - Injury leading up to tournament a concern for Greece, as versatile right back key in both defense and attack.


1, Germany

Outlook: Germany has been on a run of near-misses, finishing third in the 2006 World Cup, second in Euro 2008 and third in the 2010 World Cup and another run in Poland and Ukraine is expected.

Player to watch: Mario Gomez - Just 56 minutes in 2010 World Cup, Gomez should succeed Miroslav Klose as starter and will need to replicate club form.

2, Netherlands

Outlook: The 2010 World Cup runner-up could claim this group over Germany, but expect the Dutch and Germans to escape the "Group of Death," as both are great teams and could easily capture the Euro title.

Player to watch: Wesley Sneijder - Subpar club season, as well as health, is a major concern with Sneijder, the engine of the Oranje machine.

3, Denmark

Outlook: Denmark was unlucky to land in such a brutal group, but it did finish ahead of Portugal in qualifying and can compete with every team in this group. Knockout stage? Well, that's another challenge - but not impossible.

Player to watch: Stephan Andersen - Likely replacement for injured goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen, Andersen will be under pressure in "Group of Death."

4, Portugal

Outlook: Cristiano Ronaldo is the best player in Euros, but the overall talent of Portugal does not quite measure up in this group. That being said, there is no reason the Portuguese could not put it all together at the right time.

Player to watch: Bruno Alves - Most experienced defender on squad, but can the center back hold together a suspect defense in brutal group?


1, Spain

Outlook: Spain enters the tournament as the favorite as the Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup winner should, but with defender Carles Puyol and all-time leading scorer David Villa both absent, there are concerns.

Player to watch: Fernando Torres - Scored the lone goal in the Euro 2008 final but has been quiet with club and country since. Must step up with Villa out.

2, Croatia

Outlook: Croatia won all three group matches in Euro 2008, including a 2-1 win over Germany, but bowed out in the quarterfinals on penalties against Turkey. Spain and Italy may be the favorites in Group C, but watch out for Croatia.

Player to watch: Nikica Jelavic - Scored 11 goals in 16 matches for Everton in just half a season, now let's see if he can carry that form into Euros.

3, Italy

Outlook: Always a threat at major tournaments, Italy lacks a bit of experience on the international level, and will need anchors in Gianluigi Buffon, Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Pirlo more than ever this summer.

Player to watch: Antonio Cassano - Six goals in 10 qualifying matches, but had heart surgery late last year and has just returned to competitive action.

4, Ireland

Outlook: Ireland qualified for the Euro finals for just the second time in its long history, but will struggle just to steal a point in Poland and Ukraine in a tough group.

Player to watch: Robbie Keane - Ireland's all-time goal scorer is the only man from Major League Soccer in Euros, and will need to add to 53-goal haul.


1, France

Outlook: A huge disappointment in both Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, it is tough to imagine France flopping again this summer. Coach Laurent Blanc has an enormous amount of talent, meaning France cannot be overlooked.

Player to watch: Franck Ribery - Once coined the next "Zinedine Zidane," it is time for the in-form Bayern Munich man to prove it on the big stage.

2, England

Outlook: This choice is a coin-flip over Sweden, especially with Wayne Rooney suspended for the first two fixtures, and Gareth Barry, Gary Cahill, and Frank Lampard lost to injury just before the tournament.

Player to watch: Andy Carroll - Just four Premiership goals last season, but a strong final month makes him one of the possibilities with Rooney out.

3, Sweden

Outlook: After missing 2010 World Cup, Sweden returns to a major tournament as a threat to advance to knockout play as long as forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic can produce on the offense end.

Player to watch: Sebastian Larsson - Dual-threat can score or set up goals and could be primed to break out in starting midfield role this summer.

4, Ukraine

Outlook: As co-host with Poland, Ukraine has a huge advantage being on its own soil for the group stage, and the quarterfinals if it advanced. Although there is a solid core of veteran talent, it is tough to expect too much.

Player to watch: Andriy Shevchenko - The 35-year-old will hang up his boots at the end of the tournament, but will he retire on a positive note?


Netherlands (B2) over Russia (A1): Russia beat the Dutch in the 2008 quarters, but do not expect a repeat performance this time around. The Netherlands could turn this into a one-sided rematch.

Germany (B1) over Poland (A2): Winning the "Group of Death" helps Germany play an easier quarterfinal against the Poles, but facing its neighbors and co-host on their own soil might not be easy.

Spain (C1) over England (D2): Spain does just enough - like it did a few times in the knockout stage of the 2010 World Cup - to get past a surprisingly tough English side.

France (D1) over Croatia (C2): France is just too good to struggle for a third straight time in a major tournament, but it takes extra time to defeat a solid Croatian side at this point.


Spain over Netherlands: A rematch of the 2010 World Cup final in the last four of the Euros is just amazing, and this time the match is as well. Spain should do enough to fend off the Dutch again, but this will be a tight match.

Germany over France: Germany is in full stride at this point in the tournament and France will be overmatched as the Germans return to the Euro final for the second straight time and the seventh time in their history.


Germany over Spain: Germany gets a shot at its recent nemesis, and the Spanish dynasty ends in Kyiv, Ukraine. With the Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup champions slayed, the young Germans become the clear favorite for the 2014 World Cup.