EURO 2004 PREVIEW – GROUP D
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP 2004 PREVIEW – GROUP D
by Bill Barnwell
I think you’re made aware of a team’s confidence by subtle things nowadays — not how they’re confident of giving their all and defeating the opposition like every player or coach says to answer a journalist’s question, but in the way they answer other questions. The Czech Republic, for example, spent a good portion of a press conference before heading to Portugal discussing how much they disliked the new ball that’s being used for the tournament (which reminds me, say, of the Fevernova nonsense from two years ago, where everyone talked about how goalkeepers couldn’t catch the ball before the tournament and, magically, everyone forgot about it once the tournament started). There are, of course, other ways to show off your quiet confidence too. Like not practicing and having dinner in the Ritz-Carlton, where you live, with a player from your sworn rival. Or go cross-country selling crack. Really, there are lots of ways, I guess.
WHAT THEY HAVE TOO MUCH OF: Concentrated value. The Czech Republic are pretty much the opposite of Denmark, who I talked about a couple of days ago. Denmark is very much a team that has no great players, but a lot of depth — if this was hockey, we’d be talking about how they can just roll through their four lines and three defensive pairings and not skip a beat. Barry Melrose would be stroking his mullet. We’d all be a little more peaceful. The Czech Republic are kinda like the Oakland A’s, at least in theory (to switch metaphor). The A’s have a very high concentration of their money, effort, and value (in winning baseball games) based within a very small group of players (Eric Chavez, Jermaine Dye (in theory), and the Big Three). Likewise, while it’s not by choice, the Czech Republic have a lot of its talent concentrated in a small group of players: GK Petr Cech (on his way to Chelsea), M Vladimir Smicer, M Tomas Rosicky, M Pavel Nedved, F Jan Koller, and F Milan Baros. That’s a goalkeeper, three attacking midfielders, and two strikers. What they’re missing is a backline and a defensive midfielder in the same class as those six (although M Tomas Galasek is an underrated player who, at 31, could have an excellent tournament, it’d be a big jump to put him in that class).
WHAT THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH OF: VETERAN PRESENCE!!! God, do I love talking about veteran presence. Galasek, as I mentioned, is 31, but the likely starters that are going to be in the back have very little experience at this level. Tomas Ujfaulsi and Rene Bolf, the central defense pairing, only became regulars during this qualifying period. Likely starting right back Martin Jiranek barely played during the qualifying period, and while he may be engaged to a Miss Czech Republic, his picture reminds me of when Schillinger made Beecher get a makeover on Oz. Left back Marek Jankulovski, of Udinese, is a solid attacker on the left side, and will need to combine well with Nedved to stretch opposition defenses.
WHO THEY NEED TO STEP UP: Cech. If there is any player primed to have a big tournament, it’s Petr Cech — who just cost Chelsea over 10 million euros, and hasn’t played on a stage this big before. Cech is, in my dumb-American estimation, one of the best goalkeepers in the World. He is streaky — he’s had two streaks in his career of not allowing a goal in over 800 minutes. I don’t expect him to go the entire tournament without giving up a goal, but he could easily emulate the form of his crazy, crazy countryman — Dominik Hasek — and take over this tournament.
Two years ago, no one talked about Germany like they had any sort of chance to win the tournament — everyone agreed that it was a rebuilding German side, whose best shot to win the World Cup would be when they hosted the tournament in 2006. What they forgot about, or chose to ignore, was that Germany had the best player in the World, at the time, in form and in the middle of their team — Michael Ballack. Beyond that, they had the best goalkeeper in the World — Oliver Kahn. These things are important — just think about the game against the United States, where nine German players stood around while Ballack and Kahn won them the match. Think about the South Korea match, where nine German players stood around while Ballack and Kahn won them the match. Ballack got suspended for the final, Kahn broke his finger and let in a soft goal, and Germany never recovered. Neither of those players have approached the form they showed that season ever since, which is why Germany will struggle at this tournament.
WHAT THEY HAVE TOO MUCH OF: Question Marks. There are too many places where, for one reason or another, Germany have significant issues. At keeper, Kahn is first-choice almost by default; but is he really better than Jens Lehmann? Are either of them better than Timo Hildenbrand? Heck – are either of them better than Timo Perez? Right back Andreas Hinkel is 22 and has suffered through injuries in the run-up; left back Philip Lahm is 20 and a year removed playing for Bayern Munich…well, Bayern Munich’s youth team. Up front, there isn’t a sure thing: Miroslav Klose went from being worth 25 million euros after scoring four goals against Saudi Arabia to going to Werder Bremen soon for about four million. Kevin Kuranyi just finished his first full season and is 22. Fredi Bobic has been off-form, and reminiscent of his time when he was the only player who was on loan at Bolton and DIDN’T get signed. Oliver Neuville is off in the wilderness somewhere, or drowned in a puddle. It is entirely possible that the man who scores goals for them in this tournament is Lucas Podolski, who turned nineteen a week ago. The Euro 2004 site gets all creepy by informing us that Podolski had scheduled his road test for the middle of the tournament. I wouldn’t cancel that appointment, necessarily.
