There’s a football tournament starting on Saturday, you know.
Yes, behind the new of Mark Hughes’ appointment at Manchester City; England’s act of diplomacy in travelling to Trinidad & Tobago being acknowledged as an official ‘A’ game; and Cristiano Ronaldo now looking to be on his way to Real Madrid, Austria and Switzerland are preparing themselves to be the focal points of European football for the next month.
Euro 2008 is almost here, and England’s football fans are trying to adopt a team — or forget it’s on.
Can Greece retain the title they somehow won four years’ ago? Will Spain, the underachievers of all underachievers, finally break their duck? And Austria, with the likes of New Zealand, Omen and Zimbabwe ranked above them in the FIFA World Rankings, manage to get a single point from their group?
Here on The Sight is in End, we’ll try and keep you up to date with match reports and other bits of hastily written nonsense that attempt to be humorous in some way. But for now, let us try and offer some sort of preview for you. Here’s Part 1 of 2, with the second part following…well, before Saturday.
As you’ll obviously know, the tournament is divided into four groups that were drawn in December in Lucerne, Switzerland. It raised laughter caused by anticipation and groans triggered by disappointment; yet it has yielded some potentially thrilling and memorable encounters:
Group A – Basel and Geneva: Czech Republic; Portugal; Switzerland; Turkey
Group B – Vienna and Klagenfurt: Austria; Croatia; Germany; Poland
Group C – Zurich and Bern: France; Italy; Netherlands; Romania
Group D – Innsbruck and Salzburg: Greece; Russia; Spain; Sweden
Let’s concentrate on the group that will be played out in the Swiss cities of Zurich and Bern. Group C is this tournament’s GROUP OF DEATH:
Group of Death: A regular visitor to the language of football, this nice piece of hyperbole appears whenever World Cup draws are made, but can make an intermediate appearance at European Championships or other regional tournaments, too. It is so familiar that commentators promptly debate which of the groups drawn might be the Group of Death this time round, as though it were a title which has to be assigned to one of them: ‘Cameroon, Egypt, the Ivory Coast, Libya, Sudan and Benin – Group Three certainly looks like the Group of Death in the African Zonal Qualifying.’
(Leigh and Woodhouse, Football Lexicon, p.56).
One of the possible favourites is set to go out alongside Romania (or am I too quick to judge, there? After all, they finished ahead of the Dutch in qualifying…). The beauty of it is that it’s almost impossible to predict who else will fall first.
Italy are now without Fabio Cannavaro after suffering an ankle injury during training — a major blow for the World Champions, especially with the strike-power France and the Netherlands possess. However, with the likes of Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo and Luca Toni present, it’s difficult to cast aside the Azzurri.
The presence of Gattuso in the centre of midfield always bolsters the Italians, with his physical presence bringing with it the arrogance and confidence the Italians thrive upon. He is their key player, and should ensure they see their way through the group. He’ll probably snarl the Italians through the group if he has to.
Still, they stuttered their way through their qualifying group (remember that evening at Hampden Park?), and with the managerial novice in Roberto Donadoni, it will be interesting to see how he copes with the pressures of a major tournament.
After the furore Donadoni caused with the omission of Alessandro Del Piero from the squad that faced Spain in a friendly (sorry, I’ve gone mad with the colours here, haven’t I?), the pressure is on for his side to live up to the expectations of the Italian public: domestically, Italian football is still recovering from the Calciopolis affair, and the way to recover is seemingly through the national side.
France have a mixture of the precociously talented and the hugely experienced (perhaps too experienced…). Luca Toni’s team-mate at Bayern Munich in Franck Ribery, labelled as the next Zidane, will probably be the main creative threat for France alongside Thierry Henry. He offered moments of brilliance two years’ ago in Germany and after a stunning debut season over there, is already a possibility for player of the tournament. Presumptive, I know. We’ll see.
Up front, Les Bleus are almost spoilt for choice with Henry, Lyon’s Karim Benzema and Sidney Govou and Nicolas Anelka all giving Raymond Domenech a selection dilemma. Even so, judging Anelka’s form at Chelsea, it’s likely Henry and Benzema will start together with Govou possibly completing a three-line attack.
But their qualification was even more laboured than Italy‘s, finishing just two points ahead of the Scots. And with the likes of Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram at the wrong end of thirty, their age could either provide much needed experience and strength or a degree of frailty: for these two, it’s set to be their final outing in a major international tournament.
On paper, the Netherlands look pretty frightening: Arjen Robben, Ruud van Nistlerooy, Klass-Jan Huntelaar, Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder. Were Ryan Babel fit, any uncertainty about the Dutch attack being frightening would be erased.
The experience of captain Edwin van der Sar will also prove vital as it did for Manchester United this season, especially with Marco van Basten’s adoption, attacking football — which is where the main weakness lies.
Van Basten, in his final outing as Dutch manager, will hope his side plays the football that will allow him to be remembered in a similar light to that of the great architect of Total Football, Rinus Michels. It could be a mode of football that tears apart an uncertain Italian defence minus Cannavaro but with a volatile Marco Matarazzi and a fading Gianluca Zambrotta; and a French back four with an aging Thuram and an unpredictable William Gallas.
But it could so easily go the other way, with a defence that looks ominously shaky: Giovanni van Bronckhorst has seen better days, and Wigan’s Mario Melchiot could turn out to be a first choice defender. This could be oranje’s undoing, but it sure does make them kurious. Fall fans will hopefully get that.
Romania. Adrian Mutu and Christian Chivu aside, it would take a feat of Grecian proportions to get out of the group. Yet top of their qualifying group? A reformed Adrian Mutu in the form of his life? It seems premature to write the Romanians off completely. They re-hired Victor Piturca — the man who took them to Euro 2000 and knocked out England — and qualified with two games to spare. The performances against the Dutch cannot be ignored, and we all recall what can happen when the French underestimate sides. Could it happen?
The side I have written least about, could have the biggest say of the lot. This GROUP OF DEATH easily makes up for England’s failure. Unmissable.
Part 2 will follow shortly.