First of all, I want to wish all of my fellow countrymen here in the States a wonderful Memorial Day. Almost everyone I know has or had a family member in the armed forces, and today is all about remembering those who died while in military service to their country. We know it as the unofficial first day of summer when swimming pools traditionally open and families have a nice barbecue, but today is really more than that and I hope everyone takes a moment to reflect upon what this day truly means.
Now, onto the meat of this post — previewing Group A in Euro 2008, which will start in just under two weeks’ time. This group is comprised of Switzerland, the tournament co-host, Turkey, Portugal, and the Czech Republic.
Here’s the fixture schedule (all times Eastern):
Switzerland vs. Czech Republic (Noon; St. Jakob-Park, Basel)
Portugal vs. Turkey (2:45; Stade de Genève, Geneva)
Czech Republic vs. Portugal (Noon; Stade de Genève, Geneva)
Switzerland vs. Turkey (2:45; St. Jakob-Park, Basel)
Switzerland vs. Portugal (2:45; St. Jakob-Park, Basel)
Turkey vs. Czech Republic (2:45; Stade de Genève, Geneva)
In a qualifying group that included Germany and Ireland, the Czech Republic finished first with 29 points from their 12 games. This is their sixth appearance in the European Championships, although three of them came as the former Czechoslovakia, including the 1976 team that won the whole thing.
Their U-21′s won the European U-21 Championship in 2002, and you can find a fair amount of players from that team on the senior team that will open up against Switzerland on June 7, including Petr Cech and Milan Baroš. It’s always an unpleasant assignment to play your first game and the first game of the tournament against a host country, and you can bet the Swiss crowd will be in full roar in Basel.
Tomáš Rosický, known as the “Little Mozart” for his creative skill, fantastic passing ability, and the way he orchestrates play out of the center of midfield, will miss the tournament due to injury and that’s a major blow for his country. He is their captain and field general and there just isn’t anyone who will be able to replace him.
Coach Karel Brückner has named a 23-man provisional squad already, which of course is the number his final roster will have to have as well. If he chooses not to replace anyone, he’ll have a team that seems to be pretty solid through the starting XI but without much on the bench.
Cech, one of the world’s best at his position, will of course be in goal, in front of him could very well be an experienced back line of Grygera, Rozenhal, Ujfaluši, and Jankulovski (R to L), a midfield comprised of Galásek in the holding role, Jarolím on the right, possibly Skácel or Matejovský on the left, and Plašil right in the center. Up top will be the two stalwarts — the big target man, Jan Koller, and his quicker sidekick, Baroš.
Big Phil’s team finished second in an ultra-competitive qualifying group, as Poland nipped them by just one point. Under Scolari, Portugal lost in the final of Euro 2004 to Greece and lost to France in the semifinals of World Cup 2006. They will be looking to shake off those disappointments and win this competition, one in which they are favored to make a deep run.
Portugal’s final squad has already been released and squad numbers have been announced, so barring injury, there will be no changes and what you see is what you’ll get. This is a country not known in recent years to produce true center forwards; instead, an emphasis has been placed on pace, creativity, and wing play. In this group, those attributes should be enough to overcome the three either older or slower teams (who also simply have less talent), but that may not be the case come the knockout rounds.
Scolari is known as a unique character, one who tends to take the pressure off his team through his own personal antics and behavior, and I think that will really benefit his side in this tournament. It’s a team that has 4-5-1/4-3-3 written all over it, with Ricardo in goal, either Bosingwa or Miguel at right back, Ferreira on the left, where he has played before, and Meira and Carvalho in the center. In the midfield, Deco will roam freely in the center, Cristiano Ronaldo and Simão will be on the wings, Petit seems likely to play in the holding role, and either João Moutinho or Raul Meireles, both terrific passers, will also be in the middle. As the lone center forward, Nuno Gomes will feature with Hélder Postiga spelling him.
Portugal’s schedule also sets up as arguably the most comfortable of any team in the group. While it is no slouch, Turkey has to be considered the weakest team out of the four and Portugal plays them first, followed by the Czech Republic. After those two games, they’ll know exactly what they need (if anything at all) in their third and final match, against Switzerland. That game seems to me like Portugal’s toughest, as not only do the Swiss have the home-field advantage, they are very difficult to break down and that is Portugal’s strength, quick passing and dribbling.
Check back later this afternoon for Part 2 of my Group A preview, in which I’ll take a look at Turkey and Switzerland and give you my prediction for how the group will finish up.