Finally, Group D. One of the curiosities of media coverage of this group so far has been the enthusiasm with which writers have reached into their big bag of cliches. Spain are the perennial under-achievers (true, but no more than England are), Russia are the footballing equivalent of a massive bear wearing (without a hint of irony) a bear skin hat with a hammer and sickle badge in the middle of it, and Greece are the international equivalent of a group of footballing village idiots, pleased to be there and merely making up the numbers. The truth of the matter is somewhat more complex than this. Spain, this time around, have no excuses. They have Europe’s hottest striker, a team that is positively saturated with talent and a manager who, while he could probably still do with a few lessons in diversity, has been in the job for a few years and is settled in the role. The Russians remain something of an unknown quantity in most respects (apart from that they are better than England, not that this is saying much), and Greece will be likely to come into Euro 2008 with much the same game plan as they had four years ago. No-one could break them down then – will they be able to this time around?
Greece – What Are Expectations Like? Well, they’re higher than they were four years ago. They went into Euro 2004 in a state of some trepidation. It was their first major tournament since the 1994 World Cup, when they lost all three games and returned with their tails between their legs and one of the worst records in the history of the tournament under their belts. This time, though, things are different. Confidence is high, on the back of a successful qualifying campaign and eighth place in the FIFA World Rankings, and a first round exit would be a disappointment this time around.
How Did Their Qualifying Campaign Go? About as well as it could have done, really. They won ten out of their twelve qualifying matches, including a 1-0 win away to their bitterest rivals Turkey, and ended up eight points clear of Norway in third place. The only blot on their copy book was a 4-1 home defeat by Turkey in March of last year, but this was more or less the only black mark in an otherwise immaculate run to the finals.
What’s The Coach Like? To say that Otto Rehhagel is popular in Greece would be something of an understatement. Not only did he bring the European Championship trophy back to the country but, after the resignation of Rudi Voller as the coach of Germany at the end of Euro 2004, he was offered the job of coaching Germany and turned it down, preferring to stay with Greece. He signed a two year extension on his contract earlier this year and, one suspects, it’s a job for life if he wants it.
Which Players Should I Watch Out For? Many of the faces are the same as four years ago, including the “distinguished” looking goalkeeper, Antonios Nikopolidis (now 37 years old) and the captain, Angelos Basinas. Georgios Samaras of Celtic has failed to shine in a Greece shirt but may come good in this tournament (he’s only 23), and Bolton’s Stelios Giannakopolous is a hard worker in midfield. The Greeks, however, are about more than the some of their parts – with many of their players now in their thirties, though, one wonders whether they will have the stamina that they displayed four years ago.
Spain – How High Are Expectations? As high as ever – a mixture of terminal pessimism and secret belief that this time has to be the time for them. The “under-achievers” tag is fair – they always seem to find a way of getting themselves knocked out before they should be. In the 2006 World Cup, they did everything right in winning their group, only to find themselves drawn against a French team that was building up a head of steam after a slow start.
How Did Their Qualifying Campaign Go? Not brilliantly. They started very badly, losing to Sweden and Northern Ireland, and, later on, needed a goal four minutes from time from Andres Iniesta to scrape a 1-1 draw in Iceland. As it turned out, they scraped home with a 3-0 win against Sweden in their penultimate match and a 1-0 win against Northern Ireland in their final match, but they were flattered by the eventual eight point buffer zone.
What’s The Coach Like? Luis Aragones is clearly mad, and there were times during the qualifiers when his removal as coach looked inevitable, but he has been in the job for seven years and will be leaving after this tournament. Madridistas hate him for dropping Raul (though their subsequent upturn in form now makes this look like a master-stroke), and some eyebrows hit the roof when his squad for the finals contained five uncapped players, although three of them have been capped since.
