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EURO 2008: Group D
by Paul Kennedy, by Ridge Mahoney, May 23rd, 2008 5:02PM

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TAGS:  european championship, international

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GREECE
Title repeat unlikely


Surprise winners of the European Championship don't have a great record in subsequent events, and like Euro '92 winner Denmark who failed to qualify for USA '94, Greece stumbled out of the 2006 World Cup qualifiers.

Yet Coach Otto Rehhagel, hailed as a national hero for masterminding Greece's incredible victory, kept his job and repaid the Greek federation by roaring through the Euro qualifiers with 10 wins in 12 matches.

STAR. Captain Angelos Basinas, 32, anchors the center, takes penalty kicks as well as corners, and is the team's best two-way midfielder. A Basinas corner kick resulted in Angelos Charisteas' goal in the 2004 Euro final. Other players carry the brunt of the attacking responsibility; Basinas connects the defense and attack while bottling up the middle against opposing thrusts. He played at Panathinaikos for nearly a decade prior to joining Real Mallorca three years ago.

STRENGTHS. The experience gained in 2004 is vital, as is the presence of Rehhagel. The Greeks are well-versed in his cagey methods of staunch defending, looking for opportunities to counter and exploiting set plays.

Greece clinched its spot with two games to play by beating Turkey, 1-0, in Istanbul after it had lost, 4-1, to the Turks at home. A through ball by Georgios Samaras ran to Ioannis Amanatidis to score a goal in typical Greek fashion, yet the style of the game itself - a wide-open, end-to-end affair - isn't likely to crop up in June.

The other Greek specialty, set plays, came to the fore in March, when Greece toppled Portugal, 2-1, in Duesseldorf with a pair of Georgios Karagounis free kicks.

Qualifying so easily and beating Portugal in its final major tune-up has built momentum and confidence. Rehhagel has about half of the 2004 team back for this event, yet the average age of the players is actually younger than it was four years ago. Maximizing this mix of youth and inexperience at a major tournament might faze many coaches, but Rehhagel isn't among them.

Left back Vassilis Torosidis, 22, has helped Olympiakos win the last two Greek League titles. Striker Theofanis Gekas (Bayer Leverkusen) led Greece in goals during qualifying with five and tallied 11 Bundesliga goals this past season, yet Rehhagel has a plethora of experienced forwards.

WEAKNESSES. The surprise element is gone. Greece is best when defending and looking to counter; its buildup and penetration play can be lackluster. Few of its players play for truly major teams. Ranked 8th in the world, Greece certainly isn't as good as that, and if its players start believing the sure-to-be wild proclamations of Greek journalists and fans, Rehhagel must realign their thinking.

OUTLOOK. By avoiding the co-hosts as well as most of the major powers in the draw, Greece is more than capable of advancing. It doesn't play group favorite Spain until the last game and so can get its necessary points in the first two matches with Sweden and Russia.


GREECE IN BRIEF

Euro Schedule
June 10 in Innsbruck
Sweden
June 14 in Innsbruck
Russia
June 18 in Salzburg
Spain

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

All-Time Caps
1. Theodoros Zagorakis (120)
2. Stratos Apostolakis (96)
3. Angelos Basinas (86)
4. Antonios Nikopolidis (85)
5. Dimitris Saravakos (78)



RUSSIA
Can Hiddink work magic again?


Dutchman Guus Hiddink's reputation as a national team coaching genius is well deserved.
He took the Netherlands to the semifinals of the 1998 World Cup and four years later returned to the final four with co-host South Korea - a team that had never won a World Cup game entering the tournament.

Hiddink's success as the part-time coach of Australia at the 2006 World Cup - he was also coaching Dutch club PSV - was almost as remarkable. The Socceroos, whose only previous appearance in the finals was in 1974, reached the second round, where they were eliminated by Italy, 1-0, on a controversial penalty in the dying seconds of the match.

The Russian soccer federation had already agreed to hire Hiddink following the World Cup and pay him more than $2 million a year, and Hiddink did not disappoint.

Russia finished second in its group ahead of England when England fell at home to Croatia, 3-2, in its final game.

Hiddink did not make many friends when he ridiculed the England national team and predicted its demise - just after Russia lost four days earlier in Israel! - but he says Russia's qualification was legitimate.

