Everybody and their sister has come out with a Euro 2012 Best XI by this time, so I thought I’d offer something a little different. That being the case, I thought I’d make a list of the 11 players that (nearly) no one was talking about coming into the Euros, who made a splash and really made a dent in the global football consciousness, whatever that means. Remember, these are my opinions, and is by nature they are subjective, but feel free to chime in and tell me how wrong I am, or in the unlikely event you think I got it right, you can tell me that too, though I won’t expect it. Let’s get right to it then:
GK: Przemyslaw Tyton – Poland (PSV Eindhoven)
The biggest surprise performer in goal had to be Tyton. No one was talking about this 25 year-old coming into the tournament because Arsenal’s own Wojciech Szczesny was solidly Poland’s #1 keeping coming in, however, when Szczesny had a howler of an opening match against Greece, getting himself sent off and suspended for one match in the process, the way was paved for Tyton’s ascension. In his first action he did the impossible, coming off the bench cold to stop a penalty, and from there on he shut out the Greeks for the rest of the match, and gave up only one goal each to Russia and the Czech Republic over the next two matches. It was sad to see Szczesny have such a disastrous Euros, but his fall made way for Tyton’s rise.
RB: Theodor Gebre Selassie – Czech Republic (FC Slovan Liberec)
This relatively unknown 25 year-old Czech right back burst onto the scene during Euro 2012, flashing exceptional speed and a desire to get forward and attack throughout the tournament. While Selassie was at times exposed defensively, particularly in the quarter-final against Portugal, his work in attack and knack for getting dangerous crosses into the box made him an attractive prospect. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him out of the Czech league and onto a bigger stage this coming season.
CB: Laurent Koscielny – France (Arsenal)
This is an admittedly homer pick, and it wasn’t exactly like no one was talking about him coming into the Euros, as he had a breakout year for Arsenal in the Premier League, BUT he was certainly not given the respect he deserved, especially by his own manager, who inexplicably kept starting Philippe Mexes ahead of him. In his only appearance of the tournament, against eventual champions Spain, Koscielny was the best player on the pitch for an admittedly poor French side that day. Is it ridiculous to say he had a breakout performance in the Euros when he only played 90 minutes? Sure, but for someone who is still trying to break into a regular starting role for Les Bleus, Koscielny did everything he could with the time he was given at the Euros, and for that I salute him.
CB: Olof Mellberg – Sweden (Olympiacos)
Coming into the Euros, the 34 year-old Mellberg was assumed to be a known quantity. His long run with Aston Villa in the 2000s certainly made him familiar to Premier League fans, but who saw that game against England coming? If you have your hand raised right now, you’re lying to me and to yourself, put it down. Thank you. Yes, I know, he was only credited with 1 goal against England, but we all know he scored 2! Yes, I do have an affinity for Olof because of his awesome beardlyness, but damnit he was a revelation for Sweden and damn near ruined England’s tournament single-handedly! While not an up-and-comer like the majority of players on this list, Mellberg certainly made waves in the “where the f*ck did that come from?!” sense, and for that, he makes my Euro 2012 Surprise XI.
LB: Jordi Alba – Spain (Barcelona from Valencia for £11 million)
Coming into the tournament, Jordi Alba was probably the most anonymous (if that’s even possible) of Spain’s starting XI, but he is no longer an unknown. While fans of the Spanish Primera División probably already knew of the 23 year-old immense talent, now the whole world knows. And guess who scooped him up for a paltry £11 million? Yep, that would be Barcelona, as the rich just keep getting richer. At this point you have to assume that every young Spanish phenom will end up at the Nou Camp. How long until Juan Mata starts making a Cesc-esque ruckus at Chelsea and forces a below-value sale to Barca? Probably not long, and I can’t say I’ll feel one bit sorry for Chelski when he does. There should be no arguments here, Jordi Alba is a no brainer for the Surprise XI and probably the breakout star of the whole tournament to boot.
