EURO 2004 PREVIEW – GROUP C
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP 2004 PREVIEW – GROUP C
by Bill Barnwell
The fact that Bulgaria made it to the semifinals of the 1994 World Cup will astound everyone who didn’t see it happen for the remainder of time. They haven’t played at a major international tournament since the 1998 World Cup, and I’m not really sure how they won their qualifying group. I mean – I understand how mathematically they did it – just, aesthetically, I suppose. Their 0:2 win at Belgium, who would’ve realistically been expected to compete with Croatia for the group title, started off the qualifying round. The question, then, is why and how did this team win?
WHAT THEY HAVE TOO MUCH OF: A loser’s complex. Everything around them screams “underdog”; as I said, even their coach is talking about how they’re not favorites, saying “We do not have the potential and are not like other teams whose replacements in case of injuries are as good as the first-choice players. That is probably why we are considered outsiders and probably because of our performances, too. We are placed in the outsiders’ group and that is better for us.” Essentially – this would appear to mean that they’re not good enough to win now, nor do they have any upside (sorry Hubie). They also have too many players who retired; Krassimir Balakov, the team’s playmaker, retired from the game altogether last summer, while Radostin Kishishev, the Charlton right back, retired from the team after not being named the new Bulgarian captain upon Balakov’s retirement. The only problem, I suppose, is that the players’ voted on who should be captain, and chose Celtic midfielder Stilian Petrov over Kishishev. Whoops. YOU GOT SERVED!
WHAT THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH OF: Backs worth writing home about. While most of their offense is based abroad, it looks like the Bulgarian defense is made up of players who’ve spent their careers almost entirely within Bulgaria; left back Ivailo Petkov only made his move to Fenerbahce last season, center back Rosen Kirilov plays for Litex, and likely replacement right back Ilian Stoyanov plays for Levski Sofia. Of course, to ruin my point, center back Predrag Pazin has played in Bulgaria, Turkey, China, and now the Ukraine with Shakhtar Donetsk. I guess he makes up for all the others.
WHO THEY NEED TO STEP UP: The back four. No – really – they have to step up and play the offsides trap. A lot. Bulgaria has a solid target man in Leverkusen striker Dmitri Berbatov, who’s been absolutely dynamite with the national team (17 goals in 28 matches). Bulgaria has the Petrov’s, Stilian and Milan, to get him the ball. If this back four can remain cohesive and prevent the playmakers in this group — Claus Jensen, Francisco Totti, and Freddie Ljungberg — from getting the ball up front reliably, Bulgaria has a chance to advance. A slim one, but a chance nonetheless.
One of the things that saddens me about this Danish side is that Stig Toftig isn’t on the roster. Was it only two years ago that we discovered the stocky fellow who looked like he’d eaten Earnie Stewart? That “The Lawnmower Man” (named as such because he covers every blade of grass on the field) followed the World Cup by being sent to jail for beating someone up in a bar only furthered my utter fear of coming within one hundred feet of Toftig at any time; I’ve never met the man and I have a restraining order against him. Sure, maybe Denmark WON’T be as fun as they were two years ago. But there’s a lot to like here.
WHAT THEY HAVE TOO MUCH OF: Depth. Denmark has one of the deepest sides in this competition from 1-23, particularly at striker. The problem is that there’s so little of a difference between the players in the starting 11 and the reserves; the differences between Jan Dahl Tomasson, Martin Jorgensen, Dennis Rommedahl, Jesper Gronkjaer, and Christian Poulsen on the wings are miniscule. The odds of this leading to dissension are higher than you want. It would seem to me, anecdotally, that if any team would logically use the diamond formation, it would be Denmark, with Thomas Gravesen in the back, Gronkjaer and Rommedahl in the middle, and the on-form Claus Jensen as a playmaker. But I am not Danish. Regardless of how they play, Denmark will be one of the most exciting and entertaining teams to watch in this tournament.
WHAT THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH OF: A buzz around them. I’m pretty surprised that Denmark doesn’t get played up more as a genuine contender considering that they have everything you need to win a tournament; an excellent keeper in Thomas Sorensen, a good back line in Niclas Jensen, Rene Henriksen, Martin Laursen, and Thomas Helveg (although Helveg is old, Laursen hasn’t gotten first team football, Henriksen plays for Panthaniakos, and Jensen played for Manchester City once and probably had the defense beat out of him), the aforementioned midfielders and wingers, and a legitimate goal-scoring threat in Ebbe Sand. There is no single player that dominates the team.
