After taking a little break to watch some afternoon baseball, I’m back with the second part of my Group A preview.
Coming off their unexpected progression to the Round of 16 in World Cup 2006, where they were the only team to not concede a goal during regulation, Switzerland has fairly high hopes in this edition of the European Championship. Boosting those hopes, of course, is the fact they are a co-host of this tournament along with Austria, and we’ve seen in recent international competitions that the host country is almost a surefire lock to make it out of the first round.
Switzerland’s competition in Group A complicates that notion; behind Group C, this year’s “Group of Death”, Group A is the trickiest to navigate. Köbi Kuhn’s team hasn’t played a competitive game since losing in PK’s to Ukraine in the last World Cup; as a co-host, they had an automatic berth in this tournament and thus didn’t participate in qualifying.
Kuhn announced a 26-man provisional squad on May 13, and from its breakdown by position, I would guess that he’ll trim it down to the required 23 by dropping two defenders and a midfielder, although there are injury worries in both areas. Going by age alone would indicate that this a young team, but that’s not the complete truth. This is a very experienced group of players and will use their success in Germany two years ago to their advantage.
For me, it all starts with the ageless one, Pascal Zuberbühler, in net, although Diego Benaglio has gained considerable momentum in Kuhn’s eyes and could very well be first choice on June 7.
The back line is insecure at the moment. Philippe Senderos will anchor the defense, that is for certain, but there are question marks surrounding the health of Ludovic Magnin, the first-choice left back, the soon-to-be Liverpool player Philipp Degen, the starting right back, and Patrick Müller, Senderos’ fellow central defender. If all three are fit, all three will start, but if not, Johan Djourou, Senderos’ teammate at Arsenal, will take Müller’s place, Stephan Lichtsteiner will play on the right, and you could see Stéphane Grichting or Valon Behrami on the left.
The midfield also has some concerns. Tranquillo Barnetta is a fixture on the right, but he took a knock recently in training and missed Switzerland’s 2-0 friendly victory over Slovakia two days ago. If he recovers in time, which appears likely, he could be joined in the midfield by Manchester City’s Gelson Fernandes, who would occupy a central role behind the creative Hakan Yakin. There are two candidates for the left wing, Valon Behrami and Daniel Gygax, but Behrami is more naturally a right-sided player who is capable of playing either left back or left midfield if necessary.
The captain, Alexander Frei, will lead the front line if he’s fully fit after an injury-plagued season at Borussia Dortmund. Frei needs just two more goals to become Switzerland’s all-time leading goal-scorer with 35 after scoring in that game against Slovakia, and you know he’ll be hungry to do that in front of his countrymen in the crowd. Alongside Frei, you could see Marco Streller (first option, but health issues remain) or Johan Vonlanthen, who has been effective off the bench in his international career.
As you can see, there are a lot of “ifs” and concerns surrounding this team. If everything is resolved, and all signs right now point to that being the case, Switzerland will be very dangerous in front of their home crowd and could repeat their success from World Cup 2006. By avoiding group favorite Portugal until the third match, the Swiss should be able to pick up the points they need in the two previous fixtures and put themselves in a position where their destiny is in their own hands in that final game.
I won’t lie — I know very little about Turkish soccer aside from watching Galatasaray, Besiktas, and Fenerbahçe in European club competitions. The national team finished seven points behind group champion Greece and a point ahead of Norway to make it to Euro 2008 out of the weakest qualifying group.
With all of that said and my ignorance aside, it would be foolish to underestimate a nation that made it to the quarterfinals in Euro 2000 and won the third-place game in World Cup 2002. Rüstü Reçber, the goalkeeper on that World Cup team, could be back between the sticks again and has piled up 128 caps in his career. An outstanding goalkeeper or one who just gets hot at the right time can carry a team in any competition, and on that basis alone, Turkey can’t immediately be counted out.
Defense appears to be the weak link on this team; the leading cap-winner amongst that group on the 27-man provisional squad announced by coach Fatih Terim is center back Emre Asik, who is 34 years old but has appeared only 26 times for his country.
There are some recognizable, talented names in the midfield and up front. Belözoglu Emre is the nation’s captain and a stalwart in the center, where his creative abilities have helped land him in Serie A at Inter Milan and now Newcastle. He is one of the most decorated, accomplished Turkish players ever (although granted, Turkish soccer has only recently come to the forefront).
Yildiray Bastürk, who was born in Germany and has played his entire domestic career in Germany, is another vital contributor to the Turkish midfield. Also born and bred in Germany is Hamit Altintop, a spectacular ball-striker who can score from long range and rack up assists. He’s carved out a very nice career in the Bundesliga and is at Bayern Munich now. A broken metatarsal suffered on March 27 has Altintop’s availability for Euro 2008 in question, but as of this preview today, I couldn’t find any articles or reports declaring him out of the squad.
Mehmet Aurélio is the other well-known player in Turkey’s midfield, and he is more defensively-minded than the previous three, though he does score his share of goals. Aurélio is Fenerbahçe’s captain and was the first naturalized player to appear for Turkey when he played in a friendly at the age of 29, as he was born in Brazil and didn’t go to Turkey until five years prior.
Middlesbrough’s Tuncay Sanli will spearhead the forward line with either Gökdeniz Karadeniz or Nihat Kahveci right there with him.
Turkey has the most difficult schedule in the group, with their first game coming against Portugal and the second (and pivotal) game against Switzerland. They’ll finish up against the Czech Republic, likely needing a victory in that game to have a chance at advancing to the quarterfinals.
Group A Final Prediction (teams in bold advance):
1. Portugal –7 points
2. Switzerland — 5 points
3. Czech Republic — 4 points
4. Turkey — 0 points
Check back tomorrow for my full preview (which will be more brief, I promise) of Group B, made up of Austria, Croatia, Germany, and Poland.