Euro Top Guns prepare to do battle!
Spain on Wednesday began fine-tuning their bid to retain the European title they won four years ago, as the last teams for Euro 2012 were expected to arrive in Poland and Ukraine.
Vicente Del Bosque‘s side were put through their paces at their secluded training camp in Gniewino, near the Baltic port city of Gdansk in northern Poland, cheered on by some 300 Polish fans and about 40 travelling Spanish supporters.
Among the spectators was student Gonzalo Panadero, who had travelled the 70 kilometres (44 miles) from Gdansk where he is studying psychology on a one-year exchange programme.
“Defending the title will be difficult. But we will go far,” he said confidently.
Italy, who are based in the southern Polish city of Krakow, on Wednesday, visited the former Nazi German death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where 1.3 million people, most of them Jews, perished in World War II.
Dressed in blue and white team tracksuits, they visited the barracks, the wall where prisoners were shot, before going to the gas chambers in nearby Birkenau three kilometres away and the largely destroyed crematorium where victims’ bodies were burned.
They then placed a commemorative wreath inscribed with the words”Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio” — Italian football federation — at the memorial.
“Such an atrocity should never happen again. What happened here doesn’t just concern one people. It concerns all of humanity. Their pain is our pain,” the Italians wrote in the visitors’ book.
They were later followed by players from the Netherlands, who made the same tour.
A delegation from the German football federation, including Coach Joachim Loew, team manager Oliver Bierhoff, Captain Philipp Lahm and Polish-born players Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski, visited the Auschwitz museum last Friday.
England, who are also setting up their base in Krakow, are also expected to visit after they arrive on Wednesday.
Roy Hodgson’s first Group D opponents France were due to arrive at their impressive base near Donetsk, Ukraine later on Wednesday. Sweden, 2-1 winners over Serbia in a friendly on Tuesday, were expected in Kiev about the same time.
Laurent Blanc’s France fly to Ukraine on a high after a 4-0 friendly win over Estonia on Tuesday and are hoping to erase memories of a 2010 World Cup, which saw a player mutiny against coach Raymond Domenech and a humiliating first-round exit.
Ukraine, though, enter the championship on a low note, losing their friendly 2-0 to Turkey in Ingolstadt, southern Germany, on Tuesday.
Coach Oleg Blokhin blamed the defeat on a bout of food poisoning that affected 10 of his squad, dismissing fears about his team’s poor form going into the tournament and their first game against Sweden on Monday.
Ukrainian football chief Grigory Surkis, though, has given the home side a major incentive, offering players a 500,000-euro ($624,000, 405,000-pound) bonus for every group stage win and 250,000 euros for a draw.
Surkis added the team will get a two-million-Euro bonus for making the knockout stages and the same amount for reaching the semi-finals. An appearance in the final will earn them three million euros extra and 4.5 million euros if they win.
“We have a better prize fund than any other team at the European Championships,” Ukraine’s football supremo was quoted as saying by local media.
Even fully fit, the Netherlands defence was always going to be the team’s soft spot at the European Championship. Struggling with injury makes it even worse.
On Tuesday, central defender Joris Mathijsen only briefly rejoined group training with the team, raising questions about his fitness for Saturday’s opening Group B game against Denmark.
And his partner at the heart of defence, John Heitinga, reduced himself to cycling on a stationary bike while his team-mates had a light training session. The Everton player warned it was just a bit of rest after a long season.
Mathijsen was finally back on the field Tuesday after a left hamstring injury kept him sidelined for 10 days of vital championship preparations. He was injured during the 2-1 loss to Bulgaria on May 26.
He teamed up with Heitinga in the 2010 World Cup final, where the Dutch lost to Spain, and was the linchpin in defence throughout qualifying. His loss would be a bitter blow for the Dutch as they prepare for the toughest Euro 2012 group, which also includes Germany and Portugal.
Under a steady rain, Mathijsen warmed up with the team and joined in some ball exercises before he was forced to test his hamstring again with individual runs.
Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk insisted Mathijsen’s recovery was going to plan as he would steadily increase training ahead of Saturday’s opener in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
All through their careers, Mathijsen and Heitinga have not been able to count on the support defenders like Frank de Boer or Phillip Cocu had. Yet Mathijsen and Heitinga still anchored the Dutch to two European tournaments and the final of the 2010 World Cup.
So, Heitinga knows how important it is to stick together.
“Clarity and steadfastness is very important to me,” he said Tuesday.
It is what the Dutch have been lacking on the defensive wings. Even though Gregory van der Wiel is quickly developing as a sturdy right winger with Ajax, it is the left which is posing the Dutch problems.
Long dominated by Giovanni van Bronckhorst, the position has been up for grabs since his retirement after the 2010 World Cup. Jetro Willems made only his second appearance in the position during Saturday’s 6-0 drubbing of Northern Ireland.
Still, Van der Wiel is not downbeat and said the defence has been uniting since the last World Cup.
“Everybody is two years further now and everybody is two years older, including me, and more experienced,” Van der Wiel said. “Some people had a great season this season so I think it will help us for sure.”
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