The Beautiful Game
Monday, June 07, 2004
The Greeks stamped their passport to Portugal by finishing first in a very tough qualifying group containing the Ukraine, and Spain. They will look to continue to ride their wave of success into the championship. The Alpha Ethniki will rely mostly on players groomed by Greece’s most successful clubs including AEK, Panathinaikos, and Olympiakos. Players to watch will be Panathinaikos defender Yourkas Seitaridis, who will almost certainly join a top club this summer, and Inter Milan’s Giorgos Karagounis. Greece will find the going tough because they must face the host nation, and they must also face Spain, a team that will be looking to extract revenge for forcing them to qualify via the play-off.
Portugal will look to put a disastrous World Cup, and a poor run-up to this tournament behind them. Portugal failed to defeat any nation that has qualified for the finals. Although the team has seem some significant changes, much needed concentration and a killer instinct still seems to be missing. The elements for success are present for Portugal. Luis Figo seems inspired and better rested than prior to the 2002 World Cup. The defense is more stable thanks to the influx of younger players, most of them coming from Champion’s League winner FC Porto. Rui Costa on his A game is second to none. A mix of youth and experience can be seen on this team. Youngster Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United) will be the player to watch. He is perhaps the most exciting player to watch in all of Europe. Portugal has the privilege of having a World Cup winning coach in Luis Felipe Scolari, and they will essentially be playing with an extra player in every match in the form of the crowd. The big question surrounding Portugal is, if all these elements will combine into a successful formula? I believe they will. Look for Portugal to qualify for the second round.
Spain needed a play-off victory over Norway to qualify for this tournament. One of Europe’s eternal underachievers will look to shed that moniker once and for all. The injury sustained by defender Michel Salgado (Real Madrid) did not help matters at all, but look to experienced youngsters Carles Puyol (Barcelona) and keeper Iker Casillas (Real Madrid) to anchor the Spanish defense. For many, Spain’s success lies on the performances by Real Madrid striker Raul. Although he seemed lackluster all year, he might have been saving his energies for the Euro. If that is not the case, Spain has a more than capable deputy in that position. That man is Fernando Morientes. Morientes was one of Europe’s best this closed season, and look for him to make an impact even if it’s off the sub’s bench. Spain should make it past the first round, but beyond there, no one knows.
Russia is not the football power that it once was. The European Championships was always where Russia had its strongest showings. Injury worries have been a concern to the Russian National team in the lead up to the finals. Expect the Russians to display their characteristic Russian resolve. I will expect them to play a physical game, and attempt to impose themselves over their opponents. The team will attempt to replicate the relative success experienced by Russian teams in the European club competitions this year. Most of the players were part of those teams (CSKA Moscow, Lokomotiv Moscow, and Dynamo Moscow). Players to watch will be Alexander Mostovoi (Celta Vigo), Rolan Gusev, and speedy forward Dmitry Sychev. The Russians will find it difficult to contend with the class and finesse of the Spanish, and Portuguese. Look for them to be fighting it out for third place in the group with Greece.
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