It's pretty well known that I am a huge "tifoso di calcio" (soccer/football fan). My life pretty much peaks every four years when the World Cup comes around. In between World Cups I have the European Championships to look forward to. Though not as grand as the World Cup, the European Championships are sometimes more fun to watch. Back in 2004, some friends and I were extremely fortunate to get tickets to all of Italy's matches. The tournament was in Portugal so we made the road trip and although Italy crashed out of the tourney early, we had a fantastic time. [I recounted the trip here: Euro 2004]
Well, here it is, 4 years on and it's now time for Euro 2008. This year's tournament is being co-hosted by Austria and Switzerland and promises to be a good one. Here in Germany the people are getting ready and there is a buzz in the air as the German team is looking very strong and playing close to home. As for me personally, I can hardly contain my enthusiasm. I've followed the qualifying rounds closely and am ready for the matches to begin. The first match is this Saturday, a mere two days away. For the next 3 weeks I will be eating and breathing calcio and to get it started, here is my official "Rik's Blog Euro 2008 Preview", broken into two parts...
My picks: Portugal, Turkey
Players to watch: Ronaldo, Deco, Senturk, Jankulovski, Senderos
Initial Thoughts: The only certain thing in group A is that Portugal will advance. They have a stacked lineup led by FIFA Player of the Year Christiano Ronaldo, although Deco might be the motor that makes the machine run. They will have no problem scoring goals, many of the spectacular variety. Most prognosticators are tabbing either the Czechs or the Swiss to accompany them but I'm not so sure. The Czechs are historically a strong team in the Euros and have a lot of talent but there a few factors to consider - Pavel Nedved is retired and won't play and injuries, namely Tomas Rosicky, could hurt them. Without Nedved and Rosicky, it remains to be seen who will step up in midfield to provide service to Koller and Baros. The Swiss were seen as a favorite going in because they are co-hosts and have basically been building this team for the past several years specifically for this tournament but they have not been in good form the past few times I've seen them. Also, one of the players who is supposed to carry them, Phillipe Senderos, was on terrible form for Arsenal this season. They will rely on a couple of vets - Yakin and Frei - for goals but keep your eye on youngster Eren Derdiyok who could surprise off the bench. Frei recently became Switzerland's alltime leading scorer by the way. I admit to not knowing much about the current Turkish side but what I have seen, I've liked and they are one of my dark horses to go through.
My picks: Germany, Croatia
Players to watch: Ballack, Schweinsteiger, Frings, Petric, Smolarek
Initial Thoughts: There should be no shortage of goals in this group.
Germany are practically playing at home and are one of my favorites to win the tournament. They will easily win this group and then some. Klose and Podolski will get their goals but it's their midfield that is their real strength. Keep your eye on Kevin Kuranyi, a very underrater player for the Mannshaft. Nobody should overlook Croatia - they are a very strong team whose sum is greater than its parts. Eduardo netted 10 goals in qualifying but will miss the tourney (broken leg) so the Croats need another scorer (Petric? Srna?) to step up if they are to go far, otherwise they could easily crash out of the first round to an upstart Polish team or a proud Austrian side playing at home. It is tempting to pick Poland as a dark horse but historically they always do well in qualifying only to play sheepishly come tournament time. They will need Smolarek to play well if they are to beat out Croatia for the second spot. Austria is a team with little to no talent who qualified only because they are co-hosts (Austria have never played in a European Championship before) and will basically go as far as the home field advantage will take them. They are lead by inspirational but ancient striker Ivica Vastic (38 yrs old).
My picks: France, Italy
Players to watch: Mutu, Ribery, Robben, Toni
Initial Thoughts: Perhaps the deadiest "Group of Death" ever, this is an extremely tough one to predict. Literally any one of the 4 teams in this group could win it all...or just as easily crash out of the first round.
Italy are defending world champions but suffered a huge blow when captain Cannavaro was injured in training, leaving him out for the entire tournament. His absence means that Zambrotta will probably end up in a more defensive role as will Materazzi. Unfortunately it also means that Andrea Barzagli will see significant time at inside back which could be a weak spot for the Azzurri. Despite losing Cannavaro, they should still be strong in defense and they still have the world's best goalkeeper in Gigi Buffon. Up front, Toni is always a threat but there will also be one Italian striker who makes his mark on this tournament - either DiNatale, Cassano, Quagliarella or Boriello. My guess is that DiNatale will see the bulk of time up front with Toni but let's not forget that Antonio Cassano was easily their best player 4 years ago in Portugal. The Netherlands are always tough but they have injury issues (Babel, Van Persie). Arjen Robben has to play strong and they must beat Italy in the first match if they are to go through. Once one of the top strikers in the world, Ruud Van Nistelroy seems to be on the downside of his imressive career. France will go as far as Franck Ribery will take them. He's one of the most underrated players in the game today and is usually the best player on the field when Les Bleus play. He's a joy to watch. Keep your eye on Samir Nasri, it'll be interesting to see how he does on the world stage. He is the heir apparent to Thierry Henry who had a down year after his move to Barcelona. Their match against Italy will be a grudge match as there are still a lot of ill feelings remaining from the World Cup final 2 years ago. If they were in any other group, I would give Romania a much better chance; they are a team capable of beating any team on any given day. Adrian Mutu is a fantastic goal scorer. They would seem to be the weakest in the group but don't be surprised if they advance. They are certainly capable of it.
My picks: Spain, Sweden
Players to watch: Torres, Villa, Alonso, Ibrahamovich
Initial Thoughts: Spain should dominate this group and are quite capable of winning the entire tournament. Fernando Torres has been playing on another level all season for Liverpool and can score anywhere, anytime however David Villa does most of their scoring at the international level. Don't be surprised if one of those two finish as top scorer. They've also got an improved midfield led by Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fabregas. Russia looked tired in qualifying and the one player who could have carried them - Zenit-St Petersburg striker Pogrebnyak - looks to miss most or all of the tournament after getting injured in the warm up against Serbia. Sweden are another traditionally strong side but are not playing up to their promise lately. They should go as far as Zlatan Ibrahamovich takes them and unluckily for them, he has been in terrible form for both club and country lately. The ageless Henrik Larsson was a surprise addition to the squad but it remains to be seen how much gas he's got left in the tank. Greece could benefit from a weakened Sweden but after stunning the football world 4 years ago, they won't be taking anybody by surprise this time around. They do still have coach Otto Rehagel though, and looked strong in qualifying. They could advance but don't expect another miracle.
TOMORROW: PART II...