The UEFA Euro 2008 Championships kick off this Saturday in Austria/Switzerland. Group play will begin June 7 and will wrap up on June 18th, with the top 2 teams in each group advancing to the quarterfinals. First we will begin with a few predictions from 1st round action; teams are listed in the order in which I believe they will finish. The top 2 from each group will make it through to the round of 8.
Group A: 1. Portugal 2.Czech Republic 3. Turkey 4.Switzerland
With a dual host in this years competition we see Austria and Switzerland both gaining automatic births into the Euros, this will not doubt weaken the tournament in the opening round. While Switzerland should get a boost playing in front of their home supporters, they will need to rely on their disciplined, defensive style of play in order to finish 3rd or higher. The Swiss did provide an adequate showing in the 2006 World Cup (they are the only team in World Cup history to be eliminated at the group stage while never allowing a goal in their three matches), they will not be able to match the firepower of the other three sides in their group. If the secure more than three points from the group stage, they should consider that a success. Player to watch: Fernandes Gelson; Gelson is considered by many (including ex club boss Sven Goran Eriksson) to be Switzerland's best outfield player. At only 21 Gelson scored 2 goals int 21 appearances for Manchester City this past year, and was a key component of City's early EPL success. Look for Fernandes to grow into a leader of this Swiss side for many years to come.
Turkey is a team that qualified for the Euros thanks to being in a fairly easy group. Though Greece won their qualifying bracket, Turkey beat the 2004 champions 4-1 at home, and lost 1-0 in Greece. For the Turks to have a chance to advance the need to continue to score a lot of goals, and this will be a tough task with an inconsistent team that is experiencing some dressing room problems between manager Fatih Terim and some of his star players. In the end Turkey should beat Switzerland, and will be fortunate to draw with Portugal or the Czech Republic. Player to watch: Nihat Kahveci; Kahveci is an exciting striker who is always dangerous in the final 1/3, the Villareal striker has recovered from a knee injury suffered in the 06/07 seasons. Kahvci netted 27 goals in La Liga and Uefa Cup competition for Villareal this year, as well as scoring 3 goals in only 2 appearances for Turkey in Euro qualifying.
The Czech Republic can be seen as the wild card in Group A, one one hand they are coming off a solid World Cup in 2006, as well as finishing atop Germany to win their qualifying group. The Eastern European side is full of some big names such as Milan Baros, Petr Cech, Jan Koller, and Tomas Rosicky. On the other hand Rosicky is injured, and will be missing the tournament all together, Pavel Nedved has retired from international duty, Milan Baros has been on a goal scoring drought, and many still believe the Petr Cech is still not the same keeper he was prior to his horrific head injury playing for Chelsea in the Fall of 2006. Despite these setbacks look for the Czech to move on to the round of 8, but it would surprise me if their tournament continued beyond the quarterfinals. Player to watch: Milan Baros; Baros is still experiencing a prolonged goal scoring drought, not scoring for his country since March of 2007, and not finding the back of the net at all since transferring from Lyon to Portsmouth in 12 Premier League games. If Baros is able to regain his form, there is a chance that he can carry the squad on his back, and surpass expectations.
No doubt the team with the most expectations in Group A (if not the entire tournament) is Portugal. The Portuguese are riding a tremendous waive of media hype and expectations for the tournament thanks to young Man United superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Though Poland finished ahead of them in qualifying there was never any doubt that Portugal would be one of the favorites to win the tournament. With names such as Nani, Deco, Quaresma, Ferreira, Carvalho, and Ricardo as a supporting cast for Ronaldo the Portuguese should easily win the group, only being tested by the Czechs. Portugal is my pick to win the competition, thanks to a break-out tournament by Ronaldo, this team will go as Ronaldo goes, and on current form he is due to impress those who say he chokes on the biggest stage. Look for Portugal to play some beautiful soccer and lead the tournament in goals scored as the breeze through the first two rounds. Player to watch: Cristiano Ronaldo; already the front runner for FIFA player of the year, look for Ronaldo to to validate his position as best soccer player in the world.
Group B: 1. Germany 2. Croatia 3. Poland 4. Austria
As an automatic bid being a host nation, the Austrians are just happy to be in the tournament considering they are no where near the top half of Europe in class or pedigree. With a very tough group Austria will be lucky to stay competitive against Germany, Croatia, and Poland. Player to watch: Ivica Vastic; Vastic is the oldest player in the tournament at age 38, a Four time Austrian player of the year and member of the Austrian World Cup team in 1998. Vastic is the biggest offensive threat for Austria, and Austrian supporters should look for him to turn back the clock and show that he still has a few goals left in him yet.
Finishing atop their qualifying group ahead of Portugal has given the Polish side a belief that they can surprise some teams in this competition. Its been 25 years since Poland beat Germany in a major competition, and I don't see how they will be able to match the Germans in game one. Their best chance at advancing will rely on their third match against Croatia, if they can find a way to beat Croatia, Poland might be able to sneak into the quarterfinals. Poland Player to watch: Ebi Smolarek; Smolarek has been the voted the Polish player of the year each of the last three seasons, during which he has played in the Budesliga for Dortmund and then for Racing Santandar in northern Spain. Smolarek scored 9 goals in 10 games during Euro qualifying.
Croatia is a side whose European hopes were very high until Arsenal star Eduardo Di Silva's leg was shattered in February by Martin Taylor's reckless challenge. Now Croatia is still poised to advance to the quarterfinals with Tottenham midfielder Luka Modric looking to replace Eduardo's offensive prowess, and they should be a side that gives pause to all their opponents. Look for Croatia to turn some heads and upset the tournament similar to '04's Greece. Player to Watch: Luka Modric; though his numbers may not show it, Modric has been the catalyst of a dangerous attacking midfield, look for the young playmaker to put his opponents on their heels, and create chaos in the offensive zone.
Fresh off the World Cup semifinal that surprised everyone, the Germans are coming into the Euro's as a heavy favorite to win the competition. Carrying a squad full of superstars led by captain Michael Ballack, look for Germany to coast through Group B with little opposition. Klose, Podolski, Lahm, Scheweinsteiger, and Lehmann are all poised to have their way with the opposition, making it to the semi's, and possibly even the finals. Player to watch: Philip Lahm; not only is Lahm one of the best young defenders in the world, he is also a true left-sided player who can get forward and score goals that make you wonder if he is truly a defender. Lahm's opening goal in the 2006 cup was probably the goal of the tournament; look for him to get even more confident and comfortable as he ages into maturity. In a team full of superstars Lahm could carry the Germans to European glory.