Men of substance

Michael Ballack of Germany.-Pics: DPA

Here's a list of players with the skill to leave an indelible mark on the championship.

MICHAEL BALLACK

German football star Michael Ballack has had a difficult time with injuries over the last year, even fearing for his career at one stage, but is now fully recovered and raring to go at Euro 2008.

It was a long eight-month recovery process for the midfielder, who underwent three operations on his troublesome ankle before making his long-awaited comeback last December.

Ballack admitted that the injury came close to ending his career and was also very unhappy that his club Chelsea failed to diagnose the problem in time. The 31-year-old, who joined Chelsea on a free transfer from Bayern Munich in the summer of 2006, eventually went behind the English Premier League club's back and had surgery in Germany to solve the problem.

The decision meant Ballack missed the first half of the season, but since his return he has had some strong performances and some key goals.

Germany will be one of the tournament favourites in Austria and Switzerland this summer, especially with a 100-per-cent fit Ballack back in the team.

"Our objective must be to reach the final," he said.

The esteem with which Ballack is now held in Germany is a far cry from eight years ago when the then Bayer Leverkusen player was harshly criticised after Germany returned a winless last from the Euro 2000 tournament.

He was labelled a spoilt and rich young player who had long forgotten how to fight on the pitch. But since that low point Ballack has transformed himself with the 2002 World Cup confirming that he was a player of the highest quality who no longer cracked under pressure.

He missed the 2002 World Cup final through suspension, but the fact that he scored the winner against South Korea after committing a tactical foul that earned him the suspension only enhanced his reputation.

Ballack left Leverkusen for Munich immediately after the World Cup for a fee of 6 million euros (9.5 million dollars), helping the German giants to three league and cup doubles in four seasons before moving to England in the summer of 2006.

He led Germany to the semi-finals of the 2006 World Cup on home soil before moving to Chelsea where he appeared to be settling in well until injury intervened.

Ballack underwent his first ankle operation in April 2007 and only returned to the German national team in February this year, when Germany beat Austria 3-0 in a friendly.

- George Burns KARIM BENZEMA

Just 20 years old, France in? ternational Karim Benzema is already being compared to one of the greatest footballers of all time, Zinedine Zidane.

That comparison was made by no less an expert than Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson after his side met Benzema's Lyon in the Champions League.

A few days earlier, Ferguson had seen Benzema score a remarkable goal against the Red Devils in their first Champions League face-off in Lyon, which ended 1-1.

Taking the ball on the right side, Benzema cut towards the centre and then unleashed a blistering left-footed shot just outside the 16-metre area that left Manchester goalie Edwin Van der Sar clutching at air.

Of Kabyle Berber heritage like Zidane, Benzema has also been compared to his idol Ronaldo, whom he once called "the greatest player of all time."

Like the Brazilian striker, Benzema is fast on the dribble, difficult to tackle, quick to change direction and has a very quick, hard and accurate shot.

France great, and UEFA president, Michel Platini also sees greatness in the Lyon striker.

"He scores more with his intelligence than with his physical attributes, and I love that," he said.

With all-time France scorer Thierry Henry still looking for his best form, Benzema may be the the most important man on the pitch when France meets Romania in its first Euro 2008 match on June 9.

According to those who know him, he also possesses the mental strength to live up to expectations.

- Siegfried Mortkowitz ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVIC

The brightest star in Sweden's line-up is Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Inter Milan. The 26-year-old has received accolades for his magical ball control despite his 192-centimetre stature, and ability to score from seemingly "impossible" angles.

Ibrahimovic has twice been awarded the Swedish Golden Ball as the country's top player of the year in 2005 and 2007. In 2007 he was also voted Sweden's sports personality of the year by radio listeners.

Reflecting his popularity among the youth, he was the focus of a minor hit in the run-up to the 2006 World Cup finals where a 7-year-old sang the refrain, "I love you, ich liebe dich, Zlatan Ibrahimovic."

