james debate
james debate

Thursday 5 June 2008

Tis the season, and even though England failed us all by not getting into the tournament all is not lost. Clearly it's a far less interesting summer without England to follow, but that shouldn't spoil what is still an exciting festival of all that is good and wonderful about football. Or, like me enter a prediction league for the tournament, making the results of far greater consequence and giving you an opportunity to satisfy that hyper-competetive urge and prove that you're better than your friends, as we all love to do so much.

In this guide, I will be previewing every one of the sixteen teams in the competition, highlighting key players for each, and ultimately giving my verdict on how each team will fare when the tournament begins at the end of this week.

Group A

Czech Republic
They should have won Euro2004, they had a very strong team with great players and the top scorer of the competition. However they disappointed at the World Cup despite an impressive start, and a number of their players are now retired (Nedved, Poborsky) or getting on (Koller, Ujfalusi). Fortunately there are a number of yougner stars taking on more prominent positions within the team, Arsenal's Rosicky and Chelsea's Petr Cech, both of whom are potential matchwinners on their day.
Key Player: Petr Cech - the imposing goalkeeper with inhuman reflexes adds at least 20 points to Chelsea's league total, a similarly strong performance for the Czech will be a massive boost for his nation.
Verdict: Should qualify from their group, but will be pushed hard by the home nation Switzerland, and with a likely quarter final against Germany should they come second, they should not get their hopes up about getting any further.

Finalists in Euro2004, 4th place finish in World Cup 2006, and led by the inimitable world cup winning manager Scolari, this Portugal team has a lot going for them. Add onto this the coming of age of one Cristiano Ronaldo (maybe you've heard of him?) he is a winger who somehow amassed a ridiculous 41 goals this season for Manchester United (albeit quite a few from penalties) and is undoubtedly one of the best footballers in the world right now.
Key Player: Cristiano Ronaldo - One of the best players in the world and a real contender for the golden boot. Could fire his country to long awaited success.
Verdict: Could be a good year for them, but with Ronaldo gaining somewhat of a reputation as a bottler in big games, they could fall short in the later stages.

As the homenation in Euro2008 they will be looking to give a strong performance. Being a realtively minnowish side unfortunately drawn in a group with the heavyweight likes of Portugal and Czech Republic has left them as heavily unfavoured, despite a very impressive world cup performance in 2006. Will be relying on one of their more esteemed group A contenders to slip up.
Key Player: Alexander Frei - A prolific goalscorer for his country, and the captain. Plies his trade in the top flight of the German Bundesliga so is not short of pedigree.
Verdict: Will push and push but will be lucky to qualify from the group stage, and a near-miracle if they get further.

Probably the weakest team in the group, but have a solid defense and will be aiming to cause an upset, as they have done in the past (see world cup 2002). Coach Fatih Terim has made some controversial decisions to leave out certain experienced players from his squad, will the risk pay off?
Key Player: Sanli Tuncay - The Boro player is in strong form leading up toe the competition and his team mates will be hoping for some of that goalscoring accumen in what could eb a tough group to navigate out from
Verdict: Probably going home early.

Group B

The manager has had a tough job rebuilding the national side from scratch for this tournament, and with only friendly games to practise with, his young team has not had a lot of time to properly gel. Generally regarded as the weakest team in the competition this year, as co-hosts they will still be giving their all when the games begin. However with a squad distinctly lacking in quality they will probably notbe too optimistic about their chances.
Key Player: René Aufhauser - A pivotal playmaker in the team, scored a hattrick in one of Austria's most recent wins (which was a year ago)
Verdict: It will be tough for them, will probably fight it out for 3rd place in the group with Poland.

