Otherwise known as “The Group Of Internecine Rivalries” (by me at least), Group B is the group that probably offers the greatest chance of a host nation getting thrashed out of sight that you’ll ever see at the European Championships and, as if that wasn’t enough, the tournament favourites. Anyway, here’s the low-down on The Group Of Schnitzel (I just thought that up, in case you were wondering).
Austria – What Are Expectations Like? Not high and, as with co-hosts Switzerland, there was a noisy campaign for them to resign their place before the the competition started. Indeed, this Austrian team might just be the worst ever to play in the finals of the European Championships. The thirty-one man training squad released last month by coach Josef Hickersberger had scored just 46 goals between them, and with just 8 goals scored by the six selected strikers. The best that they can realistically hope for is to not get thrashed out of sight in all three group matches.
How Did Their Qualifying Campaign Go? They qualified automatically as hosts, and it’s a good job. They’re currently in 101st place in the FIFA rankings, sandwiched neatly between Algeria and Tanzania, and considerably below fellow Europeans such as Latvia, Iceland and Cyprus.
What’s The Coach Like? Hickersberger was the coach of the Austrian team between 1987 and 1990, and qualified them for the 1990 World Cup finals (although once there they were knocked out before their final group match). A string of terrible friendly results led to calls for his dismissal before the tournament even started but, with the current crop of players, the general feeling seems to be that has he hasn’t really got a chance.
Which Players Should I Look Out For? Now, there’s a question. There aren’t too many that you will have heard of apart from the excellently named goalkeeper Jurgen Macho and the former Arsenal goalkeeper Alex Manninger. Midfielder Andreas Ivanschitz of Panathinaikos is probably the “star” name (he was recently voted Greek footballer’s “Midfielder Of The Year”, and labours under the nickname of “The Austrian Beckham”), but the current team still fall under the long shadow cast by the great Austrian players of the past, such as Hans Krankl and Toni Polster (who are both more than happy to turn up on the television and remind everyone of this).
Germany – What Are Expectations Like? The planets have aligned and the world is spinning on its axis again. Normality has returned. The Germans are the 4/1 pre-tournament favourites to win Euro 2008, and rightly so. They’ll be the best supported team at the finals, and have a team that can build upon the surprise of their reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup two years ago. The Germans haven’t won a European Championship finals match since the final of Euro 96, by the way. Even England have a better record than that.
How Did Their Qualifying Campaign Go? Pretty well, though it was something of a surprise that they didn’t win their group, with a 0-0 home draw against Wales (the shame of it!) costing them top place. They also put thirteen goals past San Marino, which probably counts for something (though i’m not cure what).
What’s The Coach Like? Joachim Low’s accession to the German national team’s coaching role is something of a curiosity. His playing career was nothing special (never capped at international level, he played 180 times for SC Freiburg and at a handful of other mid-range German clubs), and he never set the world on fire as a coach, either. An Austrian Bundesliga and a German cup with Stuttgart seem to be the highlights. Eyebrows were raised when he was appointed as Jurgen Klinsmann’s assistant for the World Cup, and those same eyebrows hit the roof when he was picked as his successor. You get the feeling that failure isn’t much of an option for Low. He’ll be out the moment they mess up.
Who Should I Look Out For? The current German team is dripping with talent. On top of the likes of Michael Ballack, Miroslav Klose and Torsten Frings, you’ve got the likes of Lucas Podolski (their top scorer in qualifying, with eight goals) and the charmingly useless looking Bastian Schweinsteiger (who, of course, has a surname that translates as either “pig riser” or “pig mounter”).
Croatia – What Are Expectations Like? Pretty high, but not as high as they will be in two years time, when (or if) they qualify for the 2010 World Cup. This is a pretty young team, and isn’t expected to flourish until then. Major success is considered to be beyond them, though they are likely to get through the group stages.
How Did Their Qualifying Campaign Go? Do we have to talk about that? Oh, okay. They beat England home and away and took two 0-0 draw off the Russians. Indeed, their only defeat was a surprise 2-0 loss away to Macedonia. They were through with two games to spare, although it was by some margin the poorest qualifying group.
What’s The Coach Like? Slaven Bilic is the first Premier League “star” to coach in the European Championship finals, though he’s better known at home for his time with Hajduk Split than for the few seasons that he spent playing for West Ham United and Everton. He’s a young coach (just 40 years old) and has built a young team. Its probably fair to say that he is the best argument for ignoring the wizened old hacks that make up the current managerial circuit and bringing someone through afresh with no club experience.
Who Should I Watch Out For? Croatia have a lot of good young players, though they will undoubtedly miss Eduardo Da Silva, whose leg was mangled into a strange and interesting new shape by Birmingham City’s Martin Taylor earlier this year. Spurs fans will be taking a special interest in Luka Modric (who has just signed for them for £15m) and Dario Srna (who plays relatively out of view, in the Ukraine for Shaktar Donetsk) is also worth keeping an eye out for.
Poland – What Are Expectations Like? As ever, the Poles seemed to surprise even themselves by coming through qualifying, but expectations at home have been tempered by the memory of their first round knock out at the last World Cup and the knowledge that the German and Croatian teams are pretty decent. If they can get a decent result from their opening match against Germany, expectation levels will rise sharply.
How Did Their Qualifying Campaign Go? Very well. They were in a pretty difficult group, with Portugal and Serbia, and won the group with a little room to spare. They did very well in remaining unbeaten against the other strong teams in their group – their only defeats were a 3-1 home loss against Finland and a 1-0 defeat in Armenia, of all places.
What’s The Coach Like? Ah, Don Leo. Leo Beenhakker seems to have been around forever, doesn’t he? He’s coached an extraordinary twenty-three clubs and countries, including Real Madrid, Ajax, Club America and Feyenoord. In addition to this, he has also coached Holland, Saudi Arabia and Trinidad & Tobago. Beenhakker is undoubtedly a wily old bugger, and is probably the biggest asset that this current Polish team has got.
Who Should I Look Out For? The current Polish team is pretty thin on “celebrity” (not, might I add, that this is a bad thing). They have two goalkeepers that British fans will recognise, Artur Boruc, their goalkeeper, has been at Celtic for a few seasons now (he got in trouble for crossing himself during a Celtic vs Rangers match a couple of years ago), and Tomasz Kuszczak was the surprise choice as number two to Edwin Van Der Saar at Manchester United. Other than that, Euzebiesz Slomarek has scored a goal in every other match that he has played for Poland (though he hasn’t exactly set the world on fire with his club side, Racing Santander), and will be worth keeping an eye on.
Prediction: Tough to call, in no small part because, for all of their talent, the Croatians are still lacking in experience, and the Poles are a real unknown quantity. Few would have expected Poland to even qualify from their group, but they did, so there are real hidden reserves of resolve going one there. Also, although we have all had a jolly good laugh at the Austrians, they are the host nation – if, say, both Japan and South Korea could get though the group stages in 2002, why shouldn’t Austria pick off enough points at home against Poland and Croatia to edge through behind the Germans? So, that’s my prediction. Austria as the surprise package of the tournament, to qualify in second place behind Germany.