EURO 2004 PREVIEW – GROUP A
European Championship 2004 – GROUP A Preview
by Bill Barnwell
The European Championship is a kinda sentimental event on the soccer calendar for me. My first exposure to international soccer was the ’94 World Cup — and sure, I fell for the absolute pugnacious mediocrity of the Bora Express, winning sheerly on the power of 90,000 total rubes cheering them on. And I became one myself, yelling at the TV when Leonardo fractured Tab Ramos’ skull in Pasadena and the US went out. It wasn’t till two years later, though, that I really became a fan — with some sort of work being done on the house my family had just moved into on Long Island, and being unfamiliar with the channels on our new cable system, I randomly turned on a German-speaking channel, which happened to be showing the England-Spain match, out of some bizarre public service to provide German-Americans with coverage of which perennial underachiever would be losing to their team in the semifinals. Something during that match — I’m not even sure what, as I don’t remember anything about it beyond the fact that England won on penalties — absolutely stuck in my head and made me a fan. Maybe it was the crowd at Wembley. Maybe it was Terry Venables – the handsomest Venables in football. I’m not sure. But Euro 1996 made me a soccer fan for good. I immediately started following the US National Team through qualifiers, and then to France, where I was reminded how terrible they actually were. Ah, but that is another rant (Mike Burns) for another time (Steve Sampson).
Anyway, so here we are eight years later. Things haven’t changed that much. The European Championship is being hosted by another underachieving side, Portugal. Terry Venables is still a handsome man. Mike Burns still suc…ok, I’ll be fine. Sorry.
What’s going to happen in this tournament? I’m not really sure, specifically. What I am sure of, though, is that it won’t be what you’ve read in soccer magazines. I still have some of the 2002 World Cup magazines in my house. What do they say? France, baby. Portugal. Nigeria. No one talked about how El Hadji Diouf might be the star of the tournament. How South Korea had a shot, not only of escaping their group, but winning it, and going to the semifinals. How Germany, of all the perennial powers, would be willed to the final by a midfielder who had willed his club to the Champions League final a month earlier. So, basically – I’m going to throw a bunch of weird ideas out there of who might play well. It seems like one bizarro team makes it to the finals each year — sometimes, like Denmark in 1992, they even win the tournament. (Did you know that the Anaheim Angels won the 2002 World Series? No — really?) Maybe I’m right and I look like a genius. Maybe they’re all wrong, and the tournament goes exactly as planned, and France retains. I just want to see Terry Venables on ITV. Let’s go.
The biggest matchup in Group A, which I’m really looking forward to, is the IBERIAN DERBY between Portugal and Spain in Portugal. I presume most…er…pundits would tell you that this will be the match that decides the group and I think this is the one time that I will agree with them. Kind of a sweetheart draw for the two teams, really, with Greece and Russia in the second tier of the group.
Ah, Greece. For some reason whoever makes roster edit files for Championship Manager decides to make the Greece under-21 team the best group of players in the history of soccer. I’m not sure if they’re really that good, but it definitely will cloud my vision slightly. Greece somehow won their qualifying group, ahead of Spain. They also won their group despite having a goal differential of +4 (8 for/4 against), while Spain had a goal differential of +12 (16 for/4 against). Now — I understand that some of those goals were beating up on Armenia and Northern Ireland (and yes, it astounds me that Armenia is a significantly better team than Northern Ireland, too), but what would Bill James say about this? Yes, you know what he would say, little fella. Greece got lucky, and is about to receive a nice helping of plexiglass. Finally – since I have no qualms about ripping off Soccernet – there is a wonderful quote from ex-Leicester midfielder Theo Zagorakis about how Greece is going to play. “We feel that we carry the hopes and expectations of all Greeks on our shoulders. We can promise them that we will give it everything we have, even go beyond our limits not to disappoint them”. That, my friends, is some beautiful stuff.
WHAT THEY HAVE TOO MUCH OF: The Elderly. Remember how I said that the Greek under-21 team were golden gods in Championship Manager? Well, Otto Rehhagel doesn’t play Championship Manager, because he left pretty much all of them off his roster in favor of geezers. The one guy who did make it is 23 year old Panthaniakos striker Dmitrios Papadoulous, who’s actually already spent time in England with Burnley. Most of the team is made up of players 28 and older, and several assured or least extremely likely starters (GK Antonis Nikopolidis, D Nikos Dabizas, D Michalis Kapsis, M Zagorakis, and F Dimos Nikolaidis) are over thirty and enjoy the cachet of veteran presence and injury that go along with it.
