As Homer says. EURO 2008 gets underway June 7 with co-hosts Austria and Switzerland providing the stadiums, the chocolate, and the lederhosen. The EURO is like the World Cup, but as its name implies, just for Europe. While seemingly offering little that the World Cup doesn't offer, it can often be the more thrilling of the two competitions, and heroes and goats are made just as easily. (David Beckham at EURO 2004 comes to mind.)
While at the World Cup, European teams make up roughly half the competition, the EURO gives them their own party, and kicks the Saudi Arabias and the Trinidad and Tobagos out. No 8-0 drubbings here. The competition is elite, and the field is arguably deeper than the World Cup. Quite possibly every one of the 16 teams still alive has the talent to win it, but like any tournament there's gotta be favorites, dark horses, and also-rans.
The tournament may not get underway until June 7, but with my my new job starting next week (which unlike my old job, I may actually have to do work), I gotta get my obligatory EURO 2008 Preview taken care of NOW. With that, here comes as best of a EURO Preview as I can provide as to determine who will be dancing with the Von Trapps in Vienna for the Final.
Group A: Portugal, Turkey, Czech Republic, Switzerland
Portugal has to be considered one of the favorites for the competition. EURO runners-up in 2004 and World Cup semifinalists in 2006, the Portuguese boast one of the most athletic and technically skilled sides in Europe. Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo is already arguably one of the best players in the world, but leading Portugal to their first EURO win and Manchester United to the Champions League title in the same month would likely cement his place in Soccer's all-time pantheon alongside players like Pele, Beckenbauer, Zidane, and Diego Maradona. Portugal lost the fewest games in their group in qualifying (only a 2-1 loss at Poland). With a relatively easy group, and some of Europe's biggest stars, Portugal has to be considered among the favorites not just to advance out of group, but to win the tournament outright.
Turkey is the wild card of this group. I'm picking them to take second in the group perhaps largely as overcompensation for my 2006 World Cup picks, where I perhaps irrationally favored the Czechs, who did not even make it out of the group stage.
The Czechs certainly have a great keeper in Chelsea FC's Petr Cech, but beyond that and Portsmouth's Milan Baros, the Czechs don't exactly have the kind of lineup that strikes fear. Baros and Nuremburg's Jan Koller appear to be their only offensive options.
Switzerland could get a host nation bump to get a result against the dangerous Turks or the star-laden Portuguese, but ultimately, I don't think they have the talent to get out of the group.
Group B: Germany, Croatia, Poland, Austria
Germany is clearly the favorite here. A 3rd-place finish at the 2006 World Cup, and runners-up at the 2002 World Cup, the Germans boast a roster featuring Chelsea's Michael Ballack and 2006 World Cup leading scorer Miroslav Klose. Arsenal's Jens Lehmann takes over the goalkeeper reins from longtime German keeper Olivier Kahn, but will need to be on his best form if he wants to lead die Mannschaft to their fourth EURO trophy.
Croatia appears the favorite to advance along with Germany. A young team, only 7 players on the 23-man roster are over the age of 30. Croatia racked up some impressive victories in qualifying, including a win over England at Wembley on the last day of qualifying to send the Croats through and the English to an unplanned summer off.
Poland SHOULD HAVE BEEN the other team to go through. They certainly have the talent, but I do not have a lot of confidence in them. Make no mistake. Lightbulb jokes aside, the Poles are a very capable team, and may very well be able to knock off Croatia for the second spot out of the group (or maybe even give Germany a scare!). However, inexperience and a run of poor form at the worst possible time may doom them. Poland is making their first-ever appearance at the EURO, and the run up to the tournament does not really inspire fear in anyone. The Poles were victim to a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of the United States in front of a sold out crowd in Krakow. This same US team just got outclassed 2-0 by an England side that didn't even qualify for the EURO. Other recent contests included a 1-1 draw with tiny Macedonia and a 1-0 win over even tinier Albania. I've listed Poland to finish third, but would not be surprised to see them finish last.
