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  News: Countdown to EURO 2004


Euros sure to bring out stars, create new ones
Tournaments like Euro 2004 bring out the stars and create new ones. Without them, favored teams can be reduced to also-rans.
Tuesday, 08 June 2004

Nobody ever doubted Zinedine Zidane's worth. But the 2002 World Cup served to underline the point.

With Zidane sidelined in the first two games with a thigh injury, France was beaten by Senegal 1-0 and drew Uruguay 0-0. He limped through the third match, but then it was too late. Denmark won 2-0 and France was out of competition, the worst display ever by a defending champion. Three games. No wins. No goals.

It was the first time since 1966 that a defending champion bowed out in the first round -- back then, it was Brazil without Pele.

A healthy Zidane will make Jacques Santini's team the favorites in Euro 2004 in Portugal, particularly if strikers Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet keep scoring.

If Raul Gonzalez has a great tournament, Spain could fulfill its long talked about promise. The main question surrounds Raul's strike partner -- some young and veterans stars in the wings, notably Albert Luque, Fernando Morientes, Fernando Torres and Joseba Etxeberria.

Striker Pedro Pauleta plays a pivotal role for host Portugal, another underperforming team that could be lifted by a star. If he flops, the hosts could go out in the first round like they did in the 2002 World Cup. The Portuguese are trying to blend older stars such as Pauleta and Luis Figo with young players like Brazilian-born playmaker Deco and winger Cristiano Ronaldo.

Despite the talk about David Beckham and Michael Owen, England's key player may be Liverpool's Steven Gerrard. He missed the World Cup with a groin injury, and his creativity at midfield gives England a shot at its first major title since winning the 1966 World Cup.

"He's one of the important players we have," England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson said. "He's a world-class player, and he can play different positions in midfield. We've lost very few times with Steven Gerrard on the pitch."

The Netherlands is as talented as anybody, but many of their top players are young and experienced. The Dutch will be looking to star striker Ruud van Nistelrooy and youngsters to make a mark -- forward Arjen Robben and midfielders Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder. With a Spanish mother, Van der Vaart could have elected to play for Spain.

Germany's Kevin Kuranyi is another promising striker with parents from different countries. Born in Brazil to a German father and Panamanian mother, the family moved back to Europe when he was 14. Despite lackluster play entering the tournament, Germany is always ready in big events. And if Kuranyi is, too, the 2002 World Cup runners-up could be a threat.

Once defense-oriented, Italy has some of the tournament's best attacking players in striker Francesco Totti and Christian Vieri and attacking midfielder Alessandro Del Piero.

Many place the Czechs among the contenders. They have one of Europe's best midfields led by Pavel Nedved, Tomas Rosicky, Karel Poborsky and Tomas Galasek. Some look to talented goalkeeper Petr Cech as the team's budding star.

Sweden's success hinges on its team spirit and defense -- not the stuff of headlines. If there's a star, it may be star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose elusive runs and hot temper will make him one of the tournament's most watched players. If he can overcome a groin injury, look for goals.

Sweden's chances will also be boosted by Henrik Larrson's return to the national team. A prolific scorer with Celtic, some of his talented has been overlooked in the low-profile Scottish league.

Switzerland is a long-shot. If a player is to rise to the star level there, it will probably be playmaker Hakan Yakin. He has flair, great free kicks and a knack of scoring. A series of injuries is the only thing damaging his prospects in the tournament. His brother, Murat, is the side's top central defender.

Latvia will be playing in the biggest event in its history. Striker Maris Verpakovskis is already a national hero, having scored in both legs of the playoff that eliminated Turkey.

Denmark's Martin Jorgensen could be about to break trough on the international level. At attacking midfielder, he could take pressure off forwards Jon Dahl Tomasson and Ebbe Sand.

For Greece, keep an eye on striker Demis Nikolaidis and midfielder Vassilis Tsiartas. Russia has striker Dmitry Sychev and midfielder Alexander Mostovoi. Croatia will rely on a high-scoring forward line led by Monaco striker Dado Prso. The Bulgarian attack centers around striker Dimitar Berbatov and midfielder Stilian Petrov.
- Reuters & AP



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