MF: Andrea Pirlo – Italy (Juventus)
Can the a player as high-profile as Pirlo, who played for the undefeated champions of Italy, truly be a surprise performer at an international tournament? I say yes, because who outside of Italy truly believed he would continue to perform at such a high level due to his age (33 isn’t ancient, but he’s definitely getting up there in years). Early on in the Euros Pirlo provided one of the signature goals of the tournament when he put in a beautiful bending free kick against Croatia, and he kept going from there. While not dazzling with another goal after that, his midfield mastery was perhaps even more impressive, as he was the main force that powered the unlikely Italian squad to the finals. A great player, yes, but the performance was far beyond most pundits’ expectations for him coming into the Euros.
MF: Alan Dzagoev – Russia (CSKA Moscow)
The Russians always seem to have a surprise star at the Euros, and while they don’t always pan out with major clubs who purchase them on the heels of their Euro success, ahemArshavinahem, sorry I had to clear my throat, they are still spectacular to watch. This year’s version was Alan Dzagoev, who scored an opening game brace against the Czech Republic, and followed that up with Russia’s lone goal in their 1-1 tie with hosts Poland. Though the Russians went out early after only 3 matches, Dzagoev showed plenty of skill to convince a big club to snatch up the 22 year-old in the coming months. I would be surprised not to see him playing in one of Europe’s big leagues this coming season.
MF: Vaclav Pilar – Czech Republic (VfL Wolfsburg from FC Viktoria Plzen for €880,000)
Group A certainly provided the most surprising results, as the Czech Republic topped the group with Greece going through in the number 2 position, sending Russia and host Poland, both favorites to advance, home early. A big part of the Czech Republic’s success was the work of Vaclav Pilar in the middle. Pilar stepped in for the injured captain and Arsenal man Tomas Rosicky, who played scarcely more than one game in Euro 2012. Overall, there was no more influential man on the pitch for the Czechs than Pilar. Some could argue that Petr Jiracek was the real Czech star, because of his goal scoring, but in watching the games it was evident that Pilar was the key component to the Czech Republic’s success in linking up the defense with the attack. After playing last season in the Czech league for Plzen, Pilar made his presence known in the Euros, and will look to continue that success in the Bundesliga next year for Wolfsburg.
F: Michael Krohn-Dehli – Denmark (Brøndby IF)
Krohn-Dehli burst onto the scene in the opening match against Netherlands, scoring the game’s only goal and marking the beginning of the Dutch squad’s horror show tournament. While Bendtner grabbed the Danish spotlight with his brace against Portugal, Krohn-Dehli again found the back of the net against Germany, and looked dangerous throughout the whole tournament.
F: Mario Mandzukic – Croatia (VfL Wolfsburg)
If anyone was talking about a Croatian striker coming into the Euros, I can pretty much guarantee it was about Everton man Nikica Jelavic, and not Mario Mandzukic, but it was Mandzukic who showed up big in the Euros. He started the tournament out with a bang, netting two against tournament whipping boy Ireland, but continued his hot form against Italy, scoring Croatia’s lone goal in a 1-1 tie. Croatia went out in the group stage after failing to score against Spain, but on the tournament Mandzukic scored 3 of his country’s 4 goals, and in doing so staked his place in the Surprise XI.
F: Andriy Shevchenko – Ukraine (Dynamo Kyiv)
I would be remiss if I ended my Euro coverage without talking about the legendary Andriy Shevchenko. A great footballer and a gentleman, this Ukrainian legend took the stage one last time for his national team in the Euros on his home soil, and at least for one game, he did not disappoint. As with Pirlo, it is not as if Shevchenko was an unknown, quite the opposite, but he makes the Surprise XI because he was able to do what so many great athletes can, and that is to reach back for one last little bit of magic to dazzle us one more time. His opening game brace to put Ukraine past Sweden in their opener was one of the most memorable moments of the tournament. It was truly amazing to see a love affair between an entire nation and a player play out on such a grand stage. While the Ukrainians went out early, Shevchenko scored their only 2 goals of the tournament, and rightfully retained his place as a national hero, and in doing so and defying his age (35), he earned his spot on the Surprise XI.