However, he suffered a drought on the national side during the qualifications for the Euro 2008 finals, perhaps in part due to the different playing styles adopted by the national team under tactical coach Lars Lagerback and star-studded Inter where he partners with the likes of Julio Cruz.

Sweden no longer has playmaker Henrik Larsson in its lineup. Larsson had an exceptional eye for the game and often combined well with "Ibra".

UEFA president Michel Platini on a recent visit to Sweden said Ibrahimovic was a "super talent, who has yet to fully express his talent. He makes his team a winning team."

It remains to be seen if Ibrahimovic, whose first name Zlatan means gold, can help Sweden get through to the second round at the Euro 2008 finals from a group that includes Greece, Spain and Russia.

In February, Ibrahimovic disclosed that he had been playing with a lingering knee injury and had used pain killing injections.

He dropped out of a friendly in London against Brazil at the end of March marking the anniversary of the 1958 World Cup final between Brazil and Sweden.

The Inter ace instead flew to Umea, northern Sweden, where specialists concluded he had a knee tendon injury but did not need surgery. He was recommended to rest out of some Serie A games and undergo a rehabilitation programme.

Swedish football commentators like Mats Olsson of the Stockholm daily, Expressen, said warning lights were flashing, fearing similarities to the run-up to the Euro 2008 finals to that of the 2006 World Cup finals for Ibrahmiovic.

Two years ago, the striker was suffering from a groin injury that he later said had hampered his speed and mobility.

His relationship with coach Lars Lagerback has been restored after he and two other teammates were sent home after violating a curfew in September 2006 on the eve of a qualifier against Liechtenstein. The temperamental striker subsequently stayed off the team until March 2007 when he returned against Northern Ireland.

- Lennart Simonsson

Fernando Torres of Spain.-

FERNANDO TORRES

Spain's lack of a consistent goalscorer may have finally come to an end in the form of Fernando Torres. "La Seleccion," as the national team is known, has not been able to count on a reliable scorer since the 1950 World Cup hero Telmo Zarra. Carlos Santillana seemed able to fill the void, only to flop at the 1982 World Cup finals, in which Spain proved to be inadequate hosts.

Emilio Butragueno took over from him for Real Madrid, but failed on the big occasions for Spain. In the 1990s, Julio Salinas and Kiko Narvaez flattered to deceive. And while Raul Gonzalez has broken all the records for Real in his long career, he never really shone for Spain on the big stage.

Now veteran Spain manager Luis Aragones has placed his faith in Torres, 24, who will be leading the Spanish attack at Euro 2008, after an impressive debut season for Liverpool.

Torres' achievements for the Reds have even surpassed the expectations of coach Rafa Benitez, the man who paid 33 million euros (52.1 million dollars) to Atletico Madrid for him nine months ago. With his speed, imagination and eye for goal, "The Kid" has taken the Premier League by storm, scoring vital goals such as Liverpool's winner in late March in the Merseyside derby with Everton.

The Madrid-born Torres broke all the records while progressing through Atletico's youth teams. He made his first-team debut in 2001 aged just 17, then helped his beloved club to gain promotion a year later. In all, he scored 82 goals in 214 games for Atletico, before becoming weary of the massive burden of responsibility placed on him as captain and star of a team constantly failing to live up to expectations.

He made his Spain debut under Inaki Saez in 2003 and had a cameo role at Euro 2004. Successor Luis Aragones - the man who gave Torres his Atletico debut in 2001 - has made him first-choice striker since day one, and has been rewarded with 15 goals in 45 appearances. Torres scored eight goals in the qualifying round for the 2006 World Cup - including two spectacular strikes in a crucial win in Belgium. He also netted three at the finals, forming a dangerous partnership with Valencia's David Villa.

Now all Spaniards are hoping that his season in England has made Torres stronger and sharper - and that "La Seleccion" has finally found the goalscorer to provide the finishing touch to all their neat approach play.

- Duncan Shaw DPA