Friday, 30 May 2008

Euro 2008 Preview: Czech out the Swiss role

One of the greatest things about even numbered years is the fact that the football doesn't stop. Once the League Two final ended on Monday, then the International friendlies begin, and they of course are the precursor for Euro 2008, which begins in just over eight days and fifteen hours time. And, given that the deadline for the squads has passed, I thought I'd spend the next few days looking over the teams as a bit of a preview. Of course the best place to begin is Group A, and we'll start with the co-hosts.

Switzerland take part in the opening game for the second time in the three finals they will have taken a part of, the other being at Wembley in 1996. That day, Kubilay Turkyilmaz was the party pooper as the Swiss held their English hosts to a 1-1 draw. This time, the hosts will be looking for a win - which would be their first in seven attempts at a Euro finals. They do however, have their second round appearence at the World Cup relatively fresh in the memory. They eventually lost on penalties, and exited the tournament without conceding a goal. Obviously defence is their strength. That said, Pascal Zuberbuhler has been usurped as 'keeper by Diego Benaglio, and two of their defenders - centre-half Patrick Muller (torn cruciate ligament) and right back Philipp Degen (torn thigh muscle) are only just coming back to fitness from long term injuries. This increases the pressure on Philippe Senderos and Valon Behrami, and leaves question marks over their strength of two years ago. At the other end of the pitch, the goals are likely to come from the controversial Alexander Frei, Marco Streller and midfielder Hakan Yakin, while Johan Volanthen was tipped for great things, when he became the second youngest player in finals history four years ago.

One to watch: Alexander Frei has returned from injury to score six in his last eight games for Borussia Dortmund.
One for the future: FC Basle's Eren Derdiyok scored within 12 minutes of his international debut at Wembley in February.

The co-hosts's opening game will be in Basle against the Czech Republic. Of all the new nations to emerge from the former Iron Curtain, the Czech's have made the biggest impact of all. Most notably as runners-up in 1996. Blessed with talents such as Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky, Pavel Kuka and Miroslav Kadlec, they won many friends with their style as well as their ability. These days, Nedved, Poborsky, Smicer are all retired,  Jan Koller is 35, Milan Baros has had a very inconsistant season, and Tomas Rosicky is injured. Which is a shame, as for the first time since the Czech Republic split from Slovakia, they have a favourable draw. All of their previous campaigns have had to begin against at least two former or reigning world or continental champions. That said, it gives a new generation a chance to shine, although their strength is in defence, rather than up front. Petr Cech is reckoned by many to be the best goalkeeper in the world, and Zdenek Grygera and Marek Jankulovski are both regulars at top Italian clubs, and Tomas Ujfalusi has contributed to Fiorentina pipping Jankulovski's Milan to the Champions League. Midfield looks to be a weakness, as only Tomas Galasek has over 35 caps, and none of the eight players selected by coach Karel Bruckner plays for one of Europe's elite clubs.  Up front, Koller's experience should compensate for his age, and as he was never the fastest player in the world, his advancing years shouldn't be too much of a drawback.  With Baros' form a factor, it is a concern that only one other striker (Libor Sionko) has hit the target for his country with four goals in 27 appearances.

One to watch: As long as he has licence to move forward, Marek Jankulovski will provide a lot of creativity - and leave good opportunities for the opposition to counter-attack.
One for the future: Martin Fenin's goal in the World U-20 championship last season led to a lot of high profile clubs looking to sign him, with Fenin choosing Eintracht Frankfurt over Juventus.

The strongest team on group on paper are Portugal, especially given the form of Cristiano Ronaldo who has scored a phonomenal 45 goals this season - three of which for Portugal. A ratio of almost a goal a game is made even more impressive by the fact that he regularly plays out wide. While questions have been asked about Cristiano Ronaldo's big match performances, those were put to rest in emphatic style with a bullet header in the Champions League final last week. With strength throughout the squad, with Ricardo Carvalho and a choice of Paulo Ferreira, Miguel and Bosingwa in defence, Joao Mountinho and Deco in the centre, Simao joining Cristiano out wide, and Nuno Gomes likely to play up fron on his own, this Portugese side looks even stronger than the one that fell at the final hurdle in 2004. The only weaknesses tend to be in goal, where Ricardo can be amazing, but can be erratic (although he does have the big game mentality needed by an international goalkeeper), and at left back, a cruel irony given their embarrassment of riches at right back.

One to watch: While the obvious answer is Cristiano Ronaldo, any side paying him too much attention, should make sure it's not at the expense of Deco.

One for the future: Joao Mountinhio is already captain of Portugal at the age of 21, and a move to La Liga or the Premier League has been mooted over the summer.

Last, and undoubtedly least is Turkey.
Fatih Terim returns to the big stage, 12 years after guiding the Turks to their first ever European Championship finals. And, while Fenerbahce's run to the quarter finals of the Champions League would ordinarily prove to boost the national side, the team is dominated by national champs Galatasaray. In fact, the five Fener players have only 47 caps between them. Only seven of the squad play outside Turkey, most notably Nihat (Villareal), Emre (Newcastle United), Tuncay (Middlesbrough) and Hamit Altintop of Bayern. Munich. The side is relatively inexperienced internationally, the exception being goalkeeper Rustu, whose 128 caps is more than the team's seven defenders combined, and nine of the squad are still in single figures on the world stage. All which will likely mean an early exit, but it will give the players a chance to shine for the first time on a wider stage.

One to watch: Hamit Altintop has played an important role in Bayern Munich's regaining of the Bundesliga. Pacy, with a strong shot and a keen tackler, 

One for the future: Arda Turun's distribution, creativity and his ability to beat defenders has led to comparisons to Gheorghe Hagi.

The lowdown

The opening game in any tournament is usually a low-scoring letdown, and with the Swiss and the Czechs both strong in defence, this should be no different. Portugal should start their first game with a win. Portugal are the strongest team in the group, and should progress unbeaten, however they could drop points to the hosts, which could prove decisive in the battle for second. Turkey will round out the group pointless.

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