Euro 2008 Countdown: Group D – Holders Greece won’t slip up in ‘08

Group D at Euro 2008 sees Greece, the shock winners of four years ago, pitched in alongside perennial under-achievers Spain, middle of the road Sweden and a Russian side which took full advantage of England’s dismal qualification campaign to progress to Austria and Switzerland.

Starting with the reigning champions first and Greece will look to at least progress beyond the group stage as they bid to retain the trophy picked up against Portugal in Lisbon in 2004.

If they believe in omens then Otto Rehhagel’s men will be delighted to be thrown in the same group as Spain and Russia as they were in Portugal.

Rehhagel has yet to announce his full squad, but he is expected to try and blend in some veterans from Euro 2004, such as goalkeeper Antonios Nikopolidis, skipper Angelos Basinas, defender Giourkas Seitaridis, midfielder Giorgos Karagounis and Angelos Charisteas in attack.

Greece failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup as they were in transition following their European Championship success, but the fact they qualified for Euro 2008 top of their respective group ahead of Turkey, Hungary and Norway suggests they are finding their feet again at the right time.

Spain will arrive at the finals expected to make an impact, despite history not being on their side when it comes to winning major tournaments.

Coach Luis Aragones will hope to end his tenure in charge of the Spanish side on a high note by lifting the trophy on June 29, although he has already caused a stir in his homeland after naming a 23-man squad minus the legendary Real Madrid frontman Raul.

Uncapped Real Zaragoza striker Sergio Garcia and versatile Villarreal star Santi Carzola have been included on the basis of their end of season form, but still turned a few heads in the media.

Liverpool trio; defender Alvaro Arbeloa, midfielder Xabi Alonso and prolific striker Fernando Torres form the spine of the team with team-mate Jose Reina number two on the goalkeeper list behind captain Iker Cassilas.

Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas, Xavi of Barcelona and his team-mate Andres Iniesta are also involved and should really see Spain avoid a repeat of their first round elimination in 2004.

Sweden have a good record of qualifying for major tournaments in the past 18 years, although they always seem to fall short when it actually comes to winning one of them.

Third place at World Cup 1994 is their best effort in recent history, while they did reach the quarter-finals of Euro 2004.

However Lars Lagerback’s men arrive at Euro 2008 relying heavily on several ageing players, including the legendary 36-year-old striker Henrik Larsson and his 34-year-old fellow forward Marcus Allback, injury-hit captain Freddie Ljungberg and fellow veteran midfielder Niclas Alexandersson.

There are the likes of former Aston Villa defender Olof Mellberg, Manchester City’s second choice keeper Andreas Isaksson and striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic who are crucial to Sweden’s hopes after helping them progress to the finals as runners up behind fellow Group D members Spain who they won 2-0 and lost 3-0 against in qualification.

Russia join Spain and Greece in a repeat of their group in Portugal 2004, but many England fans will feel Guus Hiddink’s men should not have had the opportunity of fighting it out for the European Championship crown.

A draw for Steve McClaren’s men against Croatia at Wembley last November was all the Three Lions needed to go through. However a shock 3-2 defeat meant Russia progressed courtesy of their slender 1-0 win over whipping boys Andorra.

The Russian squad which faced Romania in a friendly in March was made up almost entirely of players who ply their trade in Russia which hands them the advantage of familiarity.

However it is difficult to see this set of players making much of an impact on these finals unless they can improve dramatically on a less-than-convincing qualification campaign in which they lost 3-0 against England at Wembley and 2-1 in Israel when the pressure was really on.

Group D gets underway in Innsbruck with Spain going up against Russia and I cannot see anything other than a comfortable win for Spain. In the other game a tighter affair will see Greece and Sweden evenly matched and share the spoils in Salzburg.

Spain will edge past Sweden in their second group game to seal their place in the last-eight with Greece moving on to four points after avenging the 2-1 defeat to Russia in their final group game four years ago.

Russia will earn a point against Sweden in the final group clash with Greece and Spain settling for a point to progress into the knockout stages. However depending on who they will be up against from Group C — Italy, France, Holland and Romania — could determine how desperate Spain and Greece are to finish top of the group.

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