WHO THEY NEED TO STEP UP: Rene Henriksen. The center back is probably the weak link amongst the four; he certainly has the least pedigree, spending the last few seasons with Panthaniakos. Henriksen will need to show that he can deal with strikers like Vieri and Ibrahamovic before Denmark can hope to go far in the tournament.
Italy, talent-wise, is the best team in this tournament. They are the best team in a lot of tournaments. They have the best goalkeeper in the world – Gianluigi Buffon. They have, in my opinion, the best creative midfielder in the world – Francesco Totti. They have the best back four in the world – Gianluca Zambrotta, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta, and Cristian Panucci (from left to right). Short France, they have the best strike tandem in the world with Alessandro Del Piero and Christian Vieri. And I don’t think they’re going to get out of this group.
WHAT THEY HAVE TOO MUCH OF: Class up front. Vieri. Del Piero. Marco Di Vaio. Antonio Cassano. Geez louise. There’s a lot to work with here, and there’s not much of a drop-off from one to four. The problem, I guess, is the catenaccio style; the idea that you only need one goal to win a match. I’m not the first person to say this, but why shackle a strikeforce that absolutely strikes terror into the heart of defenses? Italy’s insistence on playing this style of soccer will hurt them at some point in this tournament.
WHAT THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH OF: Stability. I have no faith, really, in the rest of the Italian midfield. Cristiano Zanetti has been hurt all season. Simone Perotta took a step down this season from his previous year with Chievo. For some reason, Giovanni Trappatoni seems to not have faith in Gennaro Ivan Gattuso, who’s exactly the player that Italy needs in the middle of the park to make things work for the rest of the team.
WHO THEY NEED TO STEP UP: Stefano Fiore, Simone Perotta, and Cristiano Zanetti. These three players make up the bulk of the Italian midfield, but are a clear step down from Totti, who runs the show. Unfortunately, they might not even make the English or French teams, who are drowning in world-class midfielders. Two of these three (or Andrea Pirlo, if you’re so inclined) will have to make the leap and establish themselves as legitimate world-class midfielders. I have a feeling they won’t.
Can I tell you how excited I am about the DERBY SCANDANAVIA between Sweden and Denmark on June 22nd? I can only try. I’ve already talked about how much fun Denmark’s team is, even if they’re playing in a sub-optimal formation. Sweden is a very similar team, with the differences being that their defense is a little weak, and their wingers aren’t as classy, but their central midfield is better and they have the two best strikers of the teams in Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
WHAT THEY HAVE TOO MUCH OF: Questions on the flanks. Fredrik Ljungberg, regardless of where he plays, is probably the best winger in this entire tournament. Let’s get that out of the way. Anderlecht winger Christian Wilhelmsson will be on the left side, it seems, but is unproven on such a level. It, to me, would make more sense to have Ljungberg play on the left side, where he can pick on a slightly aged Panucci and a very aged Helveg, and let Mikael Nilsson (probably the handsomest man in this tournament) play on the right wing. Nilsson isn’t proven at this level either, so Sweden have had this series of friendlies to decide whatever works for them. In addition, Erik Edman and Teddy Lucic are questions at fullback, where both will have loads of trouble with the Italian and Danish wingers. Their ability to stop those attacks will determine how Sweden does in the tournament.
WHAT THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH OF: Hype about their center midfield. I’d rather have Kim Kallstrom and Anders Svensson playing in the center of the park than anything Italy’s going to put in there. Kallstrom, I think, is going to be one of the biggest breakout stars of this tournament; he’s hinted at his skills for Rennes in France, but the guy has been absolutely phenomenal the two times I’ve seen him play. Sample size is absolutely not a factor in scouting. None.
WHO THEY NEED TO STEP UP: Lucic and Edman. As I said before — wing play is the most crucial aspect of this group. It will decide who will advance to the next round. Lucic and Edman absolutely have to shut down Jesper Gronkjaer and Jan Dahl Tomasson to win that crucial match against Denmark. I’m so excited.