Italy. France. The Netherlands. Three of the best teams in the world. All in the same Euro 2008 group. All vying for one of two places in the quarterfinals. Oh, and yeah, there’s also that team Romania, the team that finished unbeaten in a qualifying group that included the Netherlands.
This is a Group of Death if there ever was one.
How do you pick a favorite in Group C? Do you go with Italy, just two years removed from winning the World Cup? France, bolstered by the emergence of Karim Benzema? The Netherlands, always a strong attacking squad? Or Romania, the forgotten club with more talent than people realize?
Italy was the easy favorite before Fabio Cannavaro was ruled out of the tournament with an ankle injury. The ‘Azzurri’ still might be the pick considering the way France has looked in recent friendlies.
The Dutch are third choice, especially after losing Ryan Babel. They still have Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Wesley Sneijder, but I ‘m not sold on Robin van Persie staying healthy of the Dutch defense holding up.
The Romanians deserve respect and could very well emerge if one more more opponents look past them. The opening match against France could be the upset of the group so look for Adrian Mutu to star for his squad.
Here is a closer look at Group C:
MONDAY- Romania vs. France (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes), 11:50 a.m.
MONDAY- Netherlands vs. Italy (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes), 2:30 p.m.
JUNE 13– Italy vs. Romania (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes), 11:50 a.m.
JUNE 13– Netherlands vs. France (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes), 2:30 p.m.
JUNE 17– Netherlands vs. Romania (ESPN Classic), 2:30 p.m.
JUNE 17– France vs. Italy (ESPN, ESPN Deportes), 2:30 p.m.
PLAYERS TO WATCH– Luca Toni, Andrea Pirlo, Gianluigi Buffon, Daniele DeRossi
NAME TO LEARN– Giorgio Chiellini. Most people know him as the teammate who injured Fabio Cannavaro but that’s an unfair label for a player who truly is the future of Italian defending. The 23-year old Juventus center back should raise his international profile quite a bit in this tournament.
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Marco Amelia (Livorno), Morgan De Sanctis (Sevilla).
Defenders: Christian Panucci (AS Roma), Fabio Grosso (Lyon), Marco Materazzi (Inter Milan), Gianluca Zambrotta (FC Barcelona), Andrea Barzagli (Palermo), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Alessandro Gamberini (Fiorentina).
Midfielders: Gennaro Gattuso (AC Milan), Andrea Pirlo (AC Milan), Massimo Ambrosini (AC Milan), Daniele De Rossi (AS Roma), Simone Perrotta (AS Roma), Mauro Camoranesi (Juventus), Alberto Aquilani (AS Roma).
Forwards: Luca Toni (Bayern Munich), Antonio Di Natale (Udinese), Fabio Quagliarella (Udinese), Alessandro Del Piero (Juventus), Marco Borriello (Genoa), Antonio Cassano (Sampdoria).
OUTLOOK– How do you bet against the world champions? With Buffon in goal, Pirlo, DeRossi and Gattuso in midfield, and Luca Toni up top, the Italians are still the pick to win this group, though winning the tournament might be a stretch without Cannavaro.
PLAYERS TO WATCH– Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema, Thierry Henry, Florent Malouda
NAME TO LEARN– Samir Nasri. If you didn’t catch a glimpse of the 20-year-old midfielder before, you won’t want to miss it. His speed, shiftiness and creativity make him a joy to watch. Just how much playing time he gets on this veteran team remains to be seen.
Goalkeepers: Gregory Coupet (Lyon), Sebastien Frey (Fiorentina), Steve Mandanda (Marseille).
Defenders: Eric Abidal (Barcelona), Jean-Alain Boumsong (Lyon), Francois Clerc (Lyon), Patrice Evra (Manchester United), William Gallas (Arsenal), Willy Sagnol (Bayern Munich), Sebastien Squillaci (Lyon), Lilian Thuram (Barcelona).
Midfielders: Lassana Diarra (Portsmouth), Claude Makelele (Chelsea), Jeremy Toulalan (Lyon), Patrick Vieira (Inter Milan), Samir Nasri (Marseille) Franck Ribery (Bayern Munich).