The evil bas***ds who knocked england out? perhaps. But they also happen to be a pretty good team, and thoroughly deserved it. Luka Modric was recently being talked about like one of the hottest properties in Europe! then he signed for spurs instead of Chelsea or Arsenal and no one is saying that anymore. Ivan Rakitic is, however still a very hotly tipped youngster and was recently listed on Fifa's official 'most exciting teenagers on the planet' a list I only missed out on because I've turned 20 this year ;) Olic is a prolific goalscorer at both club and country level, and their manager has been rightly praised for how he has gelled these players together as a team, so much so in fact that he has been linked with the Chelsea post.
Key Player: Luka Modric - Maybe Chelsea and Arsenal were wrong? is there a good player on tottenham finally? 10 bucks says he has a blinder of a tournament and then a stinker of a season at tottenham
Verdict: I'd expect them to qualify from this group if they maintain the excellent form they had in qualification.

One of the big favorites at this tournament and why not? Had a very impressive showing at the world cup (following an absolute nightmare at euro 2004 it must be said) and are in good form, with captain Michael Ballack enjoying one of his better seasons in recent years and world cup top scorer Klose looking on fire again, could go a long way.
Key Player: Michael Ballack - Has hit tip top form again and appeared at times to be carrying Chelsea this season, which says a lot for such a big club.
Verdict: Could go a long way, wouldn't surprise anyone if they ended as winners.

Better than Austria... that's about it. Their ace in the hole will be manager Leo Beenhakker, who brings with him bags of top class experience. Unless we see another Greece-like shock, Poland are not long for this tournament, may finish 3rd though if they best Austria.
Key Player: Maciej Żurawski - Captained his country through to their first UEFA European Championship finals, playing in 13 of the team's 14 qualifying games. The most experienced forward in Poland's ranks, he remains a key asset despite falling out of favour with Scottish giants Celtic FC and moving in January to Greek club Larissa FC
Verdict: Probably going home early.

Group C

Make no doubt about it, the Dutch may be stoned off their asses half the time but they know how to play football. While English youths are busy doing push ups and running at 6am, dutch kids are just given a football and encouraged to be creative. While this probably explains the difference between fairies like Robben who spend 3/4 of the season in the hospital and men like Terry who play with a dislocated shoulder, arm in a sling, one leg chopped off, whatever, it probably also explains the difference in attacking flair between the two. If key players avoid injury and play to their full potential, they can go all the way this year. Young manager Van Basten has done a good job with these lads, and with this to be his last competition in charge of Holland he'll want to make it a good one. Will feel very unlucky to be drawn in such a tough group with the likes of world cup finalists France and world champions Italy.
Key Player: Arjen Robben - Best Dutch player at world cup 2006, one of the best players in that competition. Absolutely lethal at club level when he's not in bed with his leg bandaged up. Can turn a game on its head, run past an entire team of players and can score from anywhere in the opponent's half.
Verdict: Poor bastards. One of the better teams in the competition and theyre thrown into a group that promises nothing but pain and tears, much like the group they were drawn in for the world cup with Argentina and Ivory Coast. Dutch Luck? Tough to call.

World Champions! mind you they had a different manager at the time, and an unbeatable siege mentality no doubt boosted by the scandal sweeping the nation at the time. Very strong team all over the pitch. However they will be missing their captain Fabio Cannavaro, the player of the year after leading his team to the world cup. This obviously is a big blow, but with Italy renowned for their defensive qualities they should be able to hold up well enough without him.
Key Player: Gianluigi Buffon - Long regarded as one of the world's best goalkeepers, Gianluigi Buffon confirmed that status with his outstanding performances in Italy's 2006 FIFA World Cup triumph and has since been typically impressive for Juventus.
Verdict: Will want to qualify, but again this is a tight tight group and impossible to call. My gut says they will get through, but may settle for second place.

Poor Romania. Poor, poor Romania. When your're drawn in a group so hard not even the world champions can be 100% confident of qualifying you know it's not your year. WIll fight bravely as they always do, but i think it's safe to say it will not be enough. Qualifying this group would be as good as winning the entire thing for them.
Key Player: Adrian Mutu - A Romanian sporting icon and superstar, Adrian Mutu has a lot to prove after his disastrous drugs bust and sacking from Chelsea. A prolific scorer in qualifying competitions (17 goals in his last 20 matches), the 29-year-old striker has also been in outstanding form over the past two years for his Italian club ACF Fiorentina, and is looking to make a comeback in a big way.
Verdict: Like I said, it's just not in the cards for them.