Austria, like co-hosts Switzerland, may benefit from a host nation bump to get a result, but I'd actually put the Swiss as more likely to advance to the quarterfinals given their past history in major competitions. The Swiss were Final-16 contenders at the last World Cup. On the other side, Austria is making their first appearance in the EURO, and has not escaped from the group stage at the World Cup since 1982.
Group C: Netherlands, France, Italy, Romania
Every tournament has a group of death, and for EURO 2008, this is it. Group C includes the two 2006 World Cup finalists in France and Italy, alongside the Netherlands, a team led by Real Madrid's Ruud Van Nistelroy and Manchester United's Edwin Van der Sar that is as capable of winning this tournament as any.
France is a side in transition. After Zidane's retirement after the 2006 World Cup, France must rely on a new generation of stars. Barcelona's Thierry Henry is already the new face of the team, with experience to boot. Henry has played in two World Cup Finals with France (1998 and 2006), led France to a World Cup title (1998) and a EURO championship (2000), and he's still only 30 years old. Winning another EURO title and playing in another World Cup Final may not be a stretch. Franck Ribery of Bayern Munich will likewise be needed to contribute. The key players for Les Bleus I think may well be Nicholas Anelka (Chelsea) and Florent Malouda to provide the kind of depth needed to win these tournaments.
The World Champion Azzuri may very well be the odd team out for the quarterfinals, despite boasting a wealth of world class players whose names roll off the tongue like linguine. The only problem facing this Italian side is that Fabio Cannavaro, Buffon, Ambrosini, Del Piero, and Materazzi, is that they are old and only getting older. While younger stars like Daniele de Rossi might impress, 14 out of the 23 players on the roster are over the age of 30 (Compared to 7 for France). Italy may benefit from a "win now" mentality, but at this stage of the game, every team has that. Italy and France met twice in qualifying, with both matches ending in draws.
Romania put together a decent qualifying campaign I think the French and Dutch are the class of this group. Romania could steal points and determine who moves on, but they themselves will probably not be advancing given the depth of talent in this group.
Group D: Spain, Greece, Russia, Sweden
Spain are back once again, and once again will advance out of group, but once again will not be lifting trophies at the end of the tournament. It's a familiar story as old as time. La Furia has not won the EURO since 1964. Spain is certainly a talented side featuring the likes of Real Madrid's goalkeeper Iker Casillas and Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas. Spain has also notched some victories over high profile opponents in France and Italy so far this year in their run-up preparations. An imminent meeting with the United States in Santander, Spain will tell a lot about how far this team has come, and how ready they are for the EURO.
Greece are the defending Champions, having won EURO 2004 in Portugal, but color me not impressed. Greece ran away with what was a really weak qualifying group (Turkey, Bosnia, Hungary, Norway, Moldova, and Malta) I'm picking them to advance practically solely on their success in the last tournament, and their relative success in qualifying compared to Russia.
Spain and Sweden met twice in qualifying, with both sides claiming shutout victories at home. Sweden made it to the last 16 of the 2006 World Cup, and I feel like I have to label them as my dark horse in this group.
Russia is in this tournament finals more because England couldn't take care of business than for anything the Ruskies did. Against the three other teams in Russia's group that I gave at least a shot to reach the finals (England, Croatia, and Israel), Russia managed to run up an awe-inspiring 1-2-3 record.
Favorites to win the tournament outright
Portugal, France, Germany, Netherlands
Spain, Croatia, Italy, Greece
Have the talent to get out of group, but a title run would be a stretch
Russia, Czech Republic, Sweden
Will do damage before it's done
Turkey, Austria, Poland, Switzerland, Romania
I'll have another preview once the bracket is set for the knockout stages in two weeks. So until then, sit back, drink a Stiegl or chomp on a Toblerone and enjoy this year's EURO. Then laugh at how astonishingly off my predictions were, just like my World Cup picks two years ago.