The UEFA European Football Championship 2008 kicks off on Friday, when co-hosts Switzerland host the Czech Republic in the first Group A game in Basel. The Euros are the third most-watched sporting competition in the world - after the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics - but this year there will be less interest for the English-speaking world, as none of the British Isles teams qualified.
England and Ireland both had disastrous campaigns which saw their homegrown managers being replaced by wily old Italians, while Northern Ireland and Scotland were quite heroic in their ultimately unsuccessful adventures: Northern Ireland's victories over Spain and Sweden, and Scotland's home and away triumphs over France, rank among both countries' finest ever results. Wales never really stood a chance in a tough group.
Still, most football fans will still be excited about the tournament, which showcases many of the world's finest players, a lot of them plying their trade in the English Premiership. Can Cristiano Ronaldo win this tournament on his own, just like Platini did for France in 1984? Can Spain, with Premiership stars like Fabregas and Torres, finally live up to their talent by showing it on the big stage? And can poor Austria avoid a total humiliation on their home soil? I can't wait to find out. Here's my Euro 2008 preview...
FIFA World Ranking: 9
Cristiano Ronaldo (above) is probably the best player in the world, and certainly the best player in Europe. His form at Manchester United this season has been sensational, and if anyone is capable of single-handedly winning this tournament, it's him.
But he won't need to - Portugal aren't a one-man team. In terms of transfer fees, their back four is probably the most expensive ever assembled in International football - Pepe and Carvalho both cost over £20m each, while Bosingwa and Ferreira cost Chelsea a combined £30m. In midfield they have Barca maestro Deco and Sporting's Miguel Veloso pulling the strings, with Ronaldo's young United team-mate Nani and Benfica star Simao on the wings.
Their main weakness is, as usual, a lack of a goalscoring centre-forward. They relied on Pauleta for years, but he never performed to his best at major tournaments, and he's now out of favour. Another former golden boy, Nuno Gomes, may take his place, but he's also less than world class. Of course, none of that will matter if Ronaldo can continue his club form in this tournament. Who needs a traditional central striker when the wide attacker can score 42 goals in a top-level season? If Ronaldo is at his best, it'll be virtually impossible to stop Portugal.
FIFA World Ranking: 6th
The Czechs have been perennially under-rated ever since they became a Slovak-free republic, but just now might be the time to actually not-rate them. They've lost the two key men of their last decade, unpredictable winger Karel Poborsky and the majestic Pavel Nedved, who've both got too old for International football; if that wasn't bad enough, they've lost Nedved's mercurial replacement, Arsenal's Tomas Rosicky, to a crippling hamstring injury.
It's now hard to see just where their genuine class is going to come from. Six-foot-eight-inch striker Jan Koller is always a danger, but he's due to retire after the tournament, and at 35 most defenders have now worked out how to mark him. Milan Baros, the top scorer at the last Euros in 2004, hasn't scored a single goal since joining Portsmouth in January.
That they finished above tournament favourites Germany in qualification is slightly deceptive - Germany's convenient last-day loss to the Czechs, 3-0 at home, gave them a seeding advantage for this stage. Of course, Chelsea's Petr Cech is one of the top three goalkeepers in the world, and players like attacking full-back Marek Jankulovski and winger Libor Sionko will offer some threat.
But this is no golden era for Czech football. Without Rosicky it's hard to see the Czech's replicating the successes of previous tournaments.Switzerland
FIFA World Ranking: 48
While easily the better of the two hosts, there's still few who believe Switzerland are truly among Europe's best 16 teams. A couple of years ago, the future looked very bright for the Swiss, but youngsters Vonlanthen, Barnetta, Djorou and Senderos have not fulfilled expectations. They still rely heavily on all-time highest goalscorer Alexander Frei up-front, but his best days are probably past him. Their other key players are centre-back Patrick Muller and midfielder Valon Behrami.
Having said all that, competition hosts always push a little bit harder when the big stage finally arrives on their doorstep - a host has got to at least the semi-final in every World Cup and European Championship in the last 20 years, other than the USA in 1994 - and Switzerland don't have a tough group. Portugal will likely win Group A, but the race for second place is a three way battle with Czech and Turkish sides who have seen better days. Their home advantage may just make the difference there - but with a likely meeting with Germany in the second round in store, the Swiss are sure to follow the Americans' lead in making a second-round home exit.
