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EURO 2008: Group C
by Paul Kennedy, May 23rd, 2008 4:32PM

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TAGS:  european championship, international


FRANCE
The Bleus have the tools


On paper, no team can match France in terms of its depth of talent.

There are veterans like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Lilian Thuram from the World Cup championship team of a decade ago and youngsters like Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri and Hatem Ben Arfa.

Take just about any position, and the Bleus go two or three deep.

Left back, for instance, where incumbent Eric Abidal of Barcelona is challenged by Manchester United's Patrice Evra and Arsenal's Gael Clichy, arguably the best two left backs in the EPL.

But championships aren't won on paper.

After winning the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, France headed to South Korea for the 2002 World Cup with what was supposed to be its best team ever, and it returned home without scoring a goal.

Not much was expected of the 2006 World Cup team, but it beat Spain, Brazil and Portugal en route to the final, where it fell to Italy on penalty kicks.

STAR. The revelation of the French team at the 2006 World Cup, Franck Ribery is set to take over as the leader of a new generation of Bleus.

He has already taken on the playmaking role of the retired Zinedine Zidane, the player to whom he has often been compared.

"The truth is that no one can play like Zidane," insists Ribery.
Ribery hopes to build on his success at Bayern Munich, which he led to the league-cup double.

"I've progressed on the field as in daily life," Ribery told the German paper Suddeutsche Zeitung recently. "I'm better than before with the French team. I'm now a leader."

STRENGTHS. On a team with strong personalities, Coach Raymond Domenech has managed keep everyone happy - at least up until now.

He coaxed Claude Makelele and Thuram out of retirement for 2006 World Cup qualifying, and they are still playing. Under Domenech, former rebel Nicolas Anelka is now a team leader.

France's depth is most evident up front, where the emergence of the 21-year-old Benzema and Anelka means France has cover if Henry doesn't rediscover his form.

WEAKNESSES. No Euro '08 finalist had more players represented in the Manchester United-Chelsea Champions League final - so Domenech had to wait until the end of May to see who was healthy before picking his 23-player roster.

Age is a concern down the middle: Gregory Coupet in goal is 35, central defenders Thuram and William Gallas are 36 and 31, respectively, and Makelele and Vieira in midfield are 35 and 31, respectively.

OUTLOOK. The question will be how France will get along without the retired Zidane, who carried it to the 2006 World Cup final.

The Bleus were hardly sensational in qualifying - they lost to Scotland twice - but they learned there was life without Zidane.

"We have a solid platform to build on," Domenech said. "You don't go far in a major competition unless you are well organized."

And you won't get far without talent. With players like Ribery and Benzema, France could go far.


FRANCE IN BRIEF


Euro Schedule
June 9 in Zurich
Romania
June 13 in Berne
Netherlands
June 17 in Zurich
Italy

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

All-Time Caps
1. Lilian Thuram (138)
2. Marcel Desailly (116)
3. Zinedine Zidane (108)
4. Patrick Vieira (105)
5. Didier Deschamps (103)


ITALY
World champion seeks crown


If Italy wins the 2008 European Championship, Azzurri fans will offer a toast to the much-maligned MetroStars, the MLS Red Bulls' forerunners at the Meadowlands.

Italy coach Roberto Donadoni played the first two seasons for the MetroStars and caught the coaching bug during his days in MLS.

"I think I decided to become a coach," he says, "when I was in the U.S. and started explaining some things to my less experienced teammates."

Donadoni, a star for Italy and AC Milan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is a break from the mold of Italy national team coaches, men like Enzo Bearzot, Arrigo Sacchi and Marcello Lippi, who had modest or no playing careers.

With an unspectacular record as a club coach at Lecco, Genoa and Livorno, Donadoni was the surprise choice to replace Lippi after Italy's 2006 World Cup championship, and he immediately came in for heavy criticism when Italy's Euro '08 qualifying campaign started poorly.

Even after Italy recovered and won its qualifying group, Donadoni still didn't have the complete confidence of the Italian federation. A month before the tournament, Donadoni and the federation couldn't come to an agreement on a contract extension beyond Euro '08.

