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Diamonds in the rough
The wait is almost over, Euro 2012 is nearly upon us. And, to get the pulses racing in anticipation, we've assembled a 10-strong list of the players to keep tabs on over the next few weeks...
Ashley Young, England
Don't worry, you're not seeing things; the above does read 'Ashley Young' and, yes, an England player has made the shortlist. Expectations may be low for Roy Hodgson's men as they embark on their bid for Euros glory, but that doesn't mean individuals can't stand out, even if the team as a whole looks largely inept. Forget about the heinous diving - at least until he shows off his party trick against France - and you will begin to see why his name is emboldened at the top. Quick, with two good feet, Young can play down the left, on the right or, as we have seen recently for England, deployed behind the main striker. Arguably, he's at his most potent when he hogs the left touchline, before cutting in and rifling long-range shots goalward with fearsome accuracy. Go ahead, expect England to falter, but it's worth keeping an eye on Young... and not just for the diving.
Christian Eriksen, Denmark
Denmark certainly have their work cut out in the 'Group of Death' against Holland, Germany and Portugal but, with Eriksen in their ranks, anything is possible. Only 20, Eriksen has already racked up 22 caps for Denmark and featured at the World Cup in 2010, with Dutch great Johan Cruyff labelling him "a player I really like with all my heart... you can compare him with Michael Laudrup". When a legend of the game gushes about a player then you've good reason to get excited. Eriksen is likely to play a key part in the Danes' campaign, with his skilful dribbling and defence-splitting passes crucial components of the team's attacking arsenal. The 2011 Danish FA player of the year really came to the fore as Ajax went on a 14-game unbeaten run to surge to the Eredivisie title, finishing the season with 15 assists to his name in 31 appearances. Winning back-to-back Dutch titles may mean he is ready for pastures new and, with the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United known to be admirers, the talented playmaker has a good chance to put himself in the shop window this summer.
Mario Gotze, Germany
It sounds strange to admire a German player for his artistry, but Gotze - often dubbed the 'German Messi' - plays the game in such a way that there are few other ways to describe his talent. The 19-year-old missed several games last term with a hip injury, though when he did take to the field he was mesmeric in Borussia Dortmund's midfield. Joachim Loew may not start the highly-rated youngster, who is now back to full fitness, but that may suit the starlet just fine. What a player to be able to call upon: a two-time Bundesliga winner who has an eye for a killer pass and can kill teams simply with his subtle movement. Arsenal are thought to be big fans, but expect there to be many more in a few weeks.
Robert Lewandowski, Poland
No pressure Mr Lewandowski, but a nation expects. Play a blinder of a tournament, however, and the 23-year-old striker can expect a host of Europe's top clubs to come knocking. A household name in Germany after finishing near the top of the Bundesliga scoring charts with title-winners Borussia Dortmund, the onus is now on Lewandowski to work his magic for co-hosts Poland. The Poles have a great chance of progressing through a weak-looking Group A, especially if their powerful forward has his scoring boots on. He will be full of confidence after netting 30 times in all competitions, which included a hat-trick in the German Cup final in the 5-2 win over Bayern Munich. Lewandowski is by no means the finished article, but he knows where the goal is. Poland have a gem - expect it to shine brightly.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
An obvious choice, for obvious reasons. The debate over who rules - Ronaldo or Messi - is ongoing and there will always be a case for either to be commemorated as the best player on the planet. While that dispute rumbles on, it's worth throwing out a few numbers in relation to the one we will witness terrorise defenders over the coming weeks. En route to Real Madrid claiming the Liga title, the Portuguese wizard banged in 46 goals (bettered only by Messi's 50 for Barcelona, incidentally) and racked up 60 in 53 appearances in all competitions. With his country starting to underachieve, Portugal have never needed Ronaldo - who has scored 32 goals in 89 goals at international level - to deliver more than now. Germany captain Philipp Lahm has predictably pinpointed Ronaldo as Portugal's biggest weapon ahead of Saturday's mouth-watering Group B clash. "Ronaldo is one of the best players in the world," the Bayern Munich full-back said. "He has great pace, dribbles at you quickly, and he has a good finish with both legs and his head. He is a complete player and we have got to defend him as a team. You cannot go one on one against Ronaldo."
Kevin Strootman, Netherlands
Strootman may not have the flare of Ronaldo, but the combative midfielder isn't short of quality in other departments. The 22-year-old is an old-fashioned box-to-box player in the mould of Roy Keane; someone who catches the eye with his punishing tackles and lung-bursting runs. Having starred in the PSV engine room last season, particularly in the Europa League, Strootman will complement Netherlands' more aesthetically-pleasing operators perfectly, bringing balance to the side as well as a hard edge in the middle of the park. Manchester United scouts have reportedly cast their eye on him on more than 10 occasions; a good Euro 2012 could see the Premier League runners-up dig deep into their pockets.
Alan Dzagoev, Russia
Russia will be backing themselves to do some damage at this year's tournament and, with the likes of Andrei Arshavin (if he shows up) and Dzagoev out wide, who can blame them? Arshavin is arguably the more well known of the two but the Arsenal winger can blow hot and cold - just ask the Gunners fans. Quite the enigma that one, but there are no such concerns with Dzagoev, who has earned rave reviews for his displays for CSKA Moscow. An attacking midfielder, Dzagoev is a slippery customer, renowned for his ability to weave passes through the tightest of defences, and four goals in qualifying tells you he isn't afraid to pull the trigger. Struggling with injury prior to the tournament, Dzagoev has won his fitness battle and his inclusion could be key to Russia's hopes of advancing to the quarter-finals.
Olivier Giroud, France
An imposing, 6ft 3in striker, Giroud will offer something different in attack for France. Karim Benzema may get the nod to start but expect Giroud to pay a pivotal role, especially if the Real Madrid man shows any kind of slump in form. Giroud showed his all-round game with two assists to help France come from behind to beat Iceland in their recent warm-up match, with his pace and awareness of others two qualities not always seen in top strikers. He's been labelled a "great striker" by team-mate Franck Ribery and, having led Montpellier's surprise title success in Ligue 1 with 21 goals and nine assists, prepare to be blown away by a player at the peak of his powers.
Jordi Alba, Spain
Alba has been successfully transformed from a winger to a left-back at Valencia, with the 23-year-old not losing any of his appetite for bombing forward when possible. A number of Europe's big guns are tracking the highly-rated defender's progression with Los Che, who reached the semi-finals of the Europa League last season, and the likes of Barcelona and Manchester United will lick their lips when they see him charging down the flank hungry to join in the fun.
Andrea Pirlo, Italy
Pirlo left AC Milan for Juventus on a free transfer last season and helped Juventus win their 28th Serie A title - their first for nine years - notching three goals and 13 assists in the process. He made a stack of chances for his team-mates, the most from one player across any of the top five leagues in Europe. He may be 33, but he's not called "l'architetto" (the architect) for nothing. Expect him to be central to Italy's hopes of glory.