Every tournament has a Group Of Death, thanks in no small part to the occasionally bizarre seeding system that FIFA and UEFA still use for determining who will end up in which seeding pot, but UEFA have really outdone themselves for Euro 2008, contriving to put Italy, Holland and France in the same group. The Italians and the French, of course, played out the last World Cup final and were also drawn together in the qualifying stages for this very competition (they must be sick of the sight of each other by now), whilst the Dutch don’t seem to be of quite the same vintage as they were in previous competitions, but are still plenty capable of upsetting the apple cart. Feeling somewhat hard done by at all the attention being lavished upon the other three are Romania. It might be stretching things a little bit to expect them seriously challenge in a group in which two of the competitors have to be eliminated, but they’re ranked twelfth in the world by FIFA, and a surprise wouldn’t be completely beyond them. For those of you that don’t believe me, consider what Greece did to the Spanish four years ago or, indeed, what the Czechs did to the Italians at Euro 96. Anyway, let me take off my Grim Reaper outfit, and we’ll have a look at what’s what.
Italy – What Are Expectations Like? Well, as the current world champions, expectations are, perhaps understandably, pretty high. Italy’s record in the European Championships isn’t a terribly good one. They made the final eight years ago before being beaten by France thanks to a golden goal, but things haven’t been terribly good for them otherwise. They failed to make the final in 1980 (when they were the hosts, and the competition had no semi-finals) and were semi-finalists in 1988, but they failed to even qualify in 1984 and 1992, and were knocked out at the group stages in 1996 and 2004. Which Italy will turn up for Euro 2008?
How Did Their Qualifying Campaign Go? Not quite as comfortably as you might think that it would, considering their world champions status. They were unfortunate to find themselves drawn in the same group as France, and their passage was only secure with one game to go – that coming with a 2-1 win at Hampden Park against Scotland, when they could quite easily have lost after going a goal down. They looked as if they might be in trouble after two games (by which time they had lost in Paris against France and been held at home by Lithuania), but they won nine of their ten remaining matches, but ended up comfortable in qualifying.
What’s The Coach Like? Italy’s national team has had six coaches in seventeen years, but in Roberto Donadoni they have gone for someone relatively inexperienced, and it wasn’t an uncontroversial choice. Donadoni was one of artisans of the great Milan side of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and some feel that he was picked on the basis of his playing rather than his coaching reputation. He had been reasonably successful as the coach of Livorno, taking them to a mid-table Serie A place when they had been tipped for relegation, but the jury is still out on him as the national team’s coach.
Who Should I Watch Out For? Most of the familiar faces will be there (though not Francesco Totti, who announced his retirement after the 2006 World Cup and has been much talked-about in Italy, although not by Donadoni), so it might be an idea to look at some of the less likely selections. The big surprise was the inclusion of Antonio Cassano, who has had disciplinary problems for years, but had been in pretty decent form for Sampdoria this season. There could well be fireworks if he gets on the pitch. Otherwise, make the most of Alessandro Del Piero – he’s thirty-four now, and this will surely be his final tournament.
France – What Are Expectations Like? France still churn out more talented players than any other country in Europe, but expectations have been tempered by a tough draw and a mixed performance since the last World Cup. They’re not as strong as they were a decade ago (indeed, it is a sign of how strong they were then that, even now, Lilian Thuram and Thierry Henry remain from that squad), but they’re still good enough to win Euro 2008.
How Did Their Qualifying Campaign Go? Not brilliantly, actually. They were beaten home and away by a moderate Scotland team, and were reliant on a Scottish collapse in their last two matches against Georgia and Italy to get through. Even so, they needed two goals in the last ten minutes from Thierry Henry in their penultimate match against Lithuania to secure a place in the finals.
What’s The Coach Like? After five years at Lyon between 1989 and 1993, Raymond Domenech went into the French under-21 set up and has been involved in the national team’s set up ever since. He has been the subject of considerable criticism, though it’s perfectly fair to say that, as the French under-21 coach in the early and mid-1990s, he had as much of a role in their 1998 World Cup win as anyone. He was under pressure following a poor start to the World Cup in 2006, but then took them all the way to the final. One suspects that he’s still not completely trusted, though.