WHAT THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH OF: Players who play a lot for upper-echelon European teams. There’s a bunch of guys here that Greece is depending on who don’t get a ton of PT for their teams. I’m looking at you, Traianos Dellas (Roma) and Giorgios Karagounis (Inter). The Greek players that have been successful overseas play for generally lower-tier first division teams: Atletico Madrid, Werder Bremen, and even Benfica at this point is in Porto’s shadow. Greece would really be better served if Dellas and Karagounis, their best defender and probably their best midfielder, were playing full-time somewhere.
WHO THEY NEED TO STEP UP: Demis Nikolaidis. Why is it that desperate teams always seem to be forced to rely on insane people in soccer? Did I just come up with the Maradona Theory? Nikolaidis refused to transfer to any team short AEK Athens, whose emblem he had tattooed on his arm from when he was a boy. He spent a few years there, and then went to Atletico Madrid, where he plays today. He drifts in and out of games, but on his better days, he’s essentially a more wily Alan Smith, which is a pretty good thing to have. Greece’s chances of going to the second round are utterly dependent on Nikolaidis scoring two goals in the first three matches; the task will be made more difficult by the possibility that Nikolaidis will miss Greece’s first two matches with a leg injury. If he’s out, either Papadoulous or Werder Bremen striker Angelos Charisteas will have to pick up the slack.
One of the magical things about international soccer tournaments is that there’s the Host Country principle. If you host a tournament, your team’s probability of winning increases exponentially. Some teams, of course, improve more than others — the USA were only able to parlay hosting the World Cup in 1994 to a lucky win over Colombia and a trip to the round of 16, where they got outclassed by Brazil. Tunisia, meanwhile, managed to turn their African Nations Cup jaunt into winning the entire thing. One day I will write a faux-Simmons column on it. Today is not that day. So many more teams to go. Portugal has a good enough team that they could combine their skills with the Host Country principle to win this whole thing. They have flaws, though — oh, do they have flaws.
WHAT THEY HAVE TOO MUCH OF: Skillful nancy boys. Figo. Cristiano Ronaldo. Rui Costa. Deco. Wouldn’t playing a pickup game with these guys be the most irritating thing ever? I really see them just taking the one ball and playing keep away the entire time — you know, kinda like the Nike commercial they just filmed. Art imitates life. Luis Felipe Scolari made a great callup in Petit – the fantastic defensive midfielder for Porto who Edgar Davids fanboys in Europe should really be trying to sign instead — but I’ll be surprised if he actually gets on the pitch. They could easily fall into the Madrid post-Makelele trap. Fortunately, unlike Madrid, they actually have wingbacks who can get back — Paulo Ferreira, who’s about to sign for Chelsea and played all year like he was 2002 World Cup Tony Sanneh, might very well be the best right back in the world. His ex-teammate at Porto, Nuno Valente, is a bit of a step down but is still class at left back. Portugal would probably be well-advised to play youthful Ricardo Carvalho at center-back as opposed to the VETERAN PRESENCE!! of Fernando Couto, who hasn’t looked the same at Lazio since his nandrolone suspension. Probably because he’s not on nandrolone anymore. Just a hunch.
WHAT THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH OF: Sex, apparently. Scolari has banned booty calls during the World Cup, which rules Eugene Robinson out. They also don’t have a goalkeeper who anyone should be confident of. Ricardo, their current keeper, is NOT the guy who signed for Manchester United — don’t write a paragraph about that if you’re talking about the tournament somewhere else. Not that I would do that kind of thing. He’s the starting keeper for Sporting Lisbon and, according to the official Euro 2004 site, is “…adept at kicking with both feet”. Remember how the 2002 World Cup technical report talked about how Saudi Arabia was good at running without falling down? You can put that in the same group of compliments. At least they didn’t bring in Vitor Baia, I guess. There is also a minimum of Santa Claus activity as Abel Xavier is not on the roster.
WHO NEEDS TO STEP UP: Whichever center back starts opposite Deportivo’s Jorge Andrade will be pretty huge. Couto got the start in the friendly against Lithuania, while Carvalho subbed in at the end of the first half. Couto didn’t hurt his chances any by scoring the first goal on a corner kick. The Portugese defense is going to need to be rock-solid ahead of mediocre goalkeeping, and the lack of a second center back is what is really hurting them at this point. Fernando Morientes, if Couto doesn’t rediscover his age-28 skills, or his nandrolone stash, is going to pick Portugal apart in their match.
