After watching England thoroughly dominate the US in their 2-0 friendly victory at Wembley this afternoon, I’m back for the second half of this Group C preview.
As the current world champion, Italy enters this tournament right at the top of the list of favorites. They are also the team everyone wants to beat; Italy will get everyone’s best shot and they’ll have to be able to take a few punches and overcome that.
To add the title of European champions, something they haven’t been since 1968, to their résumé, they’ll first have to advance from the toughest group in the competition. In qualifying, Italy won their group by three points over France, their newest rival. The two countries will obviously meet again in this tournament, and it’s fitting that that game is the third and final match for both countries in the group stage. Italy would like nothing more than to continue their mastery over France by possibly eliminating them, and France would love an opportunity to do the same and in the process, gain some sweet revenge over the team that beat them in PK’s in the 2006 World Cup final.
Roberto Donadoni made only one fairly surprising move in his 23-man roster. Many people didn’t expect Sampdoria’s (on loan from Real Madrid) Antonio Cassano to be included. Cassano is known throughout the world as a headcase unlike almost any other; he has been a troublemaker basically wherever he has gone and has a bad attitude, and if Donadoni didn’t want to deal with the possible headache of Cassano’s presence, no one would’ve blamed him.
However, there’s never, ever been a question about Cassano’s talent. He can score with both feet, has wonderful technique, has good composure and can finish pretty well, and he can beat defenders one-on-one without much trouble. Giovanni Trapattoni once labeled him as the “future of Italian football” and at only 25 years of age, the future could very well be right now. He lit it up in Serie A for Sampdoria this season, scoring 10 goals in 22 league matches en route to helping his team qualify for next season’s UEFA Cup.
As I said, Cassano was really the only surprising inclusion on a team that is absolutely loaded once again. One of the two or three best at his position in the world, Gianluigi Buffon will obviously be in goal. His back line will be made up of the captain, Fabio Cannavaro, who will be in the center and may be on his last legs at the international level at the age of 34. Joining Cannavaro in the middle will be his fellow 34-year old, Marco Materazzi, with Fabio Grosso and Gianluca Zambrotta on the left and right, respectively. In the midfield, Gennaro Gattuso will play in the holding role, with Daniele de Rossi and Andrea Pirlo ahead of “the Bulldog”. Luca Toni will occupy a center forward slot, possibly alongside Genoa’s Marco Borriello, with Alessandro del Piero, who had a terrific season for Juventus, just behind them to finish off a 4-3-1-2 formation. The Italians count on their full-backs to provide width and service into the middle, so Grosso and Zambrotta will be keys to their success.
Finishing off the “Group of Death”, Romania surprised a lot of people by topping Holland and winning their qualifying group for this tournament. Outsiders will look at this team and not recognize many players aside from Fiorentina’s Adrian Mutu and Inter Milan’s Cristian Chivu, but they proved they are no pansy and will make things tough on the three more well-known nations in this group.
In all honesty, I’m one of those outsiders myself, but again, Romania showed over 12 qualifiers that they weren’t a joke. They took four out of six points from Holland and have a very experienced manager in Victor Piturca, who also won the European Cup as a player with Steaua Bucharest. They’ve beaten fellow Euro 2008 competitors Russia and Turkey in friendlies in the past year, although they lost to Germany and Israel over that same stretch as well.
Concerning their squad, Bogdan Lobont will be in goal; with 62 caps, he has 61 more than the other two goalkeepers on the 23-man roster combined. Cristian Chivu is the nation’s captain and will anchor the back line, with Razvan Rat on the left, Cosmin Contra on the right, and either Dorin Goian or Gabriel Tamas joining Chivu in the center. In the midfield, I think you could see a large diamond, with Florentin Petre wide right, Mirel Radoi in the holding role, Adrian Mutu right behind the strikers, and Razvan Cocis on the left but drifiting into the middle. Up front, Marius Niculae will partner Ciprian Marica, Stuttgart’s young 22-year old who was the club’s record transfer signing.
Group C Final Prediction (teams in bold advance):
1. Italy — 7 points
2. France — 5 points
3. Romania — 3 points
4. Holland — 1 point
Tomorrow, I’ll preview the fourth and final group of this tournament by taking a look at Sweden, Spain, defending champions Greece, and Russia.