Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Euro 2008 Preview: More checks and a-pole-ling hosts.

The clock on the official Euro 2008 website tells me that it's just over 4 days and 8 hours away from kickoff, which means that I should ge my arse into gear and preview Group B. Not to mention the much needed distraction from trying to come up witha good definition of "social change". Yes, it's assignment time again.

On paper this group is probably the most straightforward to predict the two qualifers from. And almost everyone is ruling out the hosts - with good reason. Austria are probably the poorest side ever to host a European Championship. Ranked 101 by FIFA - admittedly this makes them look worse than they really are, due to the fact that competitive games bring more ranking points, and Austria haven't played a competitive game since 2005, when they beat Northern Ireland in Vienna. Austria finished nine points adrift of the playoffs in the qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, but they only dropped five points at home, drawing with England and losing to Poland. However, their form coming into the tournament isn't great, with only two victories in eleven attempts this season - against Malta and the Ivory Coast. Their record in major tournament finals is even worse. This is their first appearance at a European Championship final, and you have to go back to 1978 for the last time they defeated a European nation at a World Cup final. Added to this that there is a petition for the Austrian side to be replaced - a petition which originated in Austria, and has amassed over 25,000 signatures. The omens are not good. Like Turkey before them, most of the side is based at home, but the Austrian league is a poorer standard. Those players that do play abroad, tend to play in weaker leagues, or for weaker clubs - Spartak Moscow, Werder Bremen and Middlesbrough are the strongest clubs represented.

One to watch: Roland Linz is the third highest scorer in the squad, and is record of a goal every four games internationally is not to be sneezed at, his record of almost a goal every other game for Boavista this season is also impressive.

One for the future: Martin Harnik is the Austrian at Werder Bremen, and has made almost as many appearances for his nation as his club's first team. He also has more goals for his country - the first of which coming within six minutes of his debut against the Czech Republic.

Austria's first game is against Croatia, the side that put England to the sword, which is something you'll hear every ten minutes of ever game of theirs that ITV show. They may also be favoured more because they knocked England out than any of their actual merits, because had England made it to Austria & Switzerland, they would have walked away with the trophy. Just like every other time, of course. Croatia are a strong side, with a brilliant team ethic, and Slaven Bilic has instilled a sense of knowing where everyone else is, meaning that once the Croatians get the ball, it's close to impossible to get it off them again. It is this organisation that more than makes up for the team's lack of stars, with most of the players plying their trade for clubs just outside Europe's elite. Even Dario Simic will have to play UEFA Cup football with his Milan side this season. In some respects it will be unbearable if Croatia do well, because that would then prove how well England would have done (more on that when I reach Group D), but they will be one of the most entertaining to watch, and will make as many friends as their class of 96 did. The draw has been kind to them, and they could take full advantage.

One to watch: Nico Kranjcar has has capped an impressive season with the FA Cup win last month. His speculative shot at Wembley also helped knock England out. Should he score in the finals, look for Croatia to go on to win the game, as they have won all six games he has scored in.

One for the future: Ivan Rakitic has been a success in his first season at Schalke, contributing three goals and ten assists.

Croatia's main rivals in the group are they who should never be discounted - Germany. Although you have to go back to 1996 for the last time they won a game in normal time - ironically against Croatia in the quarter finals - and won a game in the finals at all. Their last two campaigns have been poor, with their best results having been draws against Romania and the Netherlands, and their worst results defeats against Portugal and the Czech Republic - both of whom had already qualified, and fielded a reserved team. This time round, things look a lot stronger for the Germans. Whilst their squad isn't the strongest German side to arrive at a tournament, it is probably the best since Jürgen Klinsmann lifted the Henri Delauney trophy. There is strength and experience across the squad, and Per Metzelder and Christoph Mertesacker proivde a strong centre-half pairing. Michael Ballack has recaptured his form of old and will be assited ably by Schweinsteiger and Frings. Four strikers arrive with plenty of goals under their belt - Klose, Podolski, Kuranyi and Neuville arrive with 93 goals between them, but Mario Gomez is the man who appears to be catching the headlines with six goals in ten caps. If Germany do have a weakness, it's in goal. Jens Lehmann has been second choice at Arsenal for most of the season, but the other two keepers that have travelled have just one appearance between them - and Robert Encke's only cap was over a year ago.

One to watch
: Miroslav Klose may be the rabbit killer's rabbit killer, but Lucas Podolski has 25 goals to his name in less than fifty caps. And he's still only 22.

One for the future: It seems strange to talk about a former Footballer Of The Year, but Mario Gomez is even younger than Podolski. And he's scored 28 goals in 32 games for VfB Stuttgart.

Germany's opening game is against the last team in the group - Poland. Poland's recent role at major finals has been to be the worst European side present. At least this time - their first ever  in the European Championships - they will be able to priove that there is worse on show, when they face the co-hosts in Vienna. Like their co- hosts, it has been a long time since they beat a European side on the big stage - 1986 against Portugal in their case. Unlike their co-hosts, they do have players representing them at Europe's elite. Unfortunately, they will be on the bench for their nation, like they usually are at their clubs, as Celtic's Artur Boruc will almost certainly retain the goalkeeper's role ahead of Arsenal's Fabianski and Manchester United's Kuszczak. The nucleus of the squad appears to be the same as the one that underperformed at the World Cup, only two years older. Again, the National League is well represented. Again, the National League is relatively weak.

One to watch: Wlodzimierz Smolarek scored the winning goal when Poland beat Portugal in 1986, and it took 20 years for the Poles to score against them again. This time round it was one of his son Ebi's 13 goals in 31 games. The younger Smolarek has been more likely to score for his nation than his club, as only four of his nine goals this term have been for Racing Santander.

One for the future: Right winger Kuba Blaszczykowski's pace and dribbling saw him notice by German giants Borussia Dortmund.

The lowdown

In what appears to be the most clear cut of groups, Croatia and Germany should progress, with the Croatian's organisation just proving a little two much in the game that decides which of them progresses. Belgium became the first host to fail to get out of the group stage in 2000, but Austria will eclipse that by failing to register a single point.

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