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EURO 2008: Group A
by Ridge Mahoney, May 23rd, 2008 3:10PM

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TAGS:  european championship, international


CZECH REPUBLIC
Out to avenge '06 disappointment


Injuries beset Czech Republic two years ago at the World Cup, and bad luck recurred when star midfielder Tomasz Rosicky's knee injury ruled him out of Euro 2008.

Calls for the return of retired dynamo Pavel Nedved obscured the fact that several promising youngsters have emerged since the Czechs stumbled out of the 2006 World Cup in the first round. Yet Rosicky's match-winning abilities must be replaced by committee, not any one individual.

STAR. With Rosicky out and Nedved's status unclear, the nation's all-time leading scorer Jan Koller (52 goals) assumes even greater importance. The 6-foot-7 striker scored six goals in the qualifiers and even at age 35 still has the touch and guile to exploit the flimsiest of chances. If healthy and rested - a thigh injury suffered in the opening game against the USA sidelined him for the remainder of the 2006 World Cup - Koller should be a force.

STRENGTHS. Five goals conceded in the qualifying competition cites resilience in a central core composed of defenders David Rozehnal and Radoslav Kovac, and holding midfielder Tomas Galasek. Foes must also beat keeper Peter Cech, whose play for Chelsea the past few months suggests he's fully recovered from a serious head injury suffered a year and a half ago.

Head coach Karel Brueckner has worked with some of the players for a decade, dating back to a stint with the U-21 team prior to his taking over the national team in December 2001, after Czech Republic failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup.

Left back Marek Jankulovski is a solid defender who also hits accurate crosses and dead balls. Brueckner can unleash midfielder Jaroslav Plasil, 22, who scored with an ice-cool lob to finish off an impressive 3-0 qualification triumph over Germany in Munich.

Germany, which had already wrapped up its qualifying spot, suffered its first defeat since a 2-0 overtime loss to Italy in the 2006 World Cup semifinals.

"Qualifying is nice but the way we did it makes it even better," said Rozehnal.

WEAKNESSES. Milan Baros often brings his maddening inconsistency in club play with him to the national team, and there aren't that many great options for a partner for Koller if Baros is off-form. Given Koller's age and Rosicky's absence, the Czechs might be crisp in the buildup but mushy in the final third.

The Czechs will surely be on a short leash in Switzerland.

The Czech soccer federation fined the team almost $50,000 for excessive partying in March 2007, following a 2-1 qualifying loss to Germany in Prague.

Federation officials weren't swayed by the fact players were celebrating the 29th birthday of defender Tomas Ujfalusi.

Managing that tension is yet another headache for Brueckner, who himself withstood calls to resign after that defeat.

OUTLOOK. Finalists at Euro 1996 and semifinalists last time around, the Czechs must navigate a tricky group without incurring too many injuries or suspensions. If they do, their stingy defense may atone for the 2006 disappointment.


CZECH REP. IN BRIEF

Euro Schedule
June 7 in Basel
Switzerland
June 11 in Geneva
Portugal
June 15 in Geneva
Turkey

Euro History
1984: -
1988: -
1992: -
1996: Runner-up
2000: First round
2004: Semifinals

All-Time Caps
1. Karel Poborsky (118)
2. Pavel Nedved (91)
3. Zdenek Nehoda (9)
4. Pavel Kuka (87)
5. Jan Koller (85)
(Includes Czechoslovakia caps.)


PORTUGAL
Past failures are still haunting


Upset as host four years ago in the European Championship final and knocked out of the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup, yet boasting the electrifying presence of English Premier League Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal should be counted among the favorites.

But the nation's failure to win a major trophy haunts the players and their fans, and the team's unruly behavior at the 2006 World Cup calls into question its temperament under severe pressure.

STAR. Cristiano Ronaldo blistered EPL opponents for an incredible 31 goals and scored 10 more - pending an appearance in the UEFA Champions League final against Chelsea - in domestic and international cup play. In 13 qualifiers, he led Portugal with eight goals, and his remarkable knack for bursting clear to score or set up goals gives Portugal a player capable of determining the outcome of any game, regardless of situation or opponent.

STRENGTHS. There's talent and quality throughout the lineup in addition to Ronaldo's brilliance. Midfielder Deco struggled through a rough season at Barcelona but on his best days can unlock any defense. If Ricardo Carvalho converts his play this past season for Chelsea into strong showings at Euro 2008, he'll add much-needed stability to the Portuguese defense.

Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari is rightly renowned for his skills at player motivation and tactical acumen. Expectations will be sky-high regardless of past failures, and Scolari, a brusquely honest man, can be a lightning rod to attract criticism and thus draw it away from his players. His player selections will be especially important at this tournament, since a few of his players are past their best.

Nani blossomed this past season as Ronaldo's teammate at United and if deployed in the right situations can break open a game himself. The veteran goalscorer Pauleta is not on the squad, so someone among Nuno Gomes (three goals during qualifying), Simao Sabrosa (three) and Hugo Almeida (two) will be called upon.

WEAKNESSES. The absence of rugged defender Jorge Andrade, sidelined by two surgeries to repair a fractured right knee he suffered last September, deprives the back line of toughness and experience. Scolari left Euro 2004 and 2006 World Cup veteran midfielder Maniche off his squad; the team may miss his resilience, though Petit is just one of several candidates who can play a holding role.

Goalkeeping hasn't been a strong suit of the Portuguese. Ricardo and backup Quim are certainly competent, yet neither ranks in the class of counterparts Peter Cech and Gianluigi Buffon, who are not only reliable but capable of difficult saves at critical moments.

Portugal teems with talented wide players but without Maniche and Andrade may not be as strong as some opponents down the middle of the field.

OUTLOOK. Portugal must overcome its reputation of fizzling in big games to win the title it let slip four years ago, but may have passed its peak. Scolari's team is a prime candidate to trip up sooner than it should.
Ridge Mahoney


PORTUGAL IN BRIEF

Euro Schedule
June 7 in Geneva
Turkey
June 11 in Geneva
Czech Republic
June 15 in Basel
Switzerland

Euro History
1984: Semifinals
1988: Did not qualify
1992: Did not qualify
1996: Quarterfinals
2000: Semifinals
2004: Runner-up

All-Time Caps
1. Luis Figo (127)
2. Fernando Couto (110)
3. Rui Costa (94)
4. Pauleta (88)
5. Joao Pinto (81)


SWITZERLAND
Tough task ahead for co-host


The 2008 European Championship will provide an acid test of just how much home-field advantage can help a middle-tier team in a major competition.

In any other venue(s), Switzerland and co-host Austria would be longshots to reach the second round, and the draw didn't do the Swiss any favors by grouping them with Portugal, Turkey and Czech Republic.

But as co-host and eventual semifinalist South Korea proved at the 2002 World Cup, home-field advantage can be a powerful force. With more than a dozen players sprinkled amongs English Premier League, Bundesliga, and Ligue 1 clubs, Coach Jakob "Koebi" Kuhn has some talent, but the results of preparation matches - including a 1-0 loss to the USA last October - haven't been encouraging.

STAR. Alexander Frei, 29, missed the first half of the Bundesliga season with hip and calf injuries, but recovered in time to score five goals in 12 matches, giving him a solid strike rate (21 goals in 44 matches) since joining Borussia Dortmund from French club Rennes after the 2006 World Cup. In that competition, he tallied against Togo and South Korea as the Swiss reached the round of 16, where it lost to Ukraine on penalties.

With 32 international goals (in only 57 appearances), Frei is just two shy of all-time Swiss co-leaders Xam Abegglen and Kubilay Turkilmaz. His quickness and ability to pounce on the half-chance may prove invaluable.

STRENGTHS. There's an intriguing mix of talents in midfield for Kuhn to deploy in his favored 4-4-1-1 formation. Veteran Hakin Takin is the incumbent playmaker, who prefers to play just behind a forward, and nowdays he often shares prompting duties with Tranquillo Barnetta. Youngsters Gelson Fernandes and Gokhan Inler are often paired in the middle, yet their youth - they are 22 and 23, respectively - may prompt Kuhn to inject more experience.

The contract of goalkeeper Pascal Zuberbuhler, 37, won't be renewed by his club, Neuchatal Xamax, yet he played superbly at the 2006 World Cup during which the Swiss posted a completely clean sheet: 390 minutes without conceding a goal.

Arsenal central defender Philippe Senderos anchors the back line, and left back Christoph Spycher is a veteran of the last two major competitions.