"You make your own luck," Hiddink said. "We were unbeaten against Croatia - seen by many as a title favorite - and we won the all-or-nothing match against England [2-1 comeback win in Moscow]."

STAR. Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, 23, played a key role in midfield during Russia's qualifying campaign, setting up teammate Dmitri Sychev on the goal that gave Russia a 1-0 win over Andorra and second place in its group when England fell to Croatia, 3-2, on the final day of qualifying.

He is in his fifth season at Lokomotiv Moscow but could move during the summer transfer market.

STRENGTHS. All but one player in Hiddink's provisional roster - 32-year-old midfielder Sergei Semak - is domestic-based, so the Russians will be at their peak form in June. (The Russian league plays a spring-to-fall season.)

Goalie Vyacheslav Malafeyev, defender Alexander Anyukov, midfielders Konstantin Zyryanov and Roman Shirokov and strikers Andrei Arshavin and Pavel Pogrebnyak play for Zenit St. Petersburg, which demolished Bayern Munich en route to the UEFA Cup title.

Pogrebnyak, who was suspended for the final, tied for the scoring lead in the UEFA Cup with 10 goals.

WEAKNESSES. Hiddink's young team has been inconsistent during qualifying and in friendlies. It looked terrible in a 3-0 loss to Romania in March.

Arshavin, one of Russia's most dangerous threats, is suspended for the first two games.

OUTLOOK. Hiddink says just qualifying for the Euro '08 finals was a big achievement. With one of the youngest teams at the finals, qualifying for the knockout phase will also be a major accomplishment.

"We were not the favorites to reach Euro 2008 playing in a group with Croatia and England, but we did it," he said. "Now, we'll try to do the same. We know we're not the big favorites. Nevertheless, our aim is to make the second round."


RUSSIA IN BRIEF

Euro Schedule
June 10 in Salzburg
Spain
June 14 in Innsbruck
Greece
June 18 in Innsbruck
Sweden

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

All-Time Caps
1. Viktor Onopko (109)
2. Valeri Karpin (72)
3. Vladimir Beschastnykh (71)
4. Dimitri Alenichev (55)
4. Yuri Nikiforov (55)
4. Aleksei Smertin (55)



SPAIN
The star-studded underachievers


After Spain's home qualifying game against Latvia, Spain coach Luis Aragones drove 300 miles from Oviedo back to Madrid so he wouldn't have to face journalists on the team charter flight. And that was after a 2-0 win!

Aragones, nicknamed "The Wise Man of Hortaleza" after the Madrid suburb of his birth, coached 30 years in La Liga with nine clubs, including Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. When he was hired as national team coach after Euro 2004, the media welcomed the appointment. His vast experience, it was hoped, would translate into Spain's first major tournament title since winning the inaugural European Championship in 1964.

The media honeymoon didn't last long as Aragones stormed out of press conferences and ranted in radio and TV interviews. Despite Spain's second-round exit at the 2006 World Cup, however, he held on to his job.

Losing to Sweden and Northern Ireland at the start Euro 2008 qualifying and dropping veteran striker Raul, Spain's all-time leading scorer, led to more strife. But Spain then reeled off eight wins and one tie and clinched a spot with a 3-0 thumping of Sweden in its penultimate game.

The focus is now where it's always at when Spain enters a tournament. Can it translate its impressive array of talent into a title win? Or will it disappoint yet again?

STAR. Outside back Sergio Ramos may have been the MVP of qualifying. His stamina enables him to storm down the flanks and provide enough defensive cover for Spain to play with an attacker-laden lineup. But Fernando Torres, who scored 33 goals for Liverpool last season in all competitions, is the man expected to make the difference.

The 24-year-old Torres moved to Liverpool on a $40 million transfer from Atletico Madrid, where he had scored 75 goals after debuting at age 17. Three of his 15 goals for Spain came at the 2006 World Cup.

STRENGTHS. Spain's midfield is highly capable of setting up chances for Torres or David Villa, who also scored three at the last World Cup and led Spain's scorers in Euro 2008 qualifiers with seven. Indeed, Spain may have Europe's best collection of midfielders. Barcelona's Andres Iniesta and Xavi, and Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas are all considered playmakers. They're supported by Valencia's David Albelda or naturalized Brazilian Marcos Senna, who hits nice long-range passes and can strike from far. There's also David Silva, who attacks from the right.