The last member of this group of death. No, more than that, the group of death from hell. World cup runner ups through the mind numbing agony of penalty shootout (zidane headbutt, guy with shaved head lifting trophy, ring any bells?) this team is still very very strong and will also be entering the competition as one of the feavorites. Manager Domenech has made a number of controversial decisions as manager, but having turned the team from 2002, 2004 abject failures and alsorans into 2006 finalists no one will be questioning him this year. Then again, they did lose to Scotland.
Key Player: Franck Ribery - A real find for France at the 2006 FIFA World Cup with his elaborate skill and direct running, Franck Ribéry travels to euro 2008 high on confidence after an outstanding debut season with FC Bayern München.
Verdict: A big favorite, I think they'll win this nightmare group. Could go far this team.

Group D

European champions... believe it or not. Prior to the 2004 competition which they won they had yet to even score a goal at a major tournament. What can you say, manager Rehhagel has done some good work with them clearly. The team was far from the most impressive at Euro2004, but they were so solid at the back and scraped 1-0 victories, gaining more and more belief with each victory to take them onto their impressive win. Definitely not fancied this time having not maintained this form in the years since, but then again no one fancied them last time either.
Key Player: Angelos Charisteas - Angelos Charisteas will do well to scale such heights again in Austria and Switzerland, but despite making few waves at club level in the interceding four years, the tall, two-footed striker remains one of the first names on Otto Rehhagel's team-sheet.
Verdict: Will give it a go... they are defending champions after all. But I don't expect them to be for very long. Will likely battle with Sweden for 3rd place.

Have been very disappointing in recent years, largely due to the lack of attacking flair shown by players who produced it on a weekly basis at club level, like Ljungberg and Ibrahimovic. These players aren't getting any younger. Further injury woe to striker Elmander and a disappointing run of results in the lead up to the tournament won't do their confidence any good either.
Key Player: Zlatan Ibrahimović - a forward of tremendous ingenuity and skill. The capricious 26-year-old has not always enjoyed the steadiest of relationships with the Swedish coaching staff but his extravagant talent, as witnessed repeatedly in Italy's Serie A over the past four years, ensures him star billing
Verdict: Likely to disappoint, again.

Perennial underachievers at the international level, despite boasting an intimidating level of talent and entering most tournaments as one of the favorites they still manage to disappoint every time. As such it may sound a little surprising for me to declare this side one of the big favorites, but then there really is something special about this Spain side, with world class strikers like Torres and VIlla, and ever maturing creative midfielders like Fabregas and Iniesta. They are also solid at the back with Puyol and Casillas. The manager is a bit of a prick but then so are most good managers. Could this be the year they finally live up to their billing?
Key Player: Fernando Torres - After an indifferent start at Liverpool, Torres really lit the world alight in the second half of the season, using his unstoppable strength and speed and skill to become a complete goal machine and a world class striker. If he i in the mood there won't be many teams that can withstand the Spanish armada.
Verdict: My pick for this year's tournament. A force to be reckoned with, and not too tough a group for them to navigate.

The other team to qualify at England's expense. They may not be favoured by many, but you only have to look at the coaching pedigree of manager Guus Hiddink to realise that they could well surprise a few people this summer. This is the same manager who took South Korea to the world cup quarter finals, and then repeated the same feat with Australia 4 years later. He excels at taking minnows to the later stages of competitions, so let's see if he does it again!
Key Player: Dmitri Sychev - A big hit at the 2002 FIFA World Cup as a precocious 18-year-old, Dmitri Sychev had his troubles after that tournament but has reinvented himself at FC Lokomotiv Moskva and still ranks as arguably the most talented Russian forward of his generation. Lithe, elusive and skilful, he is also a consistent goalscorer for club and country.
Verdict: May surprise a few people, and should qualify from this group ahead of Greece, who knocked them out of last year's tournament at this stage.

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