All three first-round matches will be played at the St. Jakob Park in Basle. Its capacity of 40,000 doesn't compare favorably to many of its counterparts around the world, yet its snug design magnifies crowd noise.

WEAKNESSES. Germany trampled the Swiss, 4-0, two months ago in Basel, the fourth straight Swiss defeat. Frei returned to international action after nearly a year's absence but seldom got the ball in good positions, and the Germany sliced up the Swiss back line like a cheese of the same name.

Losses to England (2-1) and Nigeria (1-0) following that defeat by the USA have undermined confidence.

OUTLOOK. Kuhn, who is stepping down after this tournament, will go out a hero if he can somehow get the Swiss into the knockout stage.


SWITZERLAND IN BRIEF

Euro Schedule
June 7 in Basel
Czech Republic
June 11 in Basel
Turkey
June 15 in Basel
Portugal

Euro History
1984: Did not qualify
1988: Did not qualify
1992: Did not qualify
1996: First round
2000: Did not qualify
2004: First round

All-Time Caps
1. Heinz Hermann (117)
2. Alain Geiger (112)
3. Stephane Chapuisat (103)
4. Johann Vogel (94)
5. Severino Minelli (80)


TURKEY
Enigmatic team holds key to group


"Turkey is a tough team that on a good day can beat every team and on a bad day can lose against every team, so you never know what happens against Turkey."

Thus speaks former Swiss international Raphael Wicky, mindful that his nation as co-host has an advantage in group play but must face Turkey, the surprise 2002 World Cup semifinalist that after missing out on the next two major competitions edged out Norway by a single point to qualify for Euro 2008.

Uncertainly about Turkey is exacerbated by injuries to several key players and the decision by head coach Fatih Terim to leave iconic striker Hakan Sukur, one of the 2002 heroes, off his provisional roster. At 36, he's well past his prime.

STAR. He only played in five Euro 2008 qualifiers, yet Villarreal striker Nihat Kahveci netted three goals, including game-winners in the last two group games that enabled Turkey to beat Norway, 2-1, in Oslo, and clinch qualification by edging Bosnia, 1-0, four days later.

With one La Liga match left to play, Nihat's 18 goals topped the scorers at Villarreal, which by finishing second has guaranteed a Champions League place next season. At 28, he's an eight-year veteran of the national team who played against Japan and Costa Rica at the 2002 World Cup.

STRENGTHS. With or without Sukur, the Turks have competent if not fearsome scorers. Tuncay Sanli, 26, netted three in the qualifiers and showed enough flair in his first Premier League season with Middlesbrough (eight goals in 34 matches) to suggest he can be effective in a major competition. The same can be said for 25-year-old Halil Altintop, who scored six Bundesliga goals for Schalke despite starting only 16 games.

Four different players scored in a 4-1 thrashing of Greece in Athens during qualifying play. Sukur played the full 90 minutes but didn't score.

Altintop's twin brother, Hamit, is a reliable midfielder who also plays in the Bundesliga. He logged three goals and four assists in league play and scored an additional three goals in the UEFA Cup for champion Bayern Munich before suffering a broken metatarsal in March. He is one of several players racing to be fit in time.

Midfielder Emre Belozoglu specializes in free kicks, yet his goal from the run of play tied the Oslo match, 1-1. The marvelously skilled but injury-prone Yildiray Basturk can also contribute.

WEAKNESSES. One of the 2002 standouts, keeper Rustu Recber, lost his starting spot to Volkan Demirel because of injury. Demirel, 26, has played well this season for Fenerbahce yet has yet to play in a major competition and in five qualifiers conceded five goals. Turkey allowed only 11 goals in 12 qualifying matches yet failed to shut out its toughest opponents, Norway and Greece, in any of its four meetings.

OUTLOOK. Turkey probably won't advance but instead could come up with a game good enough to assure another team falters along with it in the evenly matched Group A.


TURKEY IN BRIEF

Euro Schedule
June 7 in Geneva
Portugal
June 11 in Basel
Switzerland
June 15 in Geneva
Czech Republic

Euro History
1984: Did not qualify
1988: Did not qualify
1992: Did not qualify
1996: First round
2000: Quarterfinals
2004: Did not qualify

All-Time Caps
1. Rustu Recber (128)
2. Hakan Sukur (112)
3. Bulent Korkmaz (102)
4. Tugay Kerimoglu (94)
5. Alpay Ozalan (90)

(This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)



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