The air is charged with excitement. Already the talk is on about the prospective winner. Here are my first impressions of Group A.
I am very impressed with their 2-0 win over the Turks. The ball movement was a treat to the eye and the defense also looked solid. However, they could have won by far more.
In spite of the fine performance, two fatal problems remain and unless Portugal can prove me wrong, I don’t see these guys winning the tournament.
The first is the lack of a proven goal-scorer. Except for France at the 1998 World Cup and Greece in the last Euros no team has won a major tournament without a top striker. In fact, Portugal’s inability to produce a top-striker baffles me. They have a regular assembly line which churns out world-class talent on a regular basis but somehow, the line fails to produce a quality finisher. Portugal’s best case scenario would be to do what France did in ‘98 – get goals from all over the field. They did just that against the Turks with the goals coming from mid-field and defense.
The other is the lack of leadership. This was an easy game. But I wonder who is going to rally the troops in the heat of the battle against the likes of Italy, France and Germany. Cristiano is the captain, but is he a leader? I don’t think so. The only one who comes close to being a leader is Ricardo Carvalho. Scolari is a smart coach. I didn’t expect him to make Ronaldo captain. More than goal-scoring, lack of leadership could be Portugal’s biggest undoing.
The lack of leadership also stems from the fact that this team has finally broken away from the Golden Generation of Portugese football – the likes of Figo, Paulo Sousa, Fernando Couto and Rui Costa – players who won two junior World Cups together and served the senior side with distinction for many years. There is a clear absence of veterans in the side. But this could serve as extra motivation for this team as they would look to create a new identity for themselves and come out of the shadow of the Golden Generation. I love to see them play and would hope they do so
They lost to Portugal but they are my favourites to qualify second from this group. They have greater balance than the Czechs and the Swiss and have the best striker in the entire group in Nihat Kahveci. Their superior offensive prowess should see them prevail and make it to the next round.
Fatih Terim’s presence is also a major plus for them. He inspired Turkey to a third place in the 2002 World Cup and can get them to play out of their skins once again.
They had some positives to take from the loss against the Portuguese. They kept the game alive till the very end and had scoring chances of their own. On another day the referee could have been more benevolent and the Turks could have snatched a draw.
The Czechs made a stunning start to the last World Cup and then just crumbled. Things have not improved a lot since then. They were missing the creativity of Nedved, Poborsky and Rosicky from the last tournament and it showed, quite palpably. Their offense was almost non-existent and I don’t know how things can improve for the side. Their big striker, Jan Koller has denigrated and the lack of supply made him look even worse. Milan Baros was not even considered worthy of a substitute appearance. A far cry from Euro 2004 where he netted five times.
This was an extremely lucky win for the Czechs. Even their reliable defense was stretched by the plucky Swiss who don’t boast of any big names in offense. The going will be far more difficult against the Portuguese and the Turks who are far more potent in attack. The Czechs exited the 2006 World Cup with a win and two defeats and a repeat at Euro 2008 is quite likely.
The Swiss fans made the second round in the 2006 World Cup and did not concede a single goal. That performance and the fact that the tournament was at home gave the Swiss fans a lot to aspire for. Their hopes came crashing down after a defeat against the Czechs and their hopes of qualification are extremely bleak now.
An important lesson for them is that the European Championship is very different from the World Cup for European sides. The Swiss side is built on a well-organized defense. It served them well against non-European sides at the World Cup. But this is not much of an advantage against European sides. They are all accustomed to playing against European defences and know how to break it down. When it comes to attack, the Swiss are all industry and running but that is not good enough to bring in the goals against well marshalled sides.
All these elements were on display against the Czechs. The Swiss held possession and pressurized the opposition defense but had little to show in terms of clear-cut chances. And were unable to take the few that did come their way. They defended well but were done in by a smash-and-grab goal that is the trademark of European sides. For once, the Swiss got a taste of their own medicine.
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