The second most prestigious international soccer tournament kicks off next week when the Euro 2012 begins in Poland. And don't sleep on this tourney casual footy fan. Nine of the top 12 teams in FIFA's world rankings are competing on the pitch.
We begin our preview with a look at Group A, which is the weakest of the four groups but also the most wide open.
FIFA world ranking: No. 11
Odds: +2500 to win Euros; +160 to win group; -225 to qualify for knockouts.
Russia found the going tougher than it should have in its qualifying group. A home loss to Slovakia was the low point. Manager Dick Advocaat will send out an attacking 4-3-3 formation, but it's unclear just where the goals will come from.
The hope is that Zenit midfield troika Igor Denisov, Roman Zhirokov, and Konstantin Zyryanov will feed Zenit old boy Andrei Arshavin up front. In this whole crowd, Denisov is the only one under 30. The next best option in midfield is Igor Semshov, 34. Roman Pavlyuchenko, 30, operates on the other side of attack. This team will face stamina issues as matches wear on.
Player to watch: Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev is one of the world's best when he's healthy. He returned to the field after a ligament tear in April, and is ready to rock here.
FIFA world ranking: No. 65
Odds: 40/1 to win Euros; +225 to win group; -150 to qualify for knockouts.
Hosts Poland was a mess in 2010 and early 2011. A 6-0 beatdown in Spain was followed by home losses to Cameroon and Australia and a loss in Lithuania. Defense was the issue.
Since a 2-0 defeat to Italy, things have been looking up: in five matches the Polish defense has kept four clean sheets (including a 0-0 draw with Portugal) and coughed up only a single goal while beating Hungary. He’s still under fire, but boss Franciszek Smuda can breathe again, briefly.
Player to watch: Front-man Robert Lewandowski banged in 22 goals for German double winners Borussia Dortmund this season. Given defensive concerns, Poland goes exactly as far as Lewandowski takes them. Club-mate Jakub Blaszczykowski will be looking to feed the striker all tournament long, but it could be very lonely work for Lewandowski.
FIFA world ranking: No. 26
Odds: +8000 to win Euros; +350 to win group; +120 to qualify for knockouts.
The Czechs beat Montenegro in the knockout round to get here: Spain was the class of the qualifying group, while the Czechs were marginally best-of-the-rest. Chelsea's Petr Cech anchors the team in goal, with two-thirds of the squad playing in Europe's biggest leagues.
Central defense is an issue: Michal Kadlec has been moved inside on international duty though he usually plays left back with Bayer Leverkusen. The other question is where the goals are going to come from. Milan Baros remains the best option up front in a 4-2-3-1 setup but he's past his prime and struggled to stay in the starting 11 for his club team Galatasaray in the Turkish league.
Player to watch: Central midfielder Tomas Rosicky is going to drag this team into the last eight. He might not do it by scoring goals himself (he has 20 in 85 national team games) but he can take men on and then find the open teammate. He's no longer in the Best-in-the-World 11 lists after blowing out a hamstring in 2008, but Rosicky finished this season strong for Arsenal. He might be the most important player to his own team across the tournament.
FIFA world ranking: No. 14
Odds: 100/1 to win Euros; +450 to win group; +150 to qualify for knockouts.
Greece won its qualifying group by playing the only way it knows how: stingy defense and opportunistic counterattack. Greece scored the fewest goals of any group winner, 14. (Holland smashed home 37).
Greece is largely a home-based team with more than half the squad from three big clubs. Olympiacos sends five players, including its back line. PAOK chips in four men; Panathinaikos sends three.
This team has a little more hope going forward than past Greek outfits. Georgios Samaras on the left and Theofanis Gekas in the middle will give opponents something to worry about.
Player to watch: Dimitris Salpigidis—not so much what he does, but where he lines up. If he forms a three-man attack with Samaras and Gekas, this becomes a fun team to watch: Youngster Soltiris Ninis is an absolute stud who can spray passes at these guys all day. If Salpigidis instead plays further back, and Ninis is muzzled, I'll be betting “under goals” in every match Greece plays.
Order of finish: 1. Russia. 2. Czech Republic. 3. Poland. 4. Greece.
Value bet: Czechs to qualify at better than even money
Poison bet: Russia is too old. Marginally it's still the best team of the four, but should be more like +200 or +225 to win the group. If you can oppose them at -175 or better, it's worth doing.