Who Should I Watch Out For? Something of a vacuum was created with the retirement of Zinedine Zidane, though this has been partly filled by the leap to eminence of one of my favourite players in Europe, Franck Ribery. You don’t see enormous amounts of Ribery in England because he is still playing for the comparatively under-achieveing Bayern Munich, but his pace and creativity are now the heartbeat of the French team.
Netherlands – How High Are Expectations? Certainly tempered, considering the group that they’ve got, and this is a Dutch team that doesn’t really catch the imagination as the vintage teams of 1974, 1978 or 1988 did. They have set the bar very, very high. This is a workmanlike, shy on the sort of individual stars that make the heart race. While the likes of Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Arjen Robben are clearly great players, one can’t help but suspect that the Oranje deserve better.
How Did Their Qualifying Campaign Go? Although they got through with a match to spare, the Netherlands looked lacklustre through much of their qualifying campaign. They got through with an edgy 1-0 home win in their penultimate match against Luxembourg and then promptly lost 2-1 to Belarus in their final match. Their recent 2-0 win against Wales didn’t inspire me to much more confidence in them, either.
What’s The Coach Like? If only Marco Van Basten was as exciting as a coach as he was as a player, but that may have been asking too much. Van Basten came into the job via the under-21s route, and this is his last hurrah for the Netherlands before he takes over as the coach of Ajax. His team has been criticised for being too negative, but it’s worth pointing out to critics that Van Basten can only work with the players that he has got and, considering the size of the Netherlands, the fact that they almost always qualify for major tournaments is little more than a miracle in itself.
Who Should I Watch Out For? Well, it’s always worth keeping an eye on the Dutch, just to see if they implode into sects and sub-sects once the finals have started, but this year’s Netherlands team, as I already mentioned, is a still shy of the sort of players that make the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand on. The now 32-year old Ruud Van Nistelrooy is the only member of the squad with a dozen international goals to his name, getting them through the group may be too big a task for a player now past his prime to manage on his own.
Romania – What Are Expectations Like? Low, and harshly so. Romania are a decent, well organised team. They have got over the long shadow that was cast by the 1994 World Cup team, and although they’ve missed out on the last three successive major tournaments, it has been by the narrowest of margins on each occasion. Sure, France and Italy are going to be tough to overcome, but with the burden of expectation well and truly lifted, they could cause a surprise.
How Did Their Qualifying Campaign? Very well, considering how close they had come in previous campaigns. They beat the Netherlands 1-0 in Bucharest on the way to winning the group at a canter, stuttering slightly in losing to their rivals and neighbours Bulgaria before beating Albania 6-1 in their final qualifying match. It would have been a surprise had they lost out to Bulgaria, but beating the Dutch to win the group was a significant achievement.
What’s The Coach Like? Victor Piturca scored an astonishing 138 goals in 175 matches for Steaua Bucharest and won a European Cup winners medal for them in 1986. His managerial path took conventional form, starting at Universitatea Craiova, before going on to Steaua and then being appointed to the national team job in 2004. A solid, safe pair of hands.
Who Should I Watch Out For? Romanian football has been about one man over the last five years or so – Adrian Mutu. Mutu is the Romanian Beckham and Gascoigne rolled into one – his career seeming to be falling to pieces after he failed a drug test for cocaine in 2004. His seven month ban might just have turned out to be the best thing to happen to him. He took a while to get back into his stride when he returned to the game for Juventus, but his transfer to Fiorentina has seen him score a goal every other game (thirty-two goals in sixty-two appearances to date).
Prediction – I’d be doing you all a massive disservice if I just followed the form guide and went for France and Italy. I just have a sneaking suspicion that Romania might have enough about them to pip France into second place behind Italy. France looked creaky in their qualifying campaign – their home match against Scotland, for example, saw them go a goal down, and they seemed to have a complete lack of hunger to chase the game to level things up. They qualified because of Scotland’s subsequent bad luck and poor performances rather than on account of anything that they did themselves to warrant it. The Romanians have, in Mutu and Marius Nicolae (who is – according to possibly incorrect media reports – set to join Sporting Lisbon from Inverness Caledonian Thistle), plenty of ability to break down defences, and there are plenty of reasons why they could conceivably do this to France.