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  News: Countdown to EURO 2004

  

All eyes on Portugal
Breaking down the 2004 European Championship

Monday, 07 June 2004

Seventeen days after Porto captured the European club crown, all eyes are once again on Portugal, the host of Euro 2004.

For those who love this game, it is now a 12-month affair. The Copa America kicks off two days after the Euro 2004 final and ends five days before the draw for the third preliminary round of the 2004-05 Champions League, when the likes of Juventus, Manchester United and Real Madrid enter the fray.

Can't get enough? Neither can I. As Europe's championship for national teams looms, here's a quick rundown of how things might unfold.

GROUP A
PORTGUAL: As the host nation, Portugal's Golden Generation will be expected to deliver the goods in what could be their last hurrah. Often criticized for being a little too self-indulgent -- too much pretty passing, too little cutting edge -- autocratic boss Luiz Felipe Scolari, the man who led Brazil to the World Cup, promises to change all that.

Much will depend on how well Pauleta, likely to operate as the lone striker, converts the magic of Luis Figo, Deco and Manuel Rui Costa into goals. How well Scolari's men cope with pressure and expectations could also play a part.

SPAIN: On paper, Spain has no obvious weakness, looking solid in every department, though the marauding runs of Michel Salgado will be missed. Fernando Torres is on the verge of superstardom, though whether he beats out Fernando Morientes for a spot in the lineup remains to be seen. The midfield partnership of David Albelda and Ruben Baraja is one of the most underrated in Europe, and goalkeeper Iker Casillas is one of the few Galacticos not to have been swallowed up in Real Madrid's late-season collapse. Still, unless Raul is fit, happy and firing on all cylinders, Spain will only go so far.

RUSSIA: Despite coach Georgi Yartsev's firm leadership, Russia hasn't lived up to its potential of late, and there is little reason to think this will change at Euro 2004. Injuries to Sergei Ignashevich and Victor Onopko have robbed the Russians of their starting defensive partnership, and the promising front pair of Dmitri Sychev and Dmitri Bulykin is long on talent but short on experience, and in Sychev's case, discipline.

GREECE: The Greeks have one of the best organized teams in the competition, and German boss Otto Rehhagel has done an excellent job, instilling teamwork and discipline. He needs to, because this is one of the least talented teams in the tournament. Vassilios Tsartas can conjure up the occasional magic and striker Demis Nikolaidis can be a threat, but this Greece team is all about defending, grinding out results and pouncing on opponents' mistakes. At this level, it's unlikely to be enough.

PREDICTION: Spain, Portugal advance.

GROUP B

FRANCE: The French are the bookmakers' favorites to win a third European Championship, but before we get carried away, it's worth remembering that it was the favorite at the World Cup as well. Top-to-bottom, this team has plenty of depth, though whether coach Jacques Santini can assemble it properly remains to be seen.

Zinedine Zidane, shifted wide left in his 4-4-2 scheme, could find himself isolated in certain matches, and Thierry Henry has been so good for so long you can't help but wonder if he's due for an off-month. Goalkeeper Fabien Barthez remains enigmatic and both fullbacks, Lilian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu showed signs of age last season. But all this is just nitpicking. This is not an invulnerable team, but it's clearly the best in the competition, at least on paper.

ENGLAND: The English are loaded in certain positions (such as midfield), woefully thin in others -- such as up front and in central defense. Injuries or suspensions could prove disastrous in either department. Wayne Rooney is undoubtedly talented, but he's also just 18 and his understudies -- Darius Vassell and Emile Heskey -- are mediocre at best. At the back, if anything happens to the starting central defensive duo of John Terry and Sol Campbell, coach Sven-Goran Eriksson will be forced to call upon Jamie Carrager and Ledley King, neither of whom was a regular in central defense at club level this season.

SWITZERLAND: The Swiss are in the midst of a generational shift, with youngsters such as Alexander Frei (definitely a player to watch) blending in with veterans like Stephane Chapuisat and Patrick Muller. It's a team in transition, and it's day may well come, but it's unlikely to happen at Euro 2004.

CROATIA: Much the same could be said for Croatia, though, in this case, the light at the end of the tunnel looks even further away. Otto Baric's side is very different -- in terms of talent and tactics -- from the legendary group that reached the 1998 World Cup semifinal. The genius of the Robert Prosineckis and Zvonimir Bobans has been replaced by the graft of the Kovac brothers and the bulk of Dado Prso. Expectations aren't too high domestically, and with good reason.