Forwards: Nicolas Anelka (Chelsea), Karim Benzema (Lyon), Bafetimbi Gomis (Saint-Etienne), Sidney Govou (Lyon), Thierry Henry (Barcelona), Florent Malouda (Chelsea).
OUTLOOK– Offensive struggles in recent friendlies have the alarm bells going off in France, but this team has too much talent not to score (yes, I know, that’s what they said in 2002). How well France does will depend on whether Patrick Viera can shake off a thigh injury that almost kept him out of the tournament. If the French can beat Romania in the opening match, then look for them to do what it takes to advance to the quarters, where it will be up to the attack to carry them.
PLAYERS TO WATCH– Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie, Edwin van Der Sar.
NAME TO LEARN– Klaas Jan Huntelaar. Let’s face it, you’ve heard of most of the Dutch team’s stars. Huntelaar hasn’t gained quite the same fame yet because he still plays in Holland but the Ajax striker is quality and could emerge as a major threat if given the chance.
Goalkeepers: Edwin van der Sar (Manchester United), Maarten Stekelenburg (Ajax), Henk Timmer (Feyenoord).
Defenders: Wilfred Bouma (Aston Villa), Tim de Cler (Feyenoord), John Heitinga (Ajax), Joris Mathijsen (Hamburg), Mario Melchiot (Wigan Athletic), Andre Ooijer (Blackburn Rovers), Khalid Boulahrouz (Chelsea).
Midfielders: Ibrahim Afellay (PSV Eindhoven), Giovanni van Bronckhorst (Feyenoord), Orlando Engelaar (FC Twente), Nigel de Jong (Hamburg), Wesley Sneijder (Real Madrid), Rafael van der Vaart (Hamburg), Demy de Zeeuw (AZ Alkmaar).
Forwards: Klaas Jan Huntelaar (Ajax), Dirk Kuyt (Liverpool), Ruud van Nistelrooy (Real Madrid), Robin van Persie (Arsenal), Arjen Robben (Real Madrid), Jan Vennegoor (Celtic).
OUTLOOK– Too many question marks around this team. First, who is the team’s ball-winning central midfielder? Who brings bite to the middle of the field? Also, is the back-line strong enough to cope with the lack of a destroyer in front of them? Marco Van Basten has his work cut out because stopping players like Pirlo and Ribery won’t be easy with no strong defensive midfield presence. I see this as the weakness that leaves the Dutch out of the quarterfinals.
PLAYERS TO WATCH– Adrian Mutu, Christian Chivu, Nicolae Dica, Ciprian Marica
NAME TO LEARN– Banel Nicolita. The speedy right winger should provide support for Mutu and Marica, and could burn the Group C teams that get too extended in the attack. He’s 23 and could play himself int a move away from Steaua Bucharest.
Goalkeepers: 1-Bogdan Lobont (Dinamo Bucharest), 23-Eduard Stanciou (CFR Cluj), 12-Marius Popa (Poli Stiinta Timisoara)
Defenders: 2-Cosmin Contra (Getafe), 15-Dorin Goian (Steaua Bucharest), 14-Sorin Ghionea (Steaua Bucharest), 4-Gabriel Tamas (Auxerre), 17-Cosmin Moti (Dinamo Bucharest), 13-Cristian Sapunaru (Rapid Bucharest), 3-Razvan Rat (Shakhtar Donetsk), 22-Stefan Radu (Lazio);
Midfielders: 5-Cristian Chivu (Inter Milan), 6-Mirel Radoi (Steaua Bucharest), 7-Florentin Petre (CSKA Sofia), 8-Paul Codrea (AC Siena), 20-Nicolae Dica (Steaua Bucharest), 16-Banel Nicolita (Steaua Bucharest), 19-Adrian Cristea (Dinamo Bucharest), 11-Razvan Cocis (Lokomotiv Moscow);
Forwards: 10-Adrian Mutu (Fiorentina), 9-Ciprian Marica (VfB Stuttgart), 21-Daniel Niculae (AJ Auxerre), 18-Marius Niculae (Inverness Caledonian Thistle).
OUTLOOK– It’s easy to forget Romania but I would bet good money that they don’t wind up last in this loaded group. I think they fall short of qualifying unless they knock off France in the opener, but I do see the Romanians posting at least one win