Brussels: Quite simply, a tougher group has not been assembled in the opening round of a tournament since FIFA started its world rankings two decades ago. Not in Europe, and not around the world. With Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and Denmark, four of the world's top 10 teams have been clustered together by the luck of the draw. And with the Germans, the Dutch and the Portuguese, it has three teams from the top five, making Denmark a rank outsider to advance despite its No. 10 ranking.
"We're all aware how difficult our group is," said Portugal coach Paul Bento, who will rely on Cristiano Ronaldo to guide the team through the opening round. "We're aiming to reach the quarterfinals. That's our first goal."
Once there, history might look kindly on the two qualifiers. Only once before were four top-10 teams in one group — even though only two made the top five — when Germany, Russia, Italy and the Czech Republic played each other in the first round of Euro 1996 in England.
With Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and Denmark, four of the world\'s top teams have been clustered together.
Germany and the Czech Republic scraped through, and then thrived the rest of the way to meet again in the final, with Oliver Bierhoff giving the Germans their last major title with a golden goal in extra time. Germany has endured a major title drought since. And if the Germans don't win the trophy in Kiev on July 1, the 16-year streak will at least match the longest spell since won its first major title at the 1954 World Cup. All for a team ranked second in the world.
The Germans, however, have a team laden with Bayern Munich players and they will have to overcome some recent disappointments. Bayern finished second in the Bundesliga, lost in the German Cup final and, worst of all, lost to Chelsea in the Champions League final. Bastian Schweinsteiger should be in the prime of his career and on the cusp of becoming the defining player of Germany. But his defining moment heading into the championships came when he missed his penalty against Chelsea in the shootout. He said it left him "paralyzed."
And it leaves Bierhoff, now the national team's director, with a tough job ahead. "Clearly, there is a huge void after such a game," Bierhoff said. "You can't expect them to show up here, drink a cup of magic potion and then everything is good."
The Dutch could even be worse affected by Bayern's loss. Arjen Robben missed a penalty kick in extra time and saw many of his weaving runs go to waste. Matters didn't get better when the left-footed winger was whistled by his own fans during the Dutch team's preparation game against Bayern.
"It's a shame," Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk said after the 3-2 loss. "You don't do that to your own player."
Van Marwijk should thrive on the creative skills of Robben and Robin van Persie, but his real worries lie in defense where the left back position is the problem without an internationally established star ready to take the spot left open by World Cup captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst.
One thing speaks in favor for the Dutch, if only for the opening round: The team knows how to survive a tough group. At Euro 2008, the Dutch beat Italy and France to advance before losing to Russia in the quarterfinals.
For Portugal, Ronaldo has yet another chance to shed his image as football's nearly-man. For all his swagger, skills and finishing, he usually falls short at the highest stage. His penalty shootout miss against Bayern in the Champions League semifinals cost Real Madrid a shot at this year's title.
For his country, it has been no different, as his performances at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa highlighted. The problem for Bento is that Portugal too often looks like a one-trick pony. Take Ronaldo out of the game, and the team sinks.
It is a problem Denmark coach Morten Olsen doesn't have, since he has no major stars on his squad. But in 1992, the Danes entered the tournament as late replacement for war-torn Yugoslavia, and amazingly went to on to claim the title.
Danish Dynamite beat the Dutch in the semifinals and the Germans in the final to cap its storybook run and one of the biggest upsets in world football. Now Denmark faces the same two again in the opening round, and Olsen is counting on something which served them so well in 1992 — momentum.
"You play three games in one week," Olsen told The Associated Press. "And if you are in-form on the day, and you are lucky, then everything is possible."