EURO 2004 PREVIEW – GROUP B
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP 2004 PREVIEW – GROUP B
by Bill Barnwell
Croatia is one of those teams that, to me, looks like they’re on the fence for this tournament — not the fence between barely qualifying and staying off that Russia and Wales were fighting over, but on the fence between being just happy to be here and being serious contenders to do some damage, if lacking the ability to win it all. There’s a lot to like here, particularly in a rock-solid defense that only allowed 4 goals in 8 qualifying matches. The only thing I’m opposed to was the failure to select 19-year-old playmaker Niko Kranjcar, whose top Google search describes how Kranjcar “seduced Arsene Wenger during a friendly game last month”, which is neither here nor there but somehow is exactly what we’re looking for.
WHAT THEY HAVE TOO MUCH OF: Players who haven’t really played together. While it’s good that almost everyone on the Croatian team plays abroad (and for big clubs, too — Monaco, Benfica, Leverkusen, Munich, Milan, and Juventus are all represented here), I’d be worried about how much this team is going to gel in the short period of time before the World Cup. While many of them have played in the Croatian league (in particular with Hajduk Split), many have moved on and played abroad for several years ago. If Croatia want to upset England or France, they are going to have to play as a more cohesive unit than either (geez – I sound like I’m Kurt Russell in Miracle now); that’s going to have to come from the back. Starting goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa (Shakhtar Donetsk), I believe, is the best goalkeeper in this group. With France leaving Sebastian Frey off of their roster, it isn’t even particularly close. The back four he’s in front of might also be the best in the group, especially with Rio Ferdinand out for England. Igor Tudor and Robert Kovac, if Tudor can stay out of trouble (he’s already banned for the first match after a red card in the playoffs), is up there with any defense pairing in this tournament. Dario Simic, who played right back for Milan last year but didn’t get much playing time behind Cafu, is a very underrated fullback, and could earn a pretty penny with a move after having a good tournament here. Boris Zivkovic, the team captain, is a step below the other three, but is still a very adequate left back. Stepjan Tomas is a pretty effective fifth back who can fill in if Tudor gets hurt or suspended. If they can hold England and France below a total of two goals, Croatia will advance.
WHAT THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH OF: Playmakers in the middle of the pitch. I think Daro Srna is going to open a lot of eyes here; he’s another Shakhtar Donetsk player who is going to make Ashley Cole look funny about eight times in the Croatia-England match. Milan Rapaic is getting up there in age (31) but everytime I see him play, I wonder why he’s not playing for a bigger team — he might be one of the most underrated dribblers in all of Europe on the left side. Unfortunately, there is no real playmaker in the middle to make things happen. Marko Babic isn’t really a guy who you want to rely on for creativity, and Niko Kovac hasn’t been in-form for what seems like years. The judgement of how good Croatia’s strikeforce is basically depends on how far you are on top of Dado Prso. One of the major holes for Croatia is next to Prso; I’m skeptical about how Prso will play as the featured striker.
WHO THEY NEED TO STEP UP: Niko Kovac. I can’t emphasize enough how much Croatia needed to call up Niko Kranjcar, who is the one real difference-maker when it comes to creating things that Croatia had access to. Kovac needs to re-discover the form that he had at Leverkusen before his move to Bayern Munich. While I’m confident in the Croatian defense shutting down opposing offenses, I’m not so sure that Prso is going to get the chance to put anything past their keepers.
For the English media, I suppose, there is both no way that England can even gain a point from this tournament, nor is there any way that they can lose a single match on their way to the gold. I’m personally more interested in the subplots of the England team — will Rebecca Loos make an appearance? Will a tear-ridden Rio Ferdinand show up drunk, crashing the team hotel in an attempt to get in? Will Steven Gerrard sleep with Posh Spice? If this team is not known for one thing, it’s subtlety. With this, one of the youngest English sides in recent memory, they’ll have to rely on David Beckham, not exactly known for keeping his composure (and for those of you who say that he’s calmed down since being given the English captainship; what about the qualifying match where he ran around fouling everything in sight, trying to “set a tempo”, until he got booked? What about the red card in Madrid at the end of the season?) when he needs to. At least their fans are less likely to kill than ever before!
WHAT THEY HAVE TOO MUCH OF: Strikers with question marks. Michael Owen, when he’s on his game, is as good as Thierry Henry – and it’s shocking to believe that he’s only 24. What he lacks, being so young, is a fully-formed body, which has led to a series of injuries to his hamstrings. He missed enough of Liverpool’s season to be a major factor in the sacking of Gerard Houllier, and he went through a streak of missing penalties that, while it was far overplayed in the English media (who are unfamiliar with the concept of sample size), is worrying for Sven-Goran Eriksson. Wayne Rooney is 18 and comes with all of the cachet of being a teenager, skill aside. He didn’t really have a very successful second season for Everton, garnering more yellow cards (10) than goals (9). I’d be worried about Rooney’s ability to be wound up by the opposition and ability to cope with the pressure of being in a major tournament for the first time. Emile Heskey is Emile Heskey. Darius Vassell hasn’t really played very well for Aston Villa, but has been very effective playing for England. If it were up to me, I’d play Vassell and Owen up front, ignoring the fact that they’re both very similar players. What they have in common, over everything else, is that they’re both extremely good, with the pace that will test Marcel Desailly and Igor Tudor.