PREDICTION: France, England advance.

GROUP C
ITALY: Boss Giovanni Trapattoni showed that he is more of a pragmatist than a traditionalist in adopting a 4-2-3-1 formation that, in theory, should allow the Azzurri's talented attacking corps (Francesco Totti, Christian Vieri, Alex Del Piero, Antonio Cassano) to shine.

It's a bold move, but perhaps an inevitable one, as Italy's strengths are up front and at the back (Alessandro Nesta, goalkeeper Gigi Buffon) rather than in the middle of the park. There isn't much depth in central defense, and the midfielders, with the exception of Andrea Pirlo (who is unlikely to start anyway) are mostly ballwinners rather than creators. Just how well Italy can adapt to this newfound attacking personality after years of catenaccio will determine how well it does.

DENMARK: The Danes, meanwhile, could be the surprise package of the tournament. Morten Olsen's men started brightly in Korea-Japan before collapsing against England, but this is a compact unit that has had time to grow together. There is plenty of talent on the wings, and Jon Dahl Tomasson is one of the most underappreciated strikes in Europe.

BULGARIA: This side is a work in progress, and we are unlikely to see the best of Plamen Markov's men before Germany 2006. In the meantime, look out for prolific striker Dimitar Berbatov, midfielder Stilian Petrov, and, if he gets a game, wonderkid Valeri Bojinov.

SWEDEN: The Swedes looked old and weary before Henrik Larsson decided to return to international action. It was a huge boost, because without him, the Swedes looked rather ponderous and unimaginative. Volatile striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic will benefit from his calming presence, while midfielders Freddy Ljungberg and Kim Kallstrom will have an outlet for their creative impetus. This is very much a team in transition.

PREDICTION: Denmark, Italy advance.

GROUP D
NETHERLANDS: Holland is arguably the most talented team in the competition after France, but the Oranje are far from a shoo-in. 

Blame a penchant for squabbling and self-destruction, starting with the front pairing of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Patrick Kluivert, two guys who clearly don't like each other. 

In midfield, you're always wondering which Edgar Davids will show up: the ballwinning hurricane or his sulky, stubborn alter ego? And, at the back, Jaap Stam aside, there is little reason to be cheerful.

Having said that, there is no substitute for great players and Holland is blessed, to the point where Dick Advocaat might even be tempted to ditch some of his veterans in favor of youngsters such as Rafael Van der Vaart and Arjen Robben.

GERMANY: The Germans look weary, tired and unspectacular: pretty much the view before Korea-Japan, when it shocked everyone by making it to the final. 

It's a mix of old (Oliver Kahn, Fredi Bobic, Jens Nowotny) and young (Philip Lahm, Kevin Kuranyi, Andreas Hinkel) but there is a sense that the former are past it and the latter aren't yet ready to step up. Which means that Michael Ballack, coming of a lackluster campaign, will have to carry this team and, given his recent outings, things don't look too promising.

CZECH REPUBLIC
: The Czechs were absolutely stellar in qualifying and, in theory, Karel Bruckner's squad is one of the best in the tournament. The problem may well be form. European Footballer of the Year Pavel Nedved has struggled of late, much like attacking midfielder Tomas Rosicky and centerforward Jan Koller. Left-back Marek Jankulovski is one to watch (a bit of a mini-Nedved), but unless the Czechs regain the form of a few months ago, it does appear as if they peaked too soon.

LATVIA: The Latvians already turned the world on its head by even qualifying for the tournament. The tiny Baltic republic is the ultimate underdog and, since the script for Euro 2004 isn't being written by Disney, one can only conclude that Latvia is doomed. Do look out for streaky striker Maris Verpakovskis, a young man with the skills to go far.

PREDICTION: Holland, Czech Republic advance

Looking ahead
Predictions are a tricky business, but, at the risk of public ridicule, I'll have a go. If my first round assessments are correct, in the quarterfinals Spain should edge England, with Portugal upsetting France. In the other half of the bracket, look for Denmark to beat the Czech Republic and Italy to squeak past Holland, just like it did at Euro 2000.

This would set up a Spain vs. Denmark semifinal, with Inaki Saez's men advancing to the final -- where they could well meet Italy, who would have edged out Portugal. At that point, expect Spain to beat Italy and win a second European title, with Raul finally getting the credit he deserves. Heck, I'm no soothsayer...
- Gabriele Marcotti, Sports Illustrated

 

 

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