WHAT THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH OF: A willingness to let go of the elder statesmen in the squad. When Germany were “rebuilding” two years ago, after the 5:1 loss to England, the team changed. It got younger, hungrier (yeah!), and, as it turned out, significantly better. It’s unfortunate that the Germans didn’t suffer such a defeat in qualifying this time, because eking out their group has left them without the courage or reason to go to their better, younger players — Hildebrand, Kuranyi (who in all fairness has a good shot at playing in this tournament), Podolski, and Bastien Schweinsteiger. If Lahm and Hinkel actually play at fullback, that’s a start, but the Germans’ goal should be to win the 2006 World Cup. Playing their younger players in this tournament would be a huge start.
WHO THEY NEED TO STEP UP: Miroslav Klose. Someone needs to score for Germany in this tournament. If Ballack plays in an attacking role, he can get a couple, but there needs to be someone up front to keep defenses busy, particularly in the later rounds (if Germany gets there). Klose’s name has been way out in front of his success ever since that Saudi Arabia match; after this tournament, they’ll be more closely aligned, for better or worse.
Latvia played the only way that a small team can play amongst such huge sides: pick a team that’s familiar with one another (most of these players played at Skonto FC, a top Latvian side, under Latvian manager Aleksandrs Starkovs), be brave (drawing 2:2 at Turkey to win the playoff match 3:2, after being down 2:0, puts the bigger teams that come to Turkey and whine about it to shame), and get lucky (they had the fourth best goal differential in their group; granted, having San Marino in your group throws that off a bit, but they drew Sweden on the road once Sweden had already qualified, making it quite a bit easier to grab a victory). It is, unfortunately, now that luck tends to start running out.
WHAT THEY HAVE TOO MUCH OF: Reasons to not believe. I am all about predicting that things won’t go the way they should, but how could Latvia possibly get a point against the Czech Republic or the Netherlands? Germany, I could see not being able to score, but Latvia’s in trouble against the more skilled sides.
WHAT THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH OF: Players who I’ve heard of. Now – I am not the biggest authority on international football or anything; but I’m pretty much aware of a pretty large group of players. Of the Latvian side, I know G Alexander Kolinko (and only because he got into a fistfight with his manager on the bench at Crystal Palace), D Igor Stepanovs (who keeps the bench warm at Arsenal when he’s not on loan), M Andrejs Rubins (who also sat the bench at Palace), F Marian Pahars (the star of the team who is a legitimate excellent player, but not as good as, say, Hakan Yakim), and F Andrejs Stolcers (who sat the bench at Fulham). This is a problem, unless the Latvian league is worlds better than anyone knows it is.
WHO THEY NEED TO STEP UP: Helmuts Balderis? They’re in trouble and a mere point should satiate them on their way home.
As part of these previews, I’ve been trying to compare teams and players to American counterparts, in order to try and clarify how I view things. For me, the Netherlands is, without a doubt, the Chicago White Sox. And manager Dick Advocaat? He’s Kenny Williams and Ozzie Guillen, all rolled into one. After not qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, somehow, the Dutch should’ve looked at their team and said — “Hey! We’re freaking HOLLAND. Let’s get rid of the chaff, find the best players in our unsurpassed youth system, and move on.” Unfortunately, Holland has not done that; the squad for this tournament is rather similar to the squad that attempted to qualify in 2001. A sign of how inept the management of this team is should be clarified by the fact that they’re switching formation. A week before the tournament starts. Because they lost two friendlies. Yup.
WHAT THEY HAVE TOO MUCH OF: Starters who aren’t better than their backups. Holland have Michael Reiziger, Philip Cocu, and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst in defense, Edwin Van Der Saar in net, and Marc Overmars and Andy Van Der Meyde up front. On their bench, they have Wilfred Bouma, John Heitinga, Clarance Seedorf, Roy Makaay, Arjen Robben, Sander Westerveld, and Patrick Kluivert. PATRICK KLUIVERT!!! There is no way that Boudweijn Jenden or Overmars should ever, ever, ever, ever, ever be on the field in 2004 when you have Kluivert, Robben, and Makaay on the bench. Not to mention that the best defender the Dutch have – Kevin Hofland – isn’t on this roster.
WHAT THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH OF: Confidence. Like the Italians with their catenaccio, the Dutch need to realize that they are a team to be feared in the attacking third. Rafael Van Der Vaart is essentially .95 Ronaldinho. Ruud Van Niistelrooy is the best striker in the World if Arsenal didn’t exist — both for the sake of not playing well against them and the continued existence of Thierry Henry. If Patrick Kluivert doesn’t get on the field and show why he’s the most valuable free agent to come along in the Bosman era, I may shoot Dick Advocaat myself. Jesus.
WHO THEY NEED TO STEP UP: Edgar Davids. You know that attacking flair I was just talking about? Someone needs to patrol the back and shut down the counter attack that the Germans and Czechs will have to rely on. Davids is another free agent who needs to show the form that he displayed on loan this year; shutting down Ballack and Nedved is the first step.