FIFA World Ranking: 25
This is the first tournament Turkey have qualified for since remarkably finishing third in the 2002 World Cup in Asia, but they go to Euro 2008 without the talismanic Hakan Sukur. With over 100 caps and over 50 goals, Sukur was arguably Turkey's greatest ever player. At 36, though, he's finally outstayed his national team welcome.
Instead, Turkey will play the pacy Villareal striker Nihat up-front and Turkey's success may well lie in how well he is supported. They have so many talented midfielders that it's likely coach Fatih Terim will play a 4-5-1, to squeeze as many of them in as he can, but Nihat struggles on his own and will need players like Newcastle outcast Emre and young Galatasaray winger Arda to help him out. But Turkey are difficult to read as Terim is a notorious tinkerer - he's been experimenting with players, formations and systems for so long, nobody really knows what he's going to do at the Euros.
What is predictable is that they will be locked in a three-way fight for second place in Group A with the Czech Republic and hosts Switzerland - so don't read too much into it if they lose their opening game against group favourites Portugal.
FIFA World Ranking: 5
The Germans are most bookies' favourites, and understandably so. Unlike England, Germany have a knack of over-performing at major tournaments - think of WC2002, when the team predicted to flop reached the final, and of 2006's home-staged World Cup, where they were top scorers in finishing third. A championship in Austria-Switzerland is like a home tournament to the Germans, who will take massive support with them.
But also, for the first time in a while, the Germans have a squad worth getting excited about. Stalwarts like Ballack(above), Klose and Frings are still at the top of their games, while younger players like Lahm and Schweinsteiger are now established performers. Look out too for young Stuttgart striker Mario Gomez, who scored 28 goals in 32 games for his club this season, and has 6 in 9 caps for the national team. If the Germans have a weakness, it may be their goalkeeper: Arsenal's Jens Lehmann only played 13 times for his club last season. At 38, many feel it's time for him to be withdrawn from his national No. 1 spot too.
FIFA World Ranking: 101
While the Austrians will undoubtedly be organised and welcoming hosts, there is huge fear in the country that their football team may be too welcoming to its competitors: explore our country, enjoy our hospitality, and feel free to score at will. Incredibly, Austria are now rated 101st in the FIFA World Rankings, putting them behind such giants as Qatar, Thailand and Gabon, and 43rd in Europe (on-the-spot quiz - can you even name 43 European countries?).Austria have never been heavyweights, but they seem to be particularly suffering now from a lack of competitive match practice and a poorer-than-usual crop of players. Only midfielder and captain Andreas Ivanschitz really has the class to be playing at this level, though defenders Pogatetz and Stranzl are also important for the team. They're not bad defensively - however, they offer next to no threat going forward.
As with Switzerland, the pressure of hosting the tournament will probably help them over-perform, and a last-8 place isn't completely unthinkable considering the group they've been given. But many Austrians would be satisfied with just a draw against Poland and fighting, respectable performances against Germany and Croatia. Expectations for a host nation have never been so low.
FIFA World Ranking: 13
England's conquerers are still hurting from the absence of star striker Eduardo da Silva, whose leg was broken in a Premiership match last February while playing for Arsenal. But, y'know, they should stop crying, because Eduardo was never Croatian anyway - Brazilians aren't supposed to be eligible for European Championships, and the fact that only injury prevents him from appearing in this one makes a mockery of FIFA's eligibility rules.
Anyway, Eduardo's absence means the focus will turn to Spurs' new £16m signing, pocket-sized midfield playmaker Luka Modric, and he is ably assisted in the middle by Portsmouth's Niko Kranjcar. Mladen Petric will be the main centre-forward, but look out for Schalke's versatile young attacker Ivan Rakitic and 20-year old Hajduk Split striker Nikola Kalinic, who will both be looking to make an impression on the big stage. Croatia probably don't have enough fire power to be contenders for the title, but they should be able to ward off Austria and Poland to set up a quarter-final meeting with Portugal.
FIFA World Ranking: 27
If you can choose to play with one striker or three, four defenders or six, two holding midfielders or none, why - the Polish must be asking - can't you choose to play with one goalkeeper or three? In Celtic's Artur Boruc, Arsenal's Lukasz Fabianski and Manchester United's Tomasz Kuszczak, Poland have real strength-in-depth in the only position where squad depth is unimportant.
