The group of death

France, the Netherlands, Italy and Romania are in Group C, the toughest division in Euro 2008. Over to Eduardo Garcia Barassi.

From the moment it was known that Austria and Switzerland would co-host Euro 2008, the conditions were right for the “group of death”. It’s become a rather worn phrase, yet in this case it is living up to its name.

As Austria and Switzerland were to be seeded as hosts, it made it impossible to separate some of the European football greats. And so the draw pitted France, the Netherlands and Italy against one another in Group C. To make matters worse, Romania — the team that is theoretically the weakest of the four in the group — cannot be underestimated.

The team that Victor Piturca has put together should surprise no one after an impeccable performance in the qualifying round, in which it ended top of its group, above the Netherlands.

Romania’s most visible stars are captain Christian Chivu, a defender with Inter Milan, and the talented Fiorentina striker Adrian Mutu. But there is a lot more than them to the national team.

The Romanians play with a 4-4-2 system with two strong defensive midfielders — one of whom could even be Chivu, away from the defence.

They also have good players on the sidelines, like Nicolae Dica, who plays on the left flank although he is right-footed. And, to join Mutu upfront, there is Ciprian Marica, the clever Stuttgart striker who is a great header of the ball.

“I think we are going to be well prepared,” Piturca says confidently.

Romania will start against Raymond Domenech’s France, which had great trouble in finding convincing play during the qualifiers. It got through thanks to its solid defence, but its attacking circuits showed evidence of serious jamming.

“I do not think I am happier than any other coach,” Domenech said with irony when he found out about the group.

In such company, “Les Bleus” have no more room for doubts.

Despite warning signals evidenced in the grey season of Thierry Henry and the physical problems of captain Patrick Vieira, France’s hopes have been placed on two men: Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery.

The young striker Benzema will have to earn a spot on the team, but he has shone in Ligue 1, while Bayern Munich midfielder Ribery can break through any complicated game.

Italy qualified top of France’s group, but there are some questions as to how Roberto Donadoni will respond in his first great challenge as Italy coach. “It will depend on us to make some games easy or difficult,” Donadoni said.

He does have the tools to make it through, even without Alessandro Nesta or Francesco Totti, who have both retired from national team duty. The base on which the line-up is built is the team that won the World Cup only two years ago.

In some qualifying games, the Italians showed something like a 4-2-3-1 system, with Mauro Camoranesi further upfront on the right and Antonio Di Natale doing the same on the left. They pass the ball to Luca Toni, ever solid in his role as an attacking reference.

Italy will make its debut against the Netherlands of Marco van Basten, who did away with the 4-3-3 system to add a midfielder.

The change had the expected effects: a decrease in the team’s scoring capacity and greater security at the back. The Netherlands were, along with France and the Czech Republic, the team that let in the fewest goals in the qualifying round.

Van Basten, set to take over the Ajax bench in July, is convinced that his team has “many players with good attacking conditions,” and stresses simply that “many of them are young people who need to become more mature.”

They will have to mature fast, because the “group of death” will not forgive weaknesses.

DPA * * * THE EURO EVOLUTION

The format of the 13th edition of the European Football Championships in Austria and Switzerland features some differences from previous events as the tournament tries to cope with the ever-increasing number of participating countries.

While the inaugural tournament in France in 1960 had just four teams competing in the finals out of 17 that entered the competition, this year’s event sees 16 teams battling it out for the Henri Delaunay Trophy out of an initial entry of 52 teams.

Austria and Switzerland automatically qualified for the tournament finals as host nations, leaving just 14 places available for the remaining national teams. Six of the qualifying groups contained seven teams, while one group had eight. The qualifying process for Euro 2008 differed from previous editions in that the winners and runners-up from seven groups automatically qualified for the tournament.

In qualifying for Euro 2004 in Portugal, for example, the host nation qualified automatically and the other 50 teams were divided into 10 groups of five with the first-placed teams from each group qualifying automatically and the runners-up taking part in a two-match play-off for the remaining five berths.

There were no play-offs for qualification to Euro 2008 while the seeding format for the finals has returned to the method used at Euro 1992 in Sweden and Euro 1996 in England, when 16 teams competed in a Euro finals for the first time.

The seeded team in each of the four groups — Switzerland, Austria, holders Greece and the Netherlands — will play all three of their group games in the same city.

The Euro 2008 tournament, which runs from June 7 to 29, is hardly recognisable from the inaugural tournament of 48 years ago, which had no British entries and was also missing European powerhouses Germany and Italy.

The second edition in 1964 saw 29 of 33 UEFA members competing, but the event did not become an official European Championship until 1968.

But the finals were a small affair until 1976 as the host nation only staged the semi-finals and the final. The modern tournament format started in 1980 in Italy with eight teams and was doubled to its current 16 teams at Euro 1996.

The 2000 event in the Netherlands and Belgium was the first championship played in two countries, while the 2010 event will be co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine.

George Burns/DPA