Accuracy predicting results of European teams in the World Cup is much greater as compared to the European Championship. For example, Italy and Germany, which finished first and third in the 2006 World Cup, did not advance to round two of the 2004 European Championship, while a long shot in Greece emerged from nowhere to claim the title.
The European Championship has seen five winners in the last five editions, two of which, Greece (2004) and Denmark (1992) did not even qualify for the World Cup two years later.
Led by sensation Cristiano Ronaldo, one might argue that Portugal is the favourite to win Euro 2008. But predicting the outcome is a complicated exercise. To help fill out your Euro 2008 bracket, we review the four groups and sixteen nations that will compete for the title.
Portugal is the clear favourite to win Group 1. Brazilian manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, who took Portugal to the 2002 World Cup title, and the semi-finals of the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2004, is confident directing this Portuguese national team. Anchored by Chelsea defenders Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira, the backline is solid. Midfielder Deco from FC Barcelona is an invaluable leader. Man U teammates Ronaldo and Nani lead an impeccable front line, whose abilities can devour any team’s defense.
Switzerland and the Czech Republic will fight for the second spot. The opening game of the tournament between these two teams should be a great match. The Swiss are a team on the rise and have the advantage of playing at home. Manager Jacob Kuhn has available Bayer Leverkusen’s midfielder Tranquilo Barnetta, who is recovered from injury. In addition, the team will depend on Arsenal’s defender Philippe Senderos and Borussia Dortmund’s forward Alexander Frei.
Many believe the best generation of Czech players was seen in Euro 2004. Some are no longer with the squad. Nonetheless, forwards like Milan Baros (Portsmouth) and 6ft 7” Jan Koller (Nuremberg) will always be dangerous. Those two players at the top of their game are unstoppable. Considering in goal is one of the best keepers on the planet in Chelsea’s Peter Cech, one goal could be enough to secure victory.
Turkey’s chances are slim. A team that came in third place in the 2002 World Cup is now aged. Forward Nihat Kahveci, who had an outstanding season with Spanish Villarreal, is still around and will be a presence up front. Count on Manager Fatih Terim handing the reins to play-maker Emre Belozoglu (Newcastle), with the hope he can be the leader of the future.
Despite losing in an overtime semi-final match against Italy, Germany showed clear signs of their return to the upper echelon of soccer in the 2006 World Cup. This is the easiest Group of Euro 2008, so if Germany fails to qualify, we would all be talking huge crisis. Jurgen Klinsmann’s assistant from the World Cup team, Joachim Low, is now the head coach. He has directed the team on a continuity basis. Germany will keep playing an aggressive 4-4-2 system, combining veterans like Chelsea’s attacking midfielder Michael Ballack and Bayern Munich’s defender Philipp Lahm with emerging talents such as Stuttgart’s striker Mario Gomez. Germany wants to show why they have more European titles (3) than any other nation, and should be considered a candidate to win it all.
Since its international debut as a national team, Croatia has shown aptitude. Finishing third in the 1998 World Cup, the Croatians nearly shocked France (eventual champion) in the semi-final game. In advancing to the group stage, Croatia defeated England 3-2 at Wembley, eliminating the Brits from Euro 2008. Despite the injury to forward Eduardo Da Silva, Croatia has a legitimate chance to advance to the quarterfinals. The Croatian team will operate around young players such as midfielder Luka Modric (Tottenham) and forward Mladen Petric (Borussia Dortmund), who scored the winning goal against England.
The Austrian team will try to avoid being the second host to not advance beyond the group stage (Belgium, 2000). The last international tournament Austria played was the 1998 World Cup and the results were not good, tying two games and losing one in their early exit. Coach Josef Hickersberger does not have a reference player, but has confidence that they can earn a result, “If we have a good day and also some looks, anything could happen.”
Poland impressed in the qualifying round for the 2006 World Cup before their early exit in Germany. Guided by Dutch manager Leo Beenhakker, the Polish shined again in the Euro 2008 qualifiers, finishing first in their Group ahead of the Portuguese. Now the final stage has arrived. It is a challenge for the Polish squad, but not an impossible one for a team that has players like Celtic Glasgow’s goalkeeper Artur Boruc and Racing de Santander’s attacking midfielder Euzebiusz Smolarek.
