Despite Portugal’s status as hosts and France’s favourites tag, Italy have got what it takes to win Euro 2004.
What worries me about Portugal is that they’ve got Fernando Couto in the heart of their defence. For all of his being comfortable on the ball, he doesn’t like the physical battles that come with being a centre-half, and does far too much ball-watching around the box. I loved playing against him for Ireland because you knew at some stage during the game he’d give you a chance. On the plus side, any team that’s got Figo and Pauleta in it is going to score goals, and in Ronaldo they’ve got somebody who can run at defences and win free-kicks in dangerous positions. If he turns it on like he did for Man U in the FA Cup Final, I can see him being one of the stars of the tournament.
Raul struggled this season in La Liga, but reunited with his old Real Madrid strike partner Morienties he’s capable of scoring a lot of goals for Spain. If he doesn’t, it’ll be another tournament in which they promise a great deal but fail to deliver.
Greece won the group that Spain qualified out of, but I’ll be amazed if either they or Russia progress to the next phase.
While the French midfield and attack are the best in the tournament, having Lizarazu and Desailly in the back four means they’re not as good as they were defensively.
If they were meeting later on in the group I’d tip them to beat England, but remembering what happened to them in their opening World Cup game against Senegal, I think they’ll keep it tight and if necessary settle for the draw.
As for Sven’s men, they’ll do well to get to the semi-finals. They’ve got far too many forwards who have been on the bench this year and no defensive cover if Sol Campbell or John Terry pick up an injury. Then there’s the thing of Gerrard playing out of position on the left and Beckham, having had a central midfield role all season at Real, switching back to the right. Brilliant player that he is, it annoys me that Beckham always sits in front of Gary Neville and never goes beyond anybody. My other concern – they’re piling up! – is that they’re not a very big side. Sit them alongside the French and you’ll see quite a height difference, which isn’t the be all and end all but will cause them problems in certain situations.
While they both did well in qualifying, I can’t see Croatia or Switzerland beating anyone except each other.
I’m backing Italy to win not just their group but the tournament overall. They were one minute away from victory at Euro 2000 and but for some appalling refereeing would have made it through to the World Cup semi-finals. With Cannavaro and Nesta they’ve a better defence than France, and in Totti, Vieri and Del Piero they’ve three players who can change games in an instant. And if it comes down to penalties, which so often it does, Buffon is the best goalkeeper in Europe at the moment and a far safer pair of hands – and feet! – than Barthez.
Of the Scandinavian teams, Sweden just have the edge over Denmark at the moment although it’ll be close. Bulgaria being 80/1 in the betting says it all really. Without a player of Stoichkov’s outstanding quality they’re going to struggle.
Having seen a not particularly wonderful Romania team stuff them 5-1 recently, I’m tipping Germany to get eliminated in the first phase. Not only that but with Latvia on the high of qualifying for their first tournament, they could easily go home win-less. Rank outsiders or not, the Latvians showed against Turkey in the play-offs that they’re well-organised and capable of taking chances when they present themselves.
It’s not something you normally say about Holland, but looking at their forwards you wonder about their ability to score more than one goal in a game. Kluivert’s had a mediocre season at Barcelona, Makaay’s done okay at Bayern Munich without fully filling Elbert’s shoes and Van Nistelrooij – that’s how it’s spelt when he’s on international duty! – was very average towards the end of the Premiership. That said, when I was going through the worst goal drought of my career at Celtic I scored six times in seven games for Ireland.
Even if Ruud is firing on all cylinders, with Nedved running things in midfield the Czech’s will top the group and possibly sneak through to the semi-finals.
The bookies are going for Thierry Henry, but if Italy go all the way I reckon Vieri will outgun him.
The Czech Republic
Vieri to be top scorer at 10/1 and Italy to win the tournament at 5/1. Also check what price you’ll get for a Latvia victory over Germany.