If only they had such talent going forward, they wouldn't have to resort to fast-tracking Polish citizenship to a Brazilian winger, Roger Guerreiro, who first set foot in Poland just two years ago. They do have one very talented forward, Ebi Smolarek of Racing Santander, who scored nine goals during their impressive qualifying campaign which saw them top a group which also contained the Portuguese.
But a 3-0 home defeat to the USA in March has brought expectations crashing back down to earth, and despite being given a fairly favourable draw (read: they are in the same group as Austria so should achieve a minimum of three points), beating Croatia to second spot in Group B might just be beyond them.
FIFA World Ranking: 7
France produces more great footballers than any other nation in the world - with the possible exception of Brazil, which is now exporting its surplus footballers to eastern Europe (see Croatia, Poland) - and the fact they were able to leave players of the calibre of David Trezeguet and Phillipe Mexes out of the squad altogether is quite incredible.
But what matters now is the 11 men on the park, and the French have incredible strength. Franck Ribery (above) was a sensation for Bayern Munich last season and will have to carry most of the creative burden now that Zidane has retired. In defence, Thuram and Gallas are still going strong, while Patrick Viera and Claude Makelele in central midfield have tonnes of experience. Thierry Henry hasn't had a great season for Barcelona, but he should still start up-front for France, possibly alongside Lyon's wonderful young striker Karim Benzema. Benzema is a superstar in the making, so this could well be his breakout tournament.
When they lost twice to Scotland in the qualifiers, they didn't manage to score a goal, and in truth they weren't able to create many chances: Makelele and Viera are great defensively, but they don't offer much flair. Then again, the French did beat world champions Italy in Paris, inspired by a magnificent Ribery.
FIFA World Ranking: 10
The presence of the Dutch in Group C is what makes this the Group of Death - both World Cup finalists, plus the always-fancied Oranje, could be tournament winners, but one will have to exit early. There's so much attacking talent in this squad, and Real Madrid's Ruud van Nistelrooy would be a good bet for top scorer for anyone who thinks the Dutch will survive into the latter stages. It's surely time for Rafael van der Vaart to make his mark on the international stage, and Robin van Persie (if fit) can also have a huge impact.
But the Dutch are not in good form and many fans at home are pessimistic about their chances. Famed for the system of 'Total Football' introduced by Rinus Michels in the 70s, the Dutch have always attempted to follow this tradition, if not strictly, then at least to the point of pursuing an attractive style of passing football. Marco van Basten has somewhat abandoned this, putting all the emphasis on the results, and not always attaining them.
And the deployment of van Nistelrooy remains an issue too - according to some, fitting the goalscorer into the team upsets other balances which are not fully compensated for by his goals. That's why Manchester United sold him despite an incredible goalscoring record: having previously went three seasons without winning the title, United have since won two-in-a-row by adopting a more fluid attacking style.
FIFA World Ranking: 3
The world champions - so they should win this one too, right? It is hard to see where the Italians' weaknesses are: they have one of the world's greatest goalkeepers in Gigi Buffon, and the Italians are renowned for their 'catenaccio' defensive solidity. Meanwhile, Andrea Pirlo and Rino Gattuso are a peerless central midfield pairing, and striker Luca Toni has been tearing through the German league this season for Bayern. Alex Del Piero has just had a great season for Juventus, and young Roma midfielder Alberto Aquilani has immense potential.
The Italians have so much experience at the top level, and the World Cup victory showed that they know how to deal with any situation - lesser teams would have crumbled during the Australia and Germany matches. Then again, they weren't hugely convincing in a qualifying campaign which included a draw with Lithuania and a defeat to France.
FIFA World Ranking: 12
Romania were impressive in qualifying, finishing above Holland and scoring a goal-a-game more than their nearest rivals. They rely heavily on two players - Fiorentina's Adrian Mutu, a clever and skillful attacker who sets up just as many goals as he scores; and captain Christian Chivu, who can play in midfield or defence, central or on the left.
What they lack in star names they make up for in team spirit and tactical discipline, but to get out of this group their other players will have to be at their best. Razvan Rat, at left-back, is a brick wall who has apparently never missed a single game due to injury in his career - he is now 27. Going forward it will be winger Florentin Petre and Stuttgart's Ciprian Marica who will have to help Mutu cause problems against, well, two of the toughest defences in world football, and Holland's.