Who Should I Watch Out For? Well, most of the familiar faces will be there (Raul excepted), so much will be resting on the shoulders of Fernando Torres, even though he hasn’t scored for Spain in the last eight months. Valencia’s David Villa will most likely partner him up front – he’s one of those that is always being linked with the Premier League without making the move. The time could be right for Real Zaragoza’s Sergio Garcia, who finally made his debut for Spain against Peru last weekend for eight minutes, to appear from nowhere and steal the show.
Russia – How High Are Expectations? Their defeat of England in the qualifiers, coupled with the shrewdness of coach Guus Hiddinck, appears to have raised expectation levels in Russia, where a history of under-achievement appears to have finally been reversed. They may also benefit from having had more rest, due to the fact that their season runs during the summer and almost all of their players are domestically based. Zenit St Petersburg’s run to the UEFA Cup final also gives them cause for optimism.
How Did Their Qualifying Campaign Go? Well, it is an indication of just how poor England were in the group that Russia managed to sneak through despite having dropped points in five of their twelve qualifying matches. They gave Steve McClaren a lifeline in losing to Israel in their penultimate match and, even as England were losing at home to Croatia on the final night, they could still only manage a 1-0 win against Andorra to sneak through.
What’s The Coach Like? Guus Hiddinck is one of the great journeymen of international football. He has wandered the globe, liberally applying his golden touch to anyone that needs it, be it the Netherlands (where he took a fractious squad to within a penalty shoot-out of the 1998 World Cup final), South Korea (a team that few thought would get past the group stages went to the quarter-finals) or Australia (who he took to their first World Cup finals since 1974 and then to the second round). He has built a real team spirit in the Russia team, and they could well get to at least the quarter-finals this time around.
Who Should I Watch Out For? All bar one of the Russian team play in Russia, so you might not have heard of too many of them. Roman Pavlyuchenko of Spartak Moscow may well be a lone man up front for them, but Hiddinck’s selection of five strikers hints at the possibility of a more adventurous formation than one might have expected. Konstantin Zyrianov of Zenit St Petersburg was impressive in the recent UEFA Cup final.
Sweden – How High Are Expectations? Surprisingly optimistic, considering that this team looks to be some way off the Sweden vintage of the 1990s. The inclusion of the now 36 year old Henrik Larsson is the biggest surprise, though whether he will be able to dislodge Marcus Allback and Zlatan Ibrahimovich is a different matter. Not a bad option to have on the bench, though.
How Did Their Qualifying Campaign Go? Well, they qualified behind Spain and finished six points clear of Northern Ireland, but it wasn’t always plain sailing. They lost in Belfast and were comfortably beaten by Spain, but it was a pretty weak qualifying group, and it would have been something of a national disgrace had they failed to make it through.
What’s The Coach Like? Lars Lagerback is, if anything, respected rather than popular in Sweden. He has taken them two five successive major tournament finals, but his defensive football has seen him criticised at home, especially when his squads have a reasonably gifted array of strikers. His team’s early capitulation and failure to pressurise Germany in the second round of the last World Cup almost cost him his job.
Which Players Should I Look Out For? Like Greece, Sweden are reliant on old stagers for this tournament. Henrik Larsson was reportedly persuaded out of retirement by his young daughter, but whether he has the legs for another major tournament is very much open to question. The suspicion has to remain that Sweden simply don’t have that many high calibre young players coming through at the moment – the Swedes have six players in their squad with over seventy caps each, which is a remarkably high number. Andrea Granqvist of Wigan Athletic is a decent prospect, but only has a handful of caps and is unlikely to play much of a part, whilst midfielder Kim Kallstrom of Olympique Lyonnais is a talented midfielder.
Prediction: It’s difficult to see past Spain winning a group which is probably the weakest of the four groups in the tournament. Russia do have an element of the unknown quantity about them, but they will be better rested than Sweden or Greece and, when you add in the additional factor of the average age of the Greek and Swedish teams, this will likely prove to be enough to see them through. A relative lack of experience may cost the Russians in the latter stages, though, and Spain’s defence is so brittle that it’s difficult to see them getting to the final because you just know that, at some point, they will make some sort of calamitous defensive mistake which will cost them.