In the first of a two-part series on Euro 2004, B. SANJEEVAN kicks some butt by predicting that England will be taking an early flight home.
FOOTBALL fans throughout the country are bracing themselves for sleepless nights and tons of caffeine as the 12th edition of the European Championship or its common moniker, Euro 2004, gets underway in sunny Portugal next Saturday.
Four years after David Trezeguet’s golden goal gave then world champions France their second Euro title after a Michel Platini-powered Les Bleus took them to their first-ever major trophy as hosts in 1984, the football world will have their eyes on the Iberian peninsula for the “Party in Portugal” just as it did during the co-hosted Euro 2000 in Belgium and Holland.
Group A – Portugal, Greece, Russia and Spain
Luiz Felipe Scolari could not have wished for a better draw than the one lady luck granted to his Portugal side. With just one major obstacle in the highly-rated Spanish, the man who led his native Brazil to World Cup glory two years ago is aiming to collect more silverware with his current charges.
He will be hoping that FC Porto’s UEFA Champions League victory will provide his players with the confidence boost that a potential winner needs in order to succeed. The first test for Scolari’s boys is the tourney’s opening match when they meet Greece at the spanking new Dragao Stadium, home of the reigning European club champions.
In front of 52,000 vociferous fans, a majority of which will be expecting victory, Portugal needs to open their Euro 2004 account with three points and help erase the debacle in Korea/Japan where they were humiliated by the United States and South Korea.
Portugal has an inspirational leader in team captain, Luis Figo. The Real Madrid galactico is well supported in the middle of the park by fellow veteran, Rui Costa and two youngsters, Cristiano Ronaldo and Simao Sabrosa.
For Portugal to go all the way to the title, it will be up to this quartet and the marksmanship of two-time French Footballer of the Year, the Azores-born, Pauleta, upfront to provide the goals.
The Paris St Germain striker is in smashing form, finding the net with amazing regularity in the recently concluded French league season. Scolari will need Pauleta to forge a productive relationship with Benfica’s Nuno Gomes if the Portuguese are going to land the Henri Delaunay trophy.
The Greeks are in Portugal, thanks to an amazing 15-match unbeaten streak that included an away win over Spain in Group 6 of the qualifying round.
Coached by the German Otto Rehhagel, the win in Zaragoza effectively sealed the spot in Portugal as the Greeks topped the table by a point from runners-up Spain.
However in recent weeks, the wheels seem to have come off Rehhagel’s previously efficient unit. A 4-0 hammering at the hands of the Dutch in Eindhoven in late April that was followed up last weekend by a defeat at the hands of lowly Poland has highlighted serious deficiencies in a side that is clearly short on quality players.
The Russians are an unpredictable lot but with new coach Georgi Yartsev instilling a newfound self-belief in a team that habitually flounders on the big occasion, the men from Moscow could spring a surprise or two.
Alexei Smertin,, Rolan Gusev and the hulking Dmitri Bulykin are sure to give opposing defences a torrid time in Portugal.
Inaki Saez’s Spain have always been something of an enigma in world football – the country dominates at club level but the national team has almost always failed to deliver.
But 2004 could be Spain’s year to finally silence their many critics and it has been 40 years since the nation won its only major piece of silverware, the 1964 European Championship.
Having qualified via the play-offs, the Spanish will prove formidable opponents for any side in the competition as Saez has moulded his men into a potent XI that has quality in every area.
The defence and midfield are rock solid while Spain’s best-loved footballing son and the country’s record holder for the most number of international goals, Raul Gonzalez, leads the attack.
Raul is aided up front by 20-year-old phenomenon Fernando Torres of Atletico Madrid. Having represented Spain at youth level when he was 16, El Nino has made startling progress for one so young.
With his precocious talent as well as sound advice from his older and wiser teammate, Torres could be the name on everybody’s lips once the tournament reaches its conclusion.
As in all major competitions, there will be no easy games. Group A is no different but Spain should be able to top the group on the basis of their quality and strength in depth while Portugal joins them in the quarterfinals as runners-up.
Group B – France, Croatia, England and Switzerland
On paper, this group looks like a straight fight between the old enemies, France and England, but on closer inspection, it is quite an intriguing quartet of sides, each with their own weapons.
As in the previous tournament, France comes to the party as the dominant force. The French have the strongest squad on paper with the likes of the irrepressible Thierry Henry and the wizardry of French-Algerian, Zinedine Zidane.
Manager Jacques Santini recently proclaimed that the French will settle for nothing less than the successful defence of their trophy and his side are highly motivated to return to winning ways especially after the shocking early exit at the last World Cup.
No prizes for guessing who will top Group B then.
Every time a major competition comes up, be it the World Cup or the Euro, the tabloids will be filled with ludicrous theories on how the England side are going to pulverise their opponents and return home with silverware in tow.
For the record, England have never won the Euro; how can you win the trophy without even making it to the final? Tuesday’s 1-1 draw at home to the impressive Japanese proves that England are a mediocre side, especially in defence and even with the services of Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen and to a lesser extent, David Beckham. They would struggle to compete against the European giants.
Their opening tie with the French in Lisbon’s Estadio da Luz is more than likely to end in tears for Sven Goran Eriksson and his lads. Their remaining matches against the Swiss and the Croatians may also end badly as the English have not been able to recapture the form that was exhibited in the qualifying stage, especially in the two matches against the Turks.
Switzerland have been going about their preparations in typical Swiss manner, quietly and efficiently. Coach Jakob “Kobi” Kuhn is a living legend in his country and he has managed to rebuild the national side after many years in the doldrums.
Euro 2004 is the first major tournament the Swiss have qualified for since Euro 1996 and Kuhn is confident that his team can make a lasting impression on all their Group B opponents.
The Croatians have always been a skilful side that can defeat anybody on their day and the Germans will attest to this since they were dumped out of the 1998 World Cup by the former Yugoslav Republic.
Coach Otto Baric has strikers Dado Prso and the tireless Milan Rapaic in fine fettle and it will be this dangerous duo that will cause the most harm to Switzerland, England and, to a lesser extent, France.
On the whole, the quarterfinalists from Group B should see France as group winners and Croatia just pipping the English to the second qualifying spot to send Eriksson and his boys back to London on an early flight.