FIFA World Ranking: 4
The Spanish have arguably the most talented squad in the tournament, but any on-paper analysis of their chances is made harder by their history of never doing themselves justice at major tournaments. Fernando Torres (above) was a sensation in the Premiership this season and is arguably the most on-form centre-forward in the world right now. Fabregas and Xavi in the middle is mouth-watering, Iker Casillas is one of the world's finest goalkeepers, and Sergio Ramos has just had an incredible season for Real Madrid at right-back.Their squad is packed with top-level experience and class, and they don't seem to have any weaknesses. But we've said these things before about Spain - they've always had good squads and they've always disappointed. Arguably their biggest obstacle is psychological - if they can forget their history, bond as a team, and truly believe they can beat anyone they play, then they're more than capable of winning this tournament... in theory, at least.
FIFA World Ranking: 8
The reigning champions - remember? Greece's victory at Euro 2004 is still hard to fathom, and it has been good and bad for football in different ways. On the positive it has given hope to underdogs everywhere, who can point to Greece and know that anything is possible with hard work and discipline. On the other hand, it has encouraged a very defensive style of football that relies on keeping a clean sheet and then hoping for a bit of luck at the other end.
Otto Rehhagel, the German coach who masterminded the victory last time out, is still the Greek manager, and he's still doing a great job. They demolished their qualifying group, which also included Turkey and Norway, and most observers say that this Greek side is better than it was four years ago. Look out for Gekas up-front, rampaging right-back Seitaridis, and silver-haired goalkeeper Nikopolidis, who is apparently in the form of his life at the age of 37.
But Greece has never been about individuals - Rehhagel's genius is in getting average players to play together and become better than the sum of their parts. Surely lightning cannot strike twice, can it?
FIFA World Ranking: 25
Russia will benefit from their league season having just started a few months ago, so their players will be fresher than those who have just finished long club seasons. Their coach, Dutchman Guus Hiddink, is a tournament specialist, most famous for taking South Korea all the way to the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2002. And in players like goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, right-back Alexander Anyukov, playmaker Andrei Arshavin, and striker Pavel Pogrebnyak, the Russians have talented and motivated youngsters who might just take complacent western Europeans by surprise.
Of course, if you saw Russia barely scrape through their qualifying group ahead of England thanks to the efforts of Croatia at Wembley, you won't have much confidence in them. Also to their huge frustration will be the absence of Arshavin for the first two games while he serves a suspension. But his inclusion in the squad suggests the Russians are expecting to be playing in more than just three matches.
FIFA World Ranking: 23
The Swedish reputation has been built on a solid well-organised defence and the heroics of Henrik Larsson up-front. At Euro 2008 their defence will be slightly more malleable, and Larsson, at 36, is only playing because he has been persuaded out of International retirement for the second time.
If that smacks a bit of desperation it's because a new generation of strikers hasn't really arrived yet. In qualification they finished second behind Spain, but while losing nine goals in twelve games would usually be viewed as a pretty good record, considering the Swedes had lost only eleven goals in the 36 games of three previous qualification campaigns, this might actually be seen as the first signs of cracking in their defensive brick wall.
Going forward, everything will rely on Zlatan Ibrahimovic - Larsson surely can't make a big impact again, can he? - who is one of the most talented attackers in the world on his day. If Zlatan decides to play, few will be able to stop him; but that's a bit 'if'.
So what will happen?
The Group of Death
Four teams among the top 12 of the world rankings, all in the same group? There's no doubt that Group C is the 'group of death' this year (though Group D is also tasty). France and Italy both qualified from Group B, and Romania and Holland both qualified from Group G, so these teams know each other.
In Group A, France won 3-1 in Paris against the Italians, and drew 0-0 in Milan, but came second in the qualifying group because the Italians had better results against the other teams.
In Group G, Romania were victorious over Holland 1-0 in Bucharest, and drew 0-0 away, eventually winning the group by 3 points. While Romania are the rank outsiders from this group, I can see them overcoming the Dutch again and finishing in third.
The France-Italy contest is on the last day of the group, when both teams may already have qualified, in which case they will both just be trying to avoid Spain in the next round.
The Dark Horses
First the UEFA Cup, then the Eurovision Song Contest - could Russia make it a fabulous treble by winning Euro 2008 as well? Greece's remarkable victory 4 years ago was far less likely at the beginning, and that taught us that while anything might not be probable, anything is possible. But Russian football is certainly on the rise, and even if they don't go far this time, it won't be long until Russia are a major force.
On paper, France and Spain have the best squads: the individual players who are worth the most money, who win the most games and competitions for their clubs. Italy and Germany are the tournament experts whose