STAR. Four years ago at this time, Luca Toni had still not debuted for the national team. It was only after scoring 30 and 31 goals in back-to-back seasons at Palermo and Fiorentina that he became in a fixture on the Azzurri.

One of the few Italian stars to venture abroad, Toni was sensational in his first season at German club Bayern Munich - 21 goals in 30 Bundesliga games, 10 UEFA Cup goals, and both goals in the German Cup victory over Borussia Dortmund.

STRENGTHS. Italy is solid down the middle with Gianluigi Buffon in goal, Fabio Cannavaro in the middle of the backline, Andrea Pirlo in midfield and Toni up front.

No team can match the Azzurri for big-game experience. Donadoni named 15 players from Italy's 2006 World Cup championship team to his provisional roster for Euro '08.

WEAKNESSES. A strong season with Juventus put longtime star Alessandro Del Piero back in the national team picture, but Italy is decidedly thin up front.

Only Toni and Del Piero have big tournament experience.

(A player to watch: Genoa forward Marco Borriello, who is, like Toni, a late bloomer. He debuted for the Azzurri in February at age 25.)

OUTLOOK. Which Italy will show up in Switzerland? The team that was bounced after three games at Euro '04? Or the 2006 World Cup team emboldened by the controversy surrounding Italian soccer's match-fixing scandal?

Pirlo, for one, thinks the fuss surrounding Donadoni's future is good. The Azzurri, he says, don't know how to win when things are calm.

Only France has won the World Cup and then captured the European Championship two years later, so history isn't on Italy's side.

Donadoni says the 2006 World Cup is in the past.
"It's a new day now and a different tournament," he insists, "and I think we're up to the task."


ITALY IN BRIEF

Euro Schedule
June 9 in Berne
Netherlands
June 13 in Zurich
Romania
June 17 in Zurich
France

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

All-Time Caps
1. Paolo Maldini (126)
2. Fabio Cannavaro (115)
3. Dino Zoff (112)
4. Giacinto Facchetti (94)
5. Alessandro Del Piero (85)



NETHERLANDS
Oranje will be pressed


Twenty years after scoring one of the greatest goals in the history of the European Championship, Marco Van Basten returns to the European Championship as coach of the Dutch national team.

Van Basten scored a volley from a tight angle that gave the Netherlands the second goal in its 2-0 win over the Soviet Union in the 1988 final.

The goal capped a brilliant tournament for the young Van Basten, whose six goals also included a hat trick against England and the deciding goal against Germany in the semifinals, and earned him the first of three European Player of the Year awards.

Up until now, though, Van Basten has had only modest success as a coach. The Oranje exited from the 2006 World Cup amid a flurry of red and yellow cards in the second round against Portugal. They hardly impressed in Euro '08 qualifying, finishing behind Romania and clinching their berth with a 1-0 win over neighbor Luxembourg, the low of the Lowlands

"You never know with us," says Van Basten, who will take over at Ajax in July.

STAR. At 25, Rafael Van der Vaart is already one of the senior players on the Dutch national team with 52 caps. He matured greatly in his three seasons at Hamburg and is one of the most sought-after players in Europe.

Van der Vaart and former Ajax teammate Wesley Sneijder should share the playmaking duties at Euro '08. They were outstanding in the Oranje's 3-0 win over Croatia in a February friendly.

STRENGTHS. Van Basten blamed inexperience on the Oranje's failure at the 2006 World Cup. No one will accept that excuse this time around.

Van Basten has one of the deepest squads in the tournament, particularly in midfield and up front, where he has an array of international stars to choose from.
His provisional list of strikers included Ruud van Nistelrooy and Arjen Robben of Real Madrid, Ryan Babel and Dirk Kuyt of Liverpool and Robin van Persie of Arsenal.

Van Basten's first choice at center forward in recent games, though, was Ajax striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, a scoring machine with 70 goals in 82 league games at Ajax.

Goalie Edwin Van der Sar, a veteran of three European Championships, and defensive-minded Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, who debuted for the Dutch in 1996, will play critical roles in what could be their last international competitions.

