Saturday, 7 June 2008

Euro 2008 Preview: Mort, mort, mort (How do you like it?)

Less than seven and half hours to go, and two groups left to preview. Been a bit busy finishing off that last assignment, but the Open University is finished until I get my results next month.

So, onto the football, and onto the big one. Group C. The well-cliched Group of Death. Every tournament has one. And as soon as Greece won Euro 2004, to join Austria and Switzerland as top seeds, it was obvious that the other seed would be in that group of death. And the nations in danger of being seeding top seemed to notice this, as Germany (losing 0-3 to the Czechs, 0-0 v Wales), Croatia (2-0 defeat in Macedonia) and the Netherlands (losing 2-1 to Belarus) all eased up towards the end of the campaign, once qualification was complete. Saving themselves from suspensions, or trying to avoid the Group of Death? Only they know.

If it was the latter, it certainly backfired for the Netherlands, as their final matchday defeat in Belarus, not only have me a nice start in a 14/1 double with a German-Welsh draw, it also failed to stop them being the top seed out of the qualifiers. And, as if to conform to the Dutch stereotype, there has been the odd falling out prior to the tournament. Clarence Seedorf withdrawing from being available for selection, after falling out with coach Marco van Basten. van Basten and Ruud van Nistelrooy have kissed and made up, after the latter said he would never play for the Oranje again while van Basten was in charge. Mark van Bommel has stayed by his word, and does not feature. On paper, the first team looks strong, Edwin van der Sar, Wesley Snijder, van Nistelrooy, Arjen Robben have all featured strongly in Manchestrer United or Real Madrid's title winning teamns, but strength in depth appears to be a problem. van der Sar has become a little injury prone in the last few seasons, but the backup has little in the way of international experience. The defence is far from the strongest here, but players like Ooijer, Melchiot and Boulahrouz don't strike fear into the best strikers in Europe, while Kuyt and Vennegoor of Hesselink are weak replacements for van Persie, should his injuries return during the tournament.

One to watch: Klaas Jan Huntelaar's record so far is phonomenal. Seven goals in twelve games is good in anyone's book, but when you consider that three were against fellow Euro 2008 qualifiers, and the others were against stonger second-tier nations in the shape or Ireland, Slovenia and the Ukraine, he is not just a rabbit killer. His club career also sees him score three in every four games.

One for the future: There is sparse choice here, as this is not a young squad - at 22, Ibrahim Afellay is the youngest player in the squad, but his creativity, both from the right and in the centre have seen big things predicted.

The Dutch begin their campaign on Monday against reigning World Champions Italy. And just as two years ago, the Italians look a strong bet. They arrive with most of the core of the World Cup winning side, but a long term injury to Francesco Totti and an akle ligament injury on the eve of the tournament to Fabio Cannavaro robs the Italians of two of their star names. But, with the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Di Natale and Cassano up front, Ambrosini and Camoranesi in midfield, and Barzagli, Chellini in defence, the Italians have a lot of strength in depth, with the only question mark being on the back up keepers. After many years with an embarrassment in riches in the glovesman depeartment Amelia and de Sanctis aren't as strong as the likes as Toldo or Peruzzi. In some respects, the group stage is seen as Italy's biggest test, but with the strength of squad they have, they will be disappointed to not qualify, even from a group as strong as this.

One to watch: Luca Toni was a late emerger on the International scence, but with a record of almost one in two games, as well as being the Bundesliga's top scorer with 24 goals in his first German season, he arrives in form.

One for the future: The squad is even older than the Dutch one, and the youngest player is 23, but Roma's Alberto Aquilani's is rumoured to have half of Europe's elite clubs interested in this excellent passer of the ball.

The marquee team in the other group is two time champion France. And the French squad doesn't look too special. Whilst most of the squad ply their trade for bigger clubs in the stronger leagues, a lot of players are either arriving after a difficult season (Patrick Viera, Nicolas Anelka, Florent Malouda, Thierry Henry), or past their best (Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram are both in the twilight of their career). The rest of the squad are either young and untested at this level, or have failed to impress at this level. Add this to coach Raymond Domenech's unpredictability and ability to fall out with the squad, and the tournament could seem a lot longer than it pans out to be. That said, Patrice Evra, Eric Abidal, William Gallas and Willy Sagnol have all had good seasons, and if nothing else, they will be strong in defence, and in Karim Benezema, they have a striker that half of Europe is talking about.

One to watch: 27 is a little old for a player from one of the more established players in Europe to make their major tournament debut, but Patrice Evra is one of the best defenders in the world.

One for the future: While Manchester United complain about Real Madrid's comments about Cristiano Ronaldo, it has only been three months since Sir Alex Ferguson publicly expressed an interest in Lyon's Karim Benezema.

Finally in group C, we have Romania. Usually, any tournament that Romania qualify for, see them labelled as dark horses. This time, because of the strength of the rest of the group, they have been overlooked. One reason they have been unfairly overlooked is that they qualified from the same group as the Netherlands. Not only did they take four points from the Dutch, they also kept two clean sheets. That said, the squad is taken mainly from players based in Romania, but only one player plays for Romanian champions CFR Cluj - and Eduard Stancioiu arrives in Switzerland as the third choice keeper. Elsewhere, Inter's Cristian Chivu is the inspiration in the side, and while he appears to have been around forever, he is only 27 years old, and at his peak. The rest of the first team contains a few well-known players such as Getafe's Cosmin Contra, CSKA Sofia's Florentin Petre. Both have tournament experience, and they are the old men of the squad - but as both are 32, it suggests that this squad will be fit. And considering the age of the other teams, plus the possibility that the Romanians could be overlooked by the other teams, gives them a chance.

One to watch: This is Adrian Mutu'c chance to prove that he has completed his rehabilitation. Whether the judgement that he has to pay Chelsea just under £20million will affect him, remains to be seen.

One for the future: Ciprian Marica has had a stop start season for VfB Stuttgart, and his known more for his pace, dribbling and his ability to bring others into the game, than his goalscoring, but one in three at international level is not to be sniffed at.

The lowdown

It's been labelled the 'Group of Death' on reputations alone. Italy are the strongest side in the competition, as far as I'm concerned, and could qualify with maximum points. The Dutch's lack of strength in depth and France's lack of form could see Romania pip them both, and if the Romanians avoid defeat in their opener against France, then I'd expect them to be second in this group.

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