As always in a big tournament draw there is always several highly-fancied teams thrown together which ultimately leads to a big-name first round casualty in what is commonly referred to as a ‘Group of Death’.
Euro 2008 is no different as current world champions Italy, runners up France, the impressive-looking Holland and a Romania side, who will be written off at football betting punters’ peril, are set to battle it out for just two quarter-final places.
Starting with underdogs first and Victor Piturca’s Romanian side arrive in Austria and Switzerland not expected to make much of an impact given their illustrious first-round opponents, but they are more than capable of upsetting the apple cart.
Skippered by Inter Milan’s Cristian Chivu with Fiorentina’s Adrian Mutu in attack and the superb Dorin Goian in defence, Romania have a solid spine and with the majority of the squad plying their trade in their homeland — 13 of the provisional 26-man squad — they have the advantage of familiarity on their side.
Romania also finished ahead of Holland in qualifying so will hold some psychological advantage over one of their Group C opponents.
Marco van Basten’s Dutch squad will arrive at the finals expected to do well as they look to emulate the success of the side in Germany 20 years ago which was spearheaded by their current coach and the magnificent Ruud Gullitt in a fearsome attacking force at Euro 88.
With 122-cap veteran goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar captaining the current side, the attacking pace of wingers Ryan Babel of Liverpool and Real Madrid’s Arjen Robben and prolific forwards like Ruud van Nistelrooy, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Arsenal’s Robin van Persie, Holland will pose a threat to any defence.
Euro 2000 winners France will look to emulate that feat this year as Raymond Domenech’s men go into the tournament with a psychological advantage over Italy after securing four qualifying points off the Azzurri on their way to the finals.
With the country’s highest-ever goalscorer Thierry Henry leading the attack with the likes of David Trezeguet, Nicolas Anelka and Djibril Cisse aiming to join him on the pitch, France are not short of options up front.
The exceptional trickery of Franck Ribery is capable of creating chances out of nothing, while France have a wealth of experience in midfielder Patrick Vieira and defensive skipper Lilian Thuram, with almost 250 caps between them.
Italy won the qualifying group which included France and defeated them in the 2006 World Cup final and will no doubt point to that going into the European Championships.
Roberto Donadoni will be under pressure to add the Euro 2008 crown to the tag of world champions secured under former coach Marcello Lippi in Germany two summers ago. And he will be boosted by a strong squad which always seem to come good when it really matters.
The majority of the squad plies its trade in Italy with 17 of the 21-man squad which lined up against Spain in March’s friendly hailing from a Serie A outfit.
Keeper Gianluigi Buffon will again need to be instrumental between the sticks, while skipper Fabio Cannavaro in defence, midfielder Daniele De Rossi and striker Luca Toni make up a powerful spine in the Azzurri set up. Throw in the likes of work-horse Gennaro Gattuso and the experienced Gianluca Zambrotta and you would have to fancy Italy to make an impact.
Group C is a tough one to call and will depend on France getting off to a good start in their tricky opener against Romania in Zurich. If they start sluggishly then expect a stalemate, but I cannot help thinking Domenech’s side will edge through and register a narrow win.
Italy start their campaign against Holland and I expect them to put the onus on trying to snuff out the threat of the Dutch attack, before going to nick something on the break. It will be another tight affair and if Donadoni’s side can’t win it, they will make sure they do not lose and settle for a point.
The second round of Group C games will pitch Italy up against Romania and I expect them to focus on keeping danger man Mutu silent on the night and have enough in attack to pick up three points.
There should be an entertaining match-up between the French and Dutch in Berne as both sides possess potent attacking players. Hopefully goals will not be a shortage and looking at both squads I would tip France to just shade the contest.
In the final games Holland and Romania will battle it out to avoid the wooden spoon and a draw here would see the Dutch save face by one point over their opponents.
France will need a point against Italy to win the group and I cannot see them not achieving that aim as both sides will already have one eye on the quarter-final stage and won’t want to risk any injuries having already qualified.