The Group of Death is here! Having Italy and France, who played the final game of the 2006 World Cup, should mean no chance for the other two squads in the Group. Guess again! Both teams are suffering: Italy is in the post-championship era and France is in the post-Zidane stage.
The Italians had problems adjusting to a new coach when Marcello Lippi left after winning the World Cup. It’s taken former A.C. Milan star and current head coach Roberto Donadoni time to find the right formula, but the team is playing better and qualified in first place of the Group. The heart-and-soul of the team is the same with Juanluigi Buffon (Juventus) at goal, hard-nose Marco Materazzi (Inter) on defense, finesse player Andrea Pirlo (Milan) at midfield and Luca Toni, who had a sensational season with Bayern Munich, as the main striker. Real Madrid’s Favio Cannavaro’s injury has been a setback for a defensive team like Italy. Though the style of play has not convinced the fans as of yet, the Italians arrive at a big tournament on the same basis as always; you never know what is going to happen with them. If history is a precursor, success in the World Cup means disappointment in the European Championship. We shall see…
France is going through a rebuilding process. Not only Zidane retired, but players like Patrick Vieira (Inter) and Thierry Henry (Barcelona) had average seasons with their respective clubs. Young but experienced midfielders like Franck Ribery (Bayern Munich) and Florent Malouda (Chelsea) are asking head coach Raymond Domenech for more responsibility. If young striker Karim Benzema plays as he did last season with Olympique Lyon, France could once again show greatness in another international tournament.
The Netherlands have one of the best teams in Euro 2008. Marco van Basten has worked patiently to build a very balanced squad. Van Basten was the best player when Holland won the European Championship twenty years ago. Now he has the opportunity to do it as a coach. His squad is rock-solid starting at goal with proven keeper Edwin van der Sar, who just won the Champions League with Manchester United. With the three Real Madrid players, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Ruud van Nistelrooy, and Liverpool’s versatile forward Dirk Kuyt, Holland’s offense is a machine.
Romania is the clear underdog in the Group. However, history bodes well for the team. In 2000, the Romanians advanced to the quarterfinals in a Group where England and Germany were both eliminated. Forming one of the top pairs in the world, star forwards Ciprian Marica (Stutgart) and Adrian Mutu (Fiorentina), won’t make it easy on their competition.
In this Group, you have the current champion of Europe (Greece), a young team that shined in the qualifying round (Russia), and two of the most experienced nationals (Spain and Sweden).
In Spain, controversy ensues over the head coach’s relationships with some of his own players and the media. Veteran head coach Luis Aragones left out Raul. The Real Madrid forward is not only an icon for a generation and the all-time top scorer in history Champions League history, but also had a great season leading Real to its second consecutive league title. Raul’s spot should be covered by young Fernando Torres, who had a sensational first season with Liverpool, or by Dani Güiza (Mallorca), who was La Liga’s top scorer. Spain has depth and skill in the midfield with Barcelona’s Xavi and Iniesta and Arsenal’s super star Cesc Fabregas. The question is if Aragones will be able to benefit from it. One thing is certain; the goal will be safe with Real’s Iker Casillas guarding the net.
On the outside looking in is Russia. Manager Guus Hiddink strikes gold in everything he touches, at least at the national team level. He guided Korea to the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup and then took Australia to the round of sixteen in the 2006 World Cup. Hiddink’s challenge these days is to return Russia to soccer’s elite. So far, things are working. He has a young squad with skill players like forward Dmitri Sychev (Lokomitv Moscow). Since the USSR made the European final twenty years ago, falling to Holland, the Russians have had little success. Zenit did win the 2008 UEFA Cup, a good sign of things to come in Russia. Is Hiddink the answer?
Sweden has one of the most balanced teams in the tournament. The Swedish are tall, strong and fast, and have two great forwards in Johan Elmander (Toulouse) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Inter). Sweden also has experience. Former Arsenal and current West Ham midfielder Fredrik Ljunberg was a member of the Sweden team that advanced to the second round of both the World Cup and Euro 2004.
You can’t say that the current European Champion doesn’t have a chance, but in all likelihood Greece will not repeat. A dangerous team to play, the Greeks have a solid fast break and take advantage of free kicks. The main problem for Greece is that its stars players are the same as four years ago. Midfielder Angelos Basinas (Mallorca), striker Angelos Charisteas (Nuremberg) and 37-year old goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis (Olympiacos) are all four years older. The question is will the experience help or will the energy wane?