World Cup ‘06 was an epiphany for Brother Reynell. After years of looking upon soccer as a bunch of guys kicking a ball around, Reynell came to realize the subtle intricacies of futbol. Join him as he continues his journey into the light of the game on the pitch.
Unfortunately, Romania has drawn the two World Cup finalists, Italy and France, in Group C. I don’t think Romania will finish ahead of Netherlands. Romania finished behind the Czechs and Dutch in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup and had a number of tournament disappointments before that. I don’t foresee the ’08 Euros being much different for the Romanians. On the other hand, they finished atop their qualifying group and had some lopsided victories. If Romania advances out of Group C, it will be well earned and certainly move them way up the international rankings.
The World Cup Champions are the favorite and have the best team. Italy is extremely balanced all over the pitch, with a host of international stars on either end. Alessandro Del Piero (Juventus) will play up front. Daniele De Rossi (Roma) had a phenomenal season in Serie A and will probably merit the most attention in the midfield. The Italian defense is perhaps the most solid, with Gianluca Zambrotta (Barcelona) and World Cup hero Gianluigi Buffon in goal (Juventus). Unfortunately, captain Fabio Cannavaro (Real Madrid) is out with an ankle injury. The defense gave up nine goals in qualifying, but three of those were in a loss to France. Their struggles against France during qualifying (3-1 loss and 1-1 draw) may cause some critics to overanalyze, but I think those games may have rekindled a desire recently quenched by World Cup glory. Italy’s critics are also pointing out that they are the oldest team, but such a stat walks a fine line between “old and weary” and “experienced.” This Italian team appears to be on the side of experienced.
World Cup runner-up, Les Bleus, boast the most impressive roster: Forwards Thierry Henry (Barcelona) and Nicolas Anelka (Chelsea); midfielders Claude Makele (Chelsea), Franck Ribery (Bayern Munich), and captain Patrick Vieira (Inter Milan); defender William Gallas (Aresenal) and a host of others from French power club Lyon. Success has come for most of these players in the Zinedine Zidane era. They won the World Cup in 1998 and the European Championship in 2000. But the now infamous Zidane head butt seems to be a plague hanging over their heads. They have dropped to seventh in international rankings and struggled mightily to qualify. They lost twice to a much weaker but seemingly more spirited Scotland National team nearly giving away second place in the process, while also defeating and drawing with Italy, finishing only two points ahead of the Scots to secure their bid. Recent history would make the French an easy choice to advance and contend for the title. However, Group C is hands down the toughest competition. The key to Les Bleus success? Their performance against the Netherlands. They must win against Netherlands (Fri. June 13). If not, they face Italy next (Tues. June 17) and may be facing a deficit too big to overcome. The French not make it out of pool play? It could happen if they overlook Romania or Netherlands.
The Dutch have an opportunity to play spoiler in Group C by challenging either France or Italy. An ankle injury has Ryan Babel (Liverpool) officially out but may give more time to Celtic forward Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink. Despite finishing three points behind fellow Group C competitor, Romania, in the qualifying round, Netherlands is still the better team. With EPL talent like Robin van Persie (Arsenal), Dirk Kuyt (Liverpool), and goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar (Manchester United), I anticipate them to finish ahead of Romania. The big question will remain: can they sneak into that second spot ahead of either France or Italy? It’s a tall task but certainly a capable one for the Dutch.
Moving on: Italy and France
Currently ranked twenty-third in the world, the Swedes appear to be overachieving. They’ve also drawn a pretty tough group with Russia, Spain, and defending champ Greece. Not helping things, they have been pretty inconsistent in recent friendlies, losing to the United States 2-0 and Ukraine 1-0. Sweden might consider it a success to finish ahead of Russia.
The defending European champions ran away from Turkey and Norway in the qualifying round by winning ten games and losing only once. Greece also benefited by beating up on the likes of Malta and Bosnia. Conversely, they did take a 4-1 beating from Turkey and struggled against a weak Bosnian team, eventually winning 3-2. A recent friendly loss to Hungary (3-2), a team that has been playing terrible, makes me question the preparedness of the Greeks. Have they become a little too comfortable with recent successes? Possibly. The championship is still theirs until someone dethrones them. They should get out of Group D – that is, unless, the young Russian squad continues to play with loads of confidence.
Spain’s disappointments in international competition have been plentiful as of late. With that, it seems like all the critics have already written them off. They drew a decent qualifying round group of fellow Euro qualifier Sweden, along with Ireland and Denmark. Despite that, Spain finished with eight wins and one draw following two early losses to Sweden and Ireland. Fernando Torres (Liverpool), to me, is the hottest striker in the world right now. Torres challenged Cristiano Ronaldo for the Golden Boot (top EPL goal scorer), which is impressive considering Ronaldo gets virtually every free kick for United while Torres watched Steven Gerrard take most for Liverpool. Torres is a phenomenal finisher around the goal and seems to make contact with even the most misguided crosses. Spain is not a one-man team and in fact, may be the most explosive with the likes of David Villa (Valencia) and David Silva (Valencia). Their recent friendly against the U.S. National team has me questioning their midfield play. No use in having great strikers if your midfield can’t advance the ball. Perhaps everyone writing Spain off will be motivation enough to win Group D and propel them to the final.
As the youngest team in the tournament, they have their work cut out for them. Even though Sweden is up-and-down, they are more experienced than Russia in the past few years. I’m still shocked that England could not defeat Croatia in the final qualifying game, thus allowing Russia to sneak in. Hope they enjoy their time, because these other three teams will probably look to take advantage of their inexperience.
Moving on: Spain and Greece
Semifinals: Spain, France, Portugal, Italy
Championship: Spain defeats Portugal 2-1