WHAT THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH OF: Healthy center backs. This isn’t a news flash or anything, but England’s center backs are trouble. Sol Campbell had an effective year for Arsenal and is doing fine. His partner at central defense, Rio Ferdinand, is banned because of his skipping out on a drug test. Jonathan Woodgate, the logical replacement, has been ruled out of the tournament due to injury. John Terry, another young player making his first appearance at a major tournament, is also injured and won’t be at full health for the tournament, leaving Eriksson with Jamie Carragher as his starting center back. I like Jamie Carragher – he can play all four positions on the back four. But he broke his leg in September. He didn’t have a single appearance for England in qualifying. Jamie Carragher is basically the Tony LaRussa third catcher for his playoff roster; you don’t actually want to see him play. What to do, then? Move someone else to center back. Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge are neck-and-neck at left back; moving Cole into the middle would let them both play. Moving Steven Gerrard to center back would allow Eriksson to play Kieron Dyer (who’s not guilty) and Nicky Butt (who’s Sven’s favorite) in midfield. But Gerrard would probably get hurt anyway.
WHO THEY NEED TO STEP UP: Sven-Goran Eriksson. If Carragher actually gets significant playing time in this tournament, England isn’t going to go far. Eriksson needs to be willing to shift his tactics and desired style of play to adapt for the fact that his team has a lot of good midfielders and not much else. As much as I hate to even speak of it; if any team was ever built to play a 3-6-1; it’s England. David James also needs to play with confidence after his mediocre season with Manchester City.
France is actually a lot like England; questionable goalkeeping, flawed if effective defense, and a bunch of great midfielders. The significant difference between the two is that France has the best player in the world, Thierry Henry, wearing their shirt. They will also have David Trezeguet, who is of essentially the same caliber, lining up next to him (assuming he can overcome his ankle injury). The French national team has also undergone a rigorous friendly schedule; while half the team beat the Ukraine in a friendly last week 1:0, the other half dominated the French National Police Team in a 3:0 victory at the famed Clarefontaine Academy. If this were New York, the Fire Department would be whining about not getting a chance to play.
WHAT THEY HAVE TOO MUCH OF: Aging defenders. Lilian Thuram is 34. So is Bixente Lizarazu. Marcel Desailly is 35. This tends to become a problem when you’re playing against strikers like Michael Owen and wingers like Daro Srna. While having Claude Makelele playing in front of them will help, the fact of the matter is that the French defense is slow. Very slow. This is going to be the biggest problem for France in the tournament, by far. France might be best served by not playing the off-form Desailly and getting both William Gallas (or Boumsong) and Mikael Silvestre in the starting 11. As Ed will be happy to tell you – stick too many old people in one place and they’re bound to get cranky.
WHAT THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH OF: Striker depth. It’s all relative, I guess; the guys they’re going to roll out as reserves are going to be better than anyone Croatia or Switzerland have, for example, but they’re definitely a significant step down from Trezeguet and Henry. Louis Saha has had a good year, I suppose, but that’s the first real good season he’s had. He kept out Steve Marlet at Fulham. Sylvain Wiltord was thought highly enough of by Arsenal that they let their record purchase leave on a Bosman transfer. Sidney Govou of Lyon might be the best of all the options, and he only got on the team because of the injury to Ludovic Giuly. The point is – France will suffer if Trezeguet’s ankle injury lingers. It’s not going to mean that they won’t advance, but it means that if a team can shut Henry down, France might be in trouble scoring goals.
WHO THEY NEED TO STEP UP: Fabien Barthez. I think it’s really funny, personally, that Fabien Barthez is actually starting in a significant match at this point. I guess the French are easily amused; Jerry Lewis and all that. Maybe Alex Ferguson could send them a memo and a tape of Hassel the Hoff or something. Regardless, it looks like Barthez is actually going to play. The question, then, is whether Barthez will be even competent – which is all France needs, really, to get out of this group. If Barthez lets in a couple of howlers, as is his wont, France might somehow knock themselves out of Euro 2004.
Ah, the Swiss. Relevant only in relatively random times and genres: Warfare. Chocolate. Money. Time. Not often, say, in soccer. Particularly in Group B of the 2004 European Championship, where they have essentially been left for dead by the schedule maker, unconcerned with the hopes and feelings of those countless Swiss citizens who have bizarrely chosen to stake their hopes on Swiss soccer. The Swiss side pin their hopes upon the Yakin brothers: Murat, a defender, and Hakan, the team’s creative midfielder. Unfortunately, Hakan moved to Stuttgart in the winter, and despite not being injured or worse than the players in the lineup, has only received a handful of appearances. Hakan Yakim being the best player in Euro 2004 is the only way that the Swiss have a chance of advancing to the second round, and him not having received significant match practice is a big step in ensuring that doesn’t happen.
WHAT THEY HAVE TOO MUCH OF: Reasons why this team won’t advance past the first round. I already listed one above, and here’s four more: 2. Their primary striker, Stephane Chapuisat, is 35 and playing for Young Boys Bern. 3. They have no other strikers of any relevance. 4. The way to win a soccer match, and to advance to the next round of a competition, is to outscore your opposition. 5. It’s too late for Switzerland to apply for a rule change that would change the outcome of a game to be decided upon how good your army’s ancillary products are.
WHAT THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH OF: Expectations. Most teams have a way of imagining a route to the second round; grab a point here, expect to lose here, get lucky on the counter-attack and win here. I can’t imagine that Switzerland has an idea of how they’d actually get points against France or England. While Stephane Henchoz is a good center back, it doesn’t account for the other three spots, nor their total lack of an attack. Switzerland doesn’t even have the team to grab a point against Croatia, let alone three.
WHO THEY NEED TO STEP UP: Al-Qaeda? I’m not sure. Like I said – Hakan Yakin being the best player in the tournament would be a huge step in the right direction, but even that might not be able to thrust them into the second round. I like the Swiss as much as the next guy — but be happy that you got here, little neutral buddies.