Previews and Predictions for Group C and Group D.
Group C: 1. Italy 2. Netherlands 3. France 4. Romania
Romania has the misfortune of being paired in the group of death. Group C is the most difficult by far, and though the Romanians are a strong young side, who actually finished ahead of the Dutch in qualifying, they will just be over-matched by Holland, and two of the last three world cup winners in Italy and France. In another group I would give Romania a fair chance to sneak into the quarterfinals, but not in Group C. Player to watch: Adrian Mutu; despite the fact that he has just been ordered to pay Chelsea 10 million pounds as a result of a positive cocaine test in 2004, the Fiorentina frontman netted 27 goals in Serie A and the Uefa cup this season, and scored another 6 in Euro qualifying. If the Romanians want to finish higher than 4th in their group, Mutu has to bring his A-game.
Les Bleus may very well be that odd man out in Group C, any other group and France moves on to the final 8, but due to some possible injuries and poor squad selection, the French will make a surprise exit this year. With captain Patrick Vieira, Franck Ribery, and Thierry Henry all having various minor injuries and limited training heading into the tournament, there is a real threat to the fitness of the squad. The decision to drop Phillipe Mexes, Mathieu Flamini, and Cisse in favor of some lesser known domestic league players along with the decision to leave out David Trezeguet have many critics (including me) wondering if France boss Raymond Domenech is playing politics rather than his best squad. These decisions will ultimately cause France watch the Finals at on television. Player to watch: Franck Ribery; as long as Ribery is fit, look for him to fill the void left by Zidane as France look to challenge for European glory in their first major tournament post-Zizou.
Like Spain and Portugal, Holland is a side that seems to always underachieve on the biggest stage. Despite Robin van Persie's lack of fitness, I believe the Dutch will advance to the quarterfinals and with a bit of luck possibly even the semifinals thanks to the class of their side. With an excellent mix of veterans such as van Nistelrooy, Bouman, youngsters Roebben, Babel, and Van der Vaart, and Edwin Van der Sar (this author's pick for best keeper in the tournament) in goal, I am picking the Dutch to advance along side Italy in the group of death and go deep into this tournament. Player to watch: Ruud van Nistelrooy; the Real Madrid superstar has proven that he can score goals at every level, if he is able to find his form, the Clockwork Orange could finally shake their reputation of being a soft, and selfish team that self-implodes in major tournaments.
The reigning World Cup Champions are another side coming into the tournament with very high expectations. The Azzuri were my pick to win the tournament until Fabio Cannavaro suffered an ankle injury that will sideline him for the whole tournament. Since Cannavaro has pulled out, fellow defender Christian Pannuci was also injured in Friday's training session, limping off the practice pitch. Despite these injuries Italy still has the depth to go all the way to the finals riding on the quality of Toni, Pirlo, Del Piero, Materazzi, the ever-solid goalkeeping of Gianluigi Buffon. Look for Italy to play slow and defensive, picking out opportune moments to counter attack and win low scoring matches. Ultimately the injury to Cannavaro will cost the Italians the tournament, as the finish runner up to Portugal in an epic final. Player to watch: Luca Toni; the dynamic Bayern Munich frontman is the embodies what it means to be an out and out striker, strong in the air and on the floor the 6'4" Toni netted 47 goals in 48 games for Munich this season and look for him to keep this scoring pace in June.
Group D: 1. Spain 2. Greece 3. Russia 4. Sweden
Group D is another formidable collection of teams, with Spain as the powerhouse, Greece as the defending champions, Russia as the unknown wild card, I believe that Sweden will actually finish last in this group. Zlatan Ibrahimovic's goal scoring drought will continue, and the Inter striker will continue to prove that despite all his natural talent, he cannot produce in the big games. With the aging Henrik Larsson and Freddie Ljunberg, Sweden's best years are behind them, and they need to look to develop some of their promising young talent in hopes of qualifying for South Africa in 2010. Look for Sweden to be one of this year's Euro disappointments. Player to watch: Johan Elmander, though he doesn't have the recongnition of Ibrahimovic, or Larsson, Elmander is gets my vote for best Swedish striker on current form, netting 14 goals for Toulouse in all competitions, look for Elmander to be the lone bright spot for the Swedes this year.
Thanks to a last day collapse against Croatia, Russia are now occupying the spot that most believed was England's position in this year's Euro championships. Russia is riding into the tournament with the hopes of being a dark horse, much like Greece was in 2004. Much of the credit given to Russia belongs to manager Guus Hiddink, who hopes to improve on a disappointing Euro 2004 appearance in which Russia failed to win a single match. Hiddink has denied rumors that he is headed to Chelsea after the Euros "I have just given my word to the Russian football president and he to me that we will continue until the end of the 2010 World Cup.", this type of talk can only help to fan the flames of the Russian side who may also be a team that can squeak by into the quarterfinals with a little bit of luck. Player to watch: Roman Pavluchenko, the Russian forward emerged as Spartak Moscow's greatest offensive threat this year and with his size look for Pavluchenko to dominate the undersized Spanish and Greek defenses in the air.
The defending European champions can no longer slip through the tournament anonymously, for the Greeks to have success this year they must continue to rely on their low-pressure, counter-attacking style that worked so well for the in 2004. Otto Rehhagel is returning 7 of his starting 11 from the Euro championship final from four years ago, and will rely on a stalwart defense to help guide Greece out of group D and into the quarterfinals this year along side Spain. Greece will be lucky to advance past the quarterfinals this year, with the hope that lightning can strike twice. Player to watch: Theofanis Gekas; the Bayer Leverkusen forward who never stops running and loves to collect garbage goals in the box.
After a mediocre performance against the United States earlier this week, Spain is another over-hyped, under-performing European side whose results on a world stage have always fallen short of expectations. The 2008 Spanish side is another example of a squad loaded with household names; Fernando Torres, David Vila, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, David Silva, Xabi Alonso, Carlos Puyol, and Pepe Reina have all made their mark throughout the biggest clubs in Europe, if these players could figure out how to play toghether for their country they could be a real threat to win it all. The problem with Spain is their insistence on playing beautiful soccer instead of smart soccer. Defensive lapses, selfishness, and rash decision making often lead to soft goals and cards that will eventually end Spain's tournament in the quarterfinals yet again. Player to watch: Fernando Torres; the Liverpool star has been quoted this week as wanting to erase the pain of Champions League defeat to Chelsea with a strong European showing. While Torres is a gifted goal scorer, I don't believe he is mentally strong enough to thrive in this competition at this stage in his career, if he proves me wrong then Spain has a chance to go the distance.