(This is the second in a five-part SBI preview of the European Championships, which begin Saturday. We profiled Group A on Monday, with Group C scheduled to come tomorrow. Enjoy.)
Who will stop Germany?
That’s the big question heading into Euro 2008 and nowhere is it ringing more loudly than in the minds of Group B opponents Croatia, Poland and Austria, which must find a way to stop the tournament favorites.
What many are forgetting is that Croatia has the talent, the head coach, and the lack of expectations to very possibly step in and spoil Germany’s waltz to first place in the group. Head coach Slaven Bilic is young but has already proven to be a top-quality coach, and he will have a host of young standouts ready to pounce on the Germans if they aren’t ready.
Poland enjoyed a great qualifying run, winning a group that included Portugal, but that form has been hard to come by in recent months for the Polish team, making it a darkhorse to unseat either Germany or Croatia for a place in the quarters.
As for Austria? You don’t want to go betting on the co-hosts to do much but through good parties.
Here is a closer look at all four teams in Group B:
Schedule (Times Eastern)
SUNDAY– Austria vs. Croatia (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes), 11:50 a.m.
SUNDAY– Germany vs. Poland (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes), 2:30 p.m.
6/12– Croatia vs. Germany (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes), 11:50 a.m.
6/12– Austria vs. Poland (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes), 2:30 p.m.
6/16– Poland vs. Croatia (ESPN Classic), 2:30 p.m.
6/16– Austria vs. Germany (ESPN, ESPN Deportes), 2:30 p.m.
PLAYERS TO WATCH– Michael Ballack, Miroslav Klose, Torsten Frings, Bastian Schweinsteiger
NAME TO LEARN– Mario Gomez. German Bundesliga fans are already well aware of the half Spanish-half German striker from Stuttgart, who combines size (6-foot-2), skill and a powerful shot. If opponents may too much attention to Klose, Gomez will go off.
Goalkeepers: Rene Adler (Bayer Leverkusen), Robert Enke (Hannover 96), Jens Lehmann (Arsenal).
Defenders: Arne Friedrich (Hertha Berlin), Clemens Fritz (Werder Bremen), Marcell Jansen (Bayern Munich), Philipp Lahm (Bayern Munich), Per Mertesacker (Werder Bremen), Christoph Metzelder (Real Madrid), Heiko Westermann (Schalke).
Midfielders: Michael Ballack (Chelsea), Tim Borowski (Werder Bremen), Torsten Frings (Werder Bremen), Thomas Hitzlsperger (Stuttgart), David Odonkor (Betis), Simon Rolfes (Bayer Leverkusen), Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich), Piotr Trochowski (Hamburger SV).
Forwards: Mario Gomez (Stuttgart), Miroslav Klose (Bayern Munich), Kevin Kuranyi (Schalke), Oliver Neuville (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Lukas Podolski (Bayern Munich).
OUTLOOK– Most of the key players from the famed 2006 World Cup run are back, with Gomez and Metzelder ready to step in and make a big impact. The Germans have the quality to win the tournament, but winning this group isn’t a given with a talented Croatia side lurking.
PLAYERS TO WATCH– Luka Modric, Ivica Olic, Ivan Klasnic, Darijo Srna
NAME TO LEARN– Ivan Rakitic. The Swiss-born 20-year-old is one of the best young talents in Europe and may just get the chance to start now that Croatia is coping with the absence of Arsenal’s Eduardo.
Goalkeepers: Stipe Pletikosa (Spartak Moscow), Vedran Runje (Lens), Mario Galinovic (Panathinaikos).
Defenders: Vedran Corluka (Manchester City), Dario Simic (AC Milan), Robert Kovac (Borussia Dortmund), Josip Simunic (Hertha Berlin), Dario Knezevic (Livorno), Hrvoje Vejic (Tomsk), Danijel Pranjic (Heerenveen).
Midfielders: Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Niko Kovac (Red Bull Salzburg), Luka Modric (Tottenham), Niko Kranjcar (Portsmouth), Jerko Leko (AS Monaco), Ivan Rakitic (Schalke), Ognjen Vukojevic (Dinamo Bucharest), Nikola Pokrivac (AS Monaco).
