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France favoured
Defending champins hopes to repeat Euro 2000, not World Cup 2002

Friday, 23 April 2004

No team has successfully defended football's European Championship. France is hot favourite to be the first.

Although the French tossed away their World Cup title by getting knocked out in the first round of group games without scoring a goal, Jacques Santini's team is unlikely to repeat the mistakes of 2002.

They have the best players of the 16 Euro 2004 finalists, the most impressive record and a comparatively easy route to the semifinals.

In Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, David Trezeguet and Robert Pires the French will have some of the most influential players in the championship.

"We all hope we won't fail like we did at the World Cup," Henry said. "You need to be fresh. Look at the World Cup 2002. All the great teams went out early - apart from Brazil, England and Germany - and they were playing another type of game, all defending. The likes of Italy looked like they couldn't play the ball because they were so tired.

"The team that wins Euro 2004 will be the team with the most fresh players."

With 45 goals for club and country this season, Henry is being hailed ahead of Brazil's Ronaldo as the world's top striker. Not bad for someone who arrived at Arsenal as a winger.

"I could still be a winger. But, thankfully for me, I am playing as a striker for Arsenal. It has changed my life," said Henry who recently passed 150 goals for the Gunners by scoring four in one game against Leeds.

Santini's men go to the finals in Portugal as the only team to win all eight qualifying games. Last month's 0-0 tie in a friendly with the Netherlands in Rotterdam ended a streak of 14 victories.

The Euro 2004 draw in Lisbon also was kind to the French.

Three of its main rivals -- Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic -- are all in the same group. The French can't meet any of them until the semis and that also applies to another of the favourites, Italy.

Once it has got past its opening game against England, France can afford to ease up a little against Croatia and Switzerland who are among the outsiders.

In the quarters, the defending champions probably will face host Portugal or Spain. Although both can be extremely good teams, they don't have great records in major championships.

World Cup quarterfinalist England is another underachiever. Apart from winning the World Cup in 1966 it has never even reached another final at either the World Cup or European Championship.

In David Beckham, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes, coach Sven-Goran Eriksson has some standout talent going forward. But there are alarming weaknesses in defence that Henry, who plays in England for Arsenal, is likely to exploit when they meet in Lisbon 13 June.

Group D brings together three former champions and a rookie.

The Germans are the only team to win the title three times (1972, '80 and '96). The Dutch triumphed in '88 and the Czechs - as Czechoslovakia - in '76.

Germany meets the Netherlands in Oporto 15 June and the Czech Republic in Lisbon 23 June. In between, the Dutch and the Czechs face each other at Aveiro 19 June.

While the Germans did well to get to the 2002 World Cup final, losing 2-0 to Brazil, they rely too much on Michael Ballack. If Sebastian Deisler has shaken off the five months of clinical depression he suffered this season, Ballack will have some top quality assistance in the German midfield.

The Dutch have so much talent it's a wonder they haven't added to their Euro '88 title.

But getting Ruud van Nistelrooy, Patrick Kluivert, Roy Makaay, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Marc Overmars and Co. to play as a team remains a problem even though the Dutch crushed Scotland 6-0 in the playoffs.

Pavel Nedved of Juventus, voted European Player of the Year by France Football, is the top player in the Czech lineup. But he has plenty of backup.

The towering Jan Koller and imaginative Milan Baros lead the attack and veteran Karel Poborsky, who scored a wonder goal at Euro '96 in England, is still around as an attacking midfielder alongside Vladimir Smicer while Tomas Rosicky has returned from a broken arm.

Karel Bruckner's team won seven and tied one of its eight qualifying games and its unbeaten streak went to 20 matches until last month's 2-1 loss to Ireland in Dublin.

Latvia made it to its first major championship by upsetting World Cup semifinalist Turkey in the playoffs and will do well to take a point off its three big rivals.

The Italians, who have had only one European success back in 1968, are favoured to top Group C and that means facing the Group D runner up.

Giovanni Trapattoni's team has plenty of talent in front of its miserly defence and his big problem is who to leave out.

Alessandro Del Piero, Christian Vieri, Francesco Totti, Filippo Inzaghi and Roma's new star striker Antonio Cassano are all available and 'Trap' has to find the right blend.

Del Piero is back to full fitness and should start even though the Juventus star was blamed for Italy's failure in the 2000 final. He missed some easy chances, the team conceded a late equalizer to France and then lost on a "golden goal".

The Italians start with a game against Denmark at Guimaraes 14 June, then face Sweden at Oporto four days later and return to Guimaraes to take on Bulgaria 22 June.

Portugal and Spain are expected to emerge from Group A as the quarterfinalists and send Greece and Russia home early.

The host's coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, hopes to add the European title to the World Cup he won with Brazil two years ago. He has a mixture of experience -- Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Fernando Couto, Cesar Pauleta -- and youth -- Cristiano Ronaldo and Helder Postiga -- but his team tumbled 2-1 at home to Italy last month.

Despite the titles won by Real Madrid and Barcelona, Spain's only international success was the 1964 European Championship on home soil. The Spaniards have never made it to the World Cup final.

Raul Gonzalez and Fernando Morientes may team up in attack while Spain has two top quality goalkeepers in Real Madrid's Iker Casillas and Santiago Canizares of Valencia.

The Portugal-Spain showdown is 20 June in the final round of Group A games and will be at Sporting Lisbon's refurbished Alvalade Stadium in the capital.

If the other results go according to plan, it will be to decide who avoids Italy in the quarters.
- AP




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