Friday, May 23, 2008

Euro 2008 - Group A

It's that time again. The closing date for the squad lists to be submitted to UEFA for Euro 2008 is the 28th of May, but we already know enough about who will be there and who won't to be able to start having a look at the groups for the finals of this year's European Championships. This year's finals haven't been without controversy already, with numerous complaints about the seeding of the competition. The four seeds are Switzerland, Austria, Greece and the Netherlands, with Switzerland and Austria being seeded as the hosts, Greece earning their place as the holders and the Netherlands, on the basis of UEFA's hilariously complicated co-efficient system that calculated the average number of points obtained in qualifying and in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. This idiosyncratic way of doing things has, of course, thrown up a "Group Of Death" (Group C, which features the Netherlands, Italy and France), but has also done a couple of the other "bigger" nations a favour. Anyway, first up, here's a look at Group A.

Switzerland - What Are Expectations Like? Well, not as low as they are for their co-hosts, Austria. Switzerland have had a reasonably favourable draw and have got half a chance of getting through the group stages, though there won't be too many people staring in disbelief if they do get through. Their key match is their opener against the Czech Republic - if they win that, they'll have an outstanding chance of making at least the last eight.

How Did Their Qualifying Campaign Go? They qualified automatically as hosts. Their recent friendly results have been mixed, and in their 2-1 defeat against England at Wembley, they showed that they have more nous than many people give them credit for.

What's The Coach Like? Kobi Kuhn played for most of his career with FC Zurich and made one appearance for Switzerland in the 1966 World Cup. He was appointed the Swiss Under-21 team coach and then to the national team manager's job in 2001. He hasn't always been very popular (his defensive tactics against Ukraine at the last World Cup cost Switzerland a game that they could and probably should have won), but he has taken them to the finals of two major tournaments prior to Euro 2008, which is a significant achievement for a country the size of Switzerland.

Which Players Should I Look Out For? There's a surprising amount of quality in the current Swiss squad, with players such as Arsenal's Phillipe Senderos and Raphael Wicky (a recent convert to MLS - he has just signed for Chivas USA), but the potential star man is Alexander Frei of Borussia Dortmund. Frei has scored thirty-two goals in fifty-six matches for the Swiss national team, and has the experience to maybe get them through the group stages.

Czech Republic - What Are Expectations Like? The Czechs seem to be fulfilling the age old stereotype of being tournament "Dark Horses". They won't much fancy having to play Germany in the group stages, and their opening match against Switzerland is a tricky one. They may also struggle to find a replacement for Pavel Nedved (who rejected a call up to the squad after retiring from international football a couple of years ago) and Tomas Rosicky (who's injured). They are, however, also blessed with having Petr Cech - possibly the best goalkeeper in the world - playing for them.

How Did Their Qualifying Campaign Go? About as well as could be expected. They finished above Germany in top position in Group D, and were unbeaten away from home. What could, with the Republic of Ireland being in their group, have been a tricky campaign turned into a stroll in the park. Their only defeat was a 2-1 home defeat by Germany.

What's Their Coach Like? Karel Bruckner has been in charge since 2001 and will step down after the tournament. He has overseen a complete transformation of the Czech team, including seeing them lose unluckily in the semi-finals of Euro 2004.

Which Players Should I Watch Out For? Well, the 9'7 Jan Koller of 1FC Nuremberg is difficult to take your eyes off, but he's thirty-five now and is past his best. Milan Baros will lead the front line, though doubts remain about his fitness and consistency. Zdenek Grygera of Juventus is a good wing-back and has been linked with several Premier League clubs.

Portugal: What Are Expectations Like? High. Too high, possibly. Cristiano Ronaldo has obviously had an outstanding season, but as they showed at the last World Cup, they are prone to lapses in discipline which prove to be expensive. One suspects that this is a team that does not sit comfortably with the notion of high expectation.

How Did Their Qualifying Campaign Go? Actually, they made a bit if a dog's breakfast of a group that they should have won comfortably. They only lost once (away to group winners Poland), but drew six of their fourteen matches, and were reliant on a tense 1-0 win against Armenia and a 0-0 draw against Finland to get through.

What's The Coach Like? Luis Felipe Scolari is one of European football's more easily recognisable coaches, but he's not as popular in Portugal as he was. He is, ahem, "bullish", and one suspects that his lack of fear in making "bold" decisions occasionally crosses the line into making decisions that are rash or ill-advised. Likely to quit after the tournament ends.

Who Should I Watch Out For? Well, Ronaldo is the obvious one, but I would suggest that Deco is the real one to watch. To the extent that this can happen with someone that plays for Barcelona, Deco is a criminally under-rated midfielder with the ability to unlock the best defences in the world. If you have to have to keep an eye on Ronaldo, keep an eye on how he is (or isn't) getting on with Chelsea's Ricardo Carvalho after the latter's crunching tackle at the end of Wednesday's Champions League final.

Turkey - How High Are Expectations? Not terribly, this time. Turkey failed to qualify for Euro 2004 (missing out to Latvia) and the 2006 World Cup, and this team doesn't seem to have the strength in depth that their 2002 World Cup team had. In a tight group, they may need to beat Portugal to get through, and this may be beyond them.

How Did Their Qualifying Campaign Go? Not terribly well, actually. It looked as if they were going out until they surprisingly won 2-1 in Oslo against Norway, and then wrapped things up with a 1-0 win against Bosnia in their final match. They lost just twice, but dropped other silly points, most notably in a 2-2 draw away to the group whipping boys, Malta.

What's The Coach Like? Fatih Terim is the Godfather of Turkish football, having taken them from being amongst the also-rans of European football in the 1980s to qualifying for the finals of Euro 96. He also coached Milan and Fiorentina, and was called back after the relative disaster of failing to qualify for successive tournaments. He likes to play attacking football, so this year's Turkey team should be attractive to watch.

Who Should I Watch Out For? There's a lot of experience in the Turkey team, with players such as Emre Belozoglu, goalkeeper Rustu Recber and Tuncay Sanli all in the squad. Striker Nihat Kahveci has impressed for Real Sociedad and Villareal in Spain, and those of an English persuasion may be interested to keep an eye on Colin Kazim Richards (who will be playing under his Turkish name of Kazim Kazim), who was born in London and had spells at Bury, Brighton & Hove Albion and Sheffield United before hitting the big time with Fenerbahce.

Group Prediction: This is a really difficult to group to call. How much will Switzerland be able to make of home advantage? Will the Portuguese be able to keep a lid on it and stay focussed? How much will the Czechs miss Nedved and Rosicky? I'm going to go for Portugal and Switzerland go edge through, though you could perm any two from this group. Even the Turks, who will be arriving in Switzerland with very low expectations, could get through, but I suspect that the quality of the Portuguese and home advantage will be enough to get Portugal and Switzerland through.


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