Forwards: Mladen Petric (Borussia Dortmund), Ivica Olic (Hamburger SV), Ivan Klasnic (Werder Bremen), Igor Budan (Parma), Nikola Kalinic (Hajduk Split).
Outlook– Dynamic in attack and underrated in defense, Croatia has the talent to upset Germany. Even if that doesn’t happen, Croatia should advance and make for a tough out in the quarterfinals.
PLAYERS TO WATCH– Artor Boruc, Maciej Zurawski, Ebi Smolarek, Mariusz Lewandowski
NAME TO LEARN– Jakub Blaszczykowski. How about we just call the Dortmund winger Jakub? The tiny winger has the speed to cause problems, but he comes into the tournament nursing a thigh injury that could limit him.
Goalkeepers: Artur Boruc (Celtic), Tomasz Kuszczak (Manchester United), Lukasz Fabianski (Arsenal).
Defenders: Marcin Wasilewski (Anderlecht), Pawel Golanski (Steaua Bucharest), Mariusz Jop (FC Moscow), Jacek Bak (Austria Vienna), Michal Zewlakow (Olympiakos), Adam Kokoszka (Wisla Krakow), Jakub Wawrzyniak (Legia Warsaw).
Midfielders: Mariusz Lewandowski (Shakhtar Donetsk), Dariusz Dudka (Wisla Krakow), Jakub Blaszczykowski (Borussia Dortmund), Rafal Murawski (Lech Poznan), Michal Pazdan (Gornik Zabrze), Lukasz Gargula (GKS Belchatow), Jacek Krzynowek (VfL Wolfsburg), Roger Guerreiro (Legia Warsaw).
Forwards: Maciej Zurawski (Larissa), Euzebiusz Smolarek (Racing Santander), Marek Saganowski (Southampton), Tomasz Zahorski (Gornik Zabrze), Wojciech Lobodzinski (Wisla Krakow).
OUTLOOK– Winning a qualifying group that included Portugal makes Poland a team to be taken seriously, though its 3-0 loss to the USA at home raised some red flags. Coach Leo Beenhakker is as skilled a tactician as they come and he’ll have his team ready for every game. If Croatia’s youth or Germany’s overconfidence cause one of the favorites to stumble, Poland has the ingredients to advance.
PLAYERS TO WATCH– Andreas Ivanschitz, Martin Harnik, Alexander Manninger, Martin Stranzl
NAME TO LEARN– Erwin Hoffer. American fans will remember Hoffer as the scorer of the game-winning goal in Austria’s U-20 World Cup win against the USA last summer. He of the funny haircut, Hoffer netted a hat-trick against Red Bull Salzburg late in the Austrian season and could shine if given the chance.
Goalkeepers: Alexander Manninger (AC Siena), Juergen Macho (AEK Athens), Ramazan Ozcan (TSG 1899 Hoffenheim)
Defenders: Gyorgy Garics (Napoli), Ronald Gercaliu (Austria Vienna), Martin Hiden (Kaernten), Markus Katzer (Rapid Vienna), Juergen Patocka (Rapid Vienna), Emmanuel Pogatetz (Middlesbrough), Sebastian Proedl (Sturm Graz), Martin Stranzl (Spartak Moscow)
Midfielders: Rene Aufhauser (Salzburg), Christian Fuchs (Mattersburg), Andreas Ivanschitz (Panathinaikos), Umit Korkmaz (Rapid Vienna), Christoph Leitgeb (Salzburg), Juergen Saeumel (Sturm Graz), Joachim Standfest (Austria Vienna), Ivica Vastic (Linz)
Forwards: Erwin Hoffer (Rapid Vienna), Roman Kienast (Ham-Kam), Roland Linz (Braga), Martin Harnik (Werder Bremen)
OUTLOOK– When your own fans ask your team to withdraw for the good of the tournament you know there are issues. A three-loss tournament isn’t out of the question, but for some reason I think the they’ll be good for at least one shocking upset.