WEAKNESSES. The Oranje's depth can be a curse as well as a blessing. Van Basten will have to divvy up playing time to keep all his players happy.

He'll also want to keep his players fresh. One of his concerns is that the Oranje struggle late in matches against more physical opponents.

OUTLOOK. The Netherlands is the only team to have made the knockout phase of the last five European Championships, but it will be quite an accomplishment to get out of Group C, which features World Cup 2006 finalists Italy and France, and Romania, which beat and tied the Dutch and finished ahead of them in their qualifying group.

NETHERLANDS IN BRIEF

Euro Schedule
June 9 in Berne
Italy
June 13 in Berne
France
June 17 in Berne
Romania

Euro History
1984: Did not qualify
1988: Champion
1992: Semifinals
1996: Quarterfinals
2000: Semifinals
2004: Semifinals

All-Time Caps
1. Edwin Van der Sar (123)
2. Frank De Boer (112)
3. Phillip Cocu (101)
4. Clarence Seedorf (87)
5. Marc Overmars (86)


ROMANIA
Piturca gets second chance


The last time Romania qualified for the European Championship, Victor Piturca got it there but wasn't around to go there.

Piturca qualified Romania for Euro 2000, but he was fired in late 1999 because of differences with stars Gheorghe Hagi and Gheorghe Popescu - more specifically, their agent, who wanted Piturca to promote his own players and had connections at the Romanian federation to get him fired when the coach wouldn't comply.

The former Steaua Bucharest star took over as Romania national team coach a second time in 2004 and justified the patience of the Romanian federation, which kept him on after Romania failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup.

Piturca doesn't play favorites. His relationship with star Adrian Mutu has often been testy, but Mutu is a key figure in the national team.

He's one of a nucleus of veterans whom Piturca brought into the national team during his first stint in 1998-99, and Piturca is responsible for the emergence of a young generation of players making their debuts on the international stage in June.

STAR. Mutu has scored more than 30 Italian league goals in the last two seasons at Fiorentina, making his 2006 transfer one of the worst moves Juventus has made in recent years.

Except for an 18-month stint at Chelsea, Mutu has scored everywhere he has played in his career. He can create chances for his teammates and is dangerous on set pieces.

Mutu received a seven-month ban after testing positive for cocaine while playing with Chelsea in 2004, but Piturca credits Mutu's maturity to settling down and starting a family.

A red card for dissent late in the season meant that Mutu missed Fiorentina's final two games of the Serie A season - much to Piturca's pleasure.

"He is tired after a long and stressful season," Piturca told the French newspaper L'Equipe, "so it will be good to allow him a little time to rest and recuperate."

STRENGTHS. Captain Cristian Chivu of Inter Milan and Mutu give Romania two players with plenty of big game experience. Goalie Bogdan Lobon, defender Cosmin Contra and midfielders Florentin Petre are also holdovers from Piturca's first tenure as Romania coach.

Romania won't score a lot of goals but it shouldn't give up many, either.

It shut out the Netherlands, its third opponent in Group C, at home, 1-0, and tied the Oranje, 0-0, away during qualifying.

WEAKNESSES.
Romania doesn't have a lot of depth, so it will be challenged to get through the group phase. Its lack of experience - it hasn't played in a major competition in eight years - will also hurt.

OUTLOOK. Romania enters Euro '08 as a long shot to advance to the knockout phase. It will need to get a result against France in their opener in Zurich to have a shot of advancing. The opposition doesn't get any easier after that - Italy four days later in Berne and the Dutch four days after that back in Zurich.
Much will depend of Mutu and Chivu. Mutu has to keep his temper in check, while Chivu must regain his fitness after a long campaign with Inter Milan.

ROMANIA IN BRIEF

Euro Schedule
June 9 in Zurich
France
June 13 in Zurich
Italy
June 17 in Berne
Netherlands

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

All-Time Caps
1. Dorinel Munteanu (134)
2. Gheorghe Hagi (125)
3. Gheorghe Popescu (115)
4. Ladislau Boloni (108)
5. Dan Petrescu (95)

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



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