WEAKNESSES. Even Spain's defense is formidable, with veteran Carles Puyol and Carlos Marchena in the middle, and outside backs Ramos and Joan Capdevila, who scored in a 1-0 win over 2006 World Cup runner-up France in February. In March, Spain beat world champion Italy, 1-0. But those were friendlies.

Haunting Spain as usual is its failure to win when it really matters, which is why Aragones says his main task is instilling competitive spirit.

OUTLOOK. Winning Group D shouldn't be a problem for the Spaniards, but powerful Group C should provide their opponent at the quarterfinal stage, beyond which they've not advanced since 1984.


SPAIN IN BRIEF

Euro Schedule
June 10 in Salzburg
Russia
June 14 in Salzburg
Sweden
June 18 in Salzburg
Greece

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

All-Time Caps
1. Andoni Zubizarreta (126)
2. Raul (102)
3. Fernando Hierro (89)
4. Jose Antonio Camacho (81)
5. Rafael Gordillo (75)



SWEDEN
Larsson return buoys hopes


Head coach Lars Lagerbeck pulled off a coup by enticing Henrik Larsson out of retirement, which injected a jolt of excitement into the announcement of his 23-man roster.

Yet other longtime veterans won't be on hand, and there are injury concerns regarding at least two regulars, so despite qualifying for its fifth straight major competition Sweden heads into the tournament with a few questions.

STAR. Not since the famed "Grenoli" trio - Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl, Nils Lledholm - led Sweden to the 1958 World Cup final and went on to play for AC Milan has there been a Swedish player as acclaimed as Larsson.

He ranks third on the all-time Swedish scoring list with 36 goals and is among the leaders with 93 caps. He retired from the national team after the 2002 and 2006 World Cups only to be lured back both times.

He scored three goals at Euro 2004 and endeared himself, again, to Swedish fans with a late equalizer in a 2-2 tie with England two years ago at the 2006 World Cup. A missed penalty kick in the 2-0 loss to host Germany in the round of 16 did little to dim his luster.

STRENGTHS. Lyon midfielder Kim Kallstrom is a tough, reliable ball-winner who can also hit penetrating passes and occasionally get forward to take a crack at goal, as he did last August when the Swedes beat the USA, 1-0. He also scored the goal against Latvia that clinched qualification last November.

The Swedes are stacked with caps: nearly all of the regulars from the Euro 2004 squad are back, though defender Teddy Lucic, 35, turned down an invitation. Nearly half of the squad has more than 50 caps, with keeper Andreas Isaksson, defender Olaf Mellberg, and midfielders Niclas Alexandersson, Anders Svensson and Kallstrom among the most experienced.

WEAKNESSES. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 26, has scored consistently at club level for Malmo FF, Ajax, Juventus and Inter Milan, but failed to hit the net in his seven qualifying appearances. As Euro 2008 preparations began, he hadn't scored for his country since October 2005.

Much of Lagerbeck's work in the past year has been finding the right partner for Ibrahimovic among Johan Elmander, Marcus Allback and Markus Rosenberg. Allback led the team in qualifying with six goals but he'll be 35 in July and like Larsson, can't be counted on to play 90 minutes every time.

Aside from Kallstrom, the midfield is unsettled. Freddie Ljungberg suffered a cracked rib playing for West Ham United in late April and Tobias Linderoth has been rehabilitating a hip injury for which he had surgery in January. Linderoth will need to prove his fitness at the team's final training camp.

A strong showing by Sebastian Larsson last March in a 1-0 loss to Brazil has him vying with Christian Wilhelmsson for playing time at right mid.

OUTLOOK. Poor finishing plagued the Swedes at the 2006 World Cup and they won't be spared for such profligacy in tight group matches that aren't likely to be brimming with chances.


SWEDEN IN BRIEF

Euro Schedule
June 10 in Innsbruck
Greece
June 14 in Salzburg
Spain
June 18 in Innsbruck
Russia

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

All-Time Caps
1. Thomas Ravelli (143)
2. Roland Nilsson (116)
3. Bjorn Nordqvist (115)
4. Niclas Alexandersson (106)
5. Patrik Andersson (96)

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



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