I’m not sure what word best describes Russia’s role in this tournament. “Filler” comes to mind. It is required that the tournament have sixteen teams, and while teams have dropped out and been replaced at the last moment repeatedly in previous years, Russia isn’t a country that’s going to be forced to do so at this moment in history. In that sense, Russia are just as important to this tournament as any of the other fourteen countries traveling to Portugal, I suppose. They will play three matches, bring some fans, and their results will be counted in the record books as legitimate. Beyond that though, Russia simply are irrelevant. They can’t play, really, any specific type of football very well. They don’t have the defense to play a stifling catenaccio style — especially after Viktor Onokpo was ruled out by injury; nor do they have the playmaker or strikers capable of creating much offense. They don’t even have a goalkeeper of any relevance. Short of Marat Izmailov and Dmitri Sychev taking a gigantic leap to the next level, and/or the Russian League being much better than previously thought (by Joe Cole, at least), I don’t foresee Russia being of much use beyond being something to bet against. Like Smarty Jones in the Preakness. Dummies.
WHAT THEY HAVE TOO MUCH OF: Question Marks. There’s really not many sure things here. The only players who you can expect to perform to a certain level are M Alexei Smertin and GK Sergei Ovchinnikov. Everyone else has issues. M Izmailov isn’t proven at the highest level, nor is M Rolan Gusev. F Sychev is loony. M Alexander Mostovoi is 35. Their defense…who is going to play defense for Russia? I have a feeling Slava Fetisov might be hearing from Georgy Yartsev sometime soon. Alexander Kerzhakov is 21. You get the idea.
WHAT THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH OF: Drugs. M Yegor Titov got suspended for a year after having nandrolone traces in his system during qualifying. He nearly got Russia removed from the Championships altogether. Ovchinnikov apparently has a good-sized stash, saying that he feels Russia are clear favorites to win the title. Maybe they just don’t have enough sharing. Where is the Communist spirit when you need it? Oh – right. The NFL. Where is Ed when you need him?
WHO NEEDS TO STEP UP: Can I say an entire team? No. I guess Dmitri Sychev would be a good place to start. A pretty good comp for Pavel Bure, Sychev’s already had run-ins with the mafia and two club teams, as he’s now back in Russia with Lokomotiv after playing at Marseille for…almost a season. He’s too much of a headache for his club teams, but has been surprisingly reliable for his country at the ripe age of 20. The thing is, though, that Sychev could become the Russian Pele for a week and Russia still wouldn’t be guaranteed to advance — there are so many holes in this team that it will take five or six players making a gigantic leap for Russia to advance to the second round. It’s not going to happen.
And then, of course, there is Spain. There is no logical explanation for why Spain always messes up. I’m not sure whether they’re the Cleveland Browns or the Minnesota Vikings — in all reality, somewhere inbetween. The 2002 World Cup was no exception, jobbing to South Korea and, along with the Italy loss, leading to dumb comments about boycotts and resignations that often exist in the days after a country is beaten by a less fancied team. The bottom line, according to most pundits, is simply that Spain just hasn’t gotten the job done over the last few years; often, they look lethargic and unable to play with each other. I offer a slightly different opinion — Spain just doesn’t have players that are all that good, particularly on defense.
WHAT THEY HAVE TOO MUCH OF: A strikeforce. It’s entirely possible that three of Spain’s five best players are all strikers: Raul, Fernando Morientes, and Fernando Torres. Much like their flagship team, Real Madrid, Spain is weak in the back, with players who all have major flaws in their play and can’t be relied on to be lynchpins against the top European offenses. While Fernando Hierro was at least one man who could be relied upon in previous years, the Spanish rearguard is full of guys who may or may not be able to shut down the likes of Sychev, Pauleta, and Nikolaidis. Carlos Puyol is a great talent, but he only switched from right back to center back this year. Michel Salgado is a decent right back but has difficulty getting back. Raul Bravo, who may be the starting left back, couldn’t crack the lineup at LEEDS. It’s a problem. They also have too many goalkeepers – Iker Casillas and Santiago Canizares do not appear to get along very well. Who knows – maybe Casillas throws a bottle of Musk at Canizares foot again.
WHAT THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH OF: Confidence. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a single pundit who thinks Spain will win Euro 2004. Furthermore, I doubt you’ll find any of the major Spanish newspapers, even, who give Spain a chance to win this thing. It’s not as if they have any dramatic victories to fall back upon, short their Euro 1964 win. The team, from what people are saying, seem to already be demoralized by the sheer fact that they know they’re not going to win this tournament.
WHO NEEDS TO STEP UP: Ruben Baraja. Baraja, for me, is the most important player in this entire group. The Spanish defense, as I mentioned, is inexperienced and might just flat out not be that good. Baraja, the man who plays behind Juan Carlos Valeron for both club and country, absolutely has to play like a man possessed to keep Spain alive. He’s going to need to shut down Figo in this round and whoever else plays at attacking midfielder in the later rounds. If he can chip in with a goal, or distribute well out of the back, that’s gravy. Having Casillas (or Canizares) in goal will help, but if Baraja has a poor tournament, or suffers another injury, Spain might finish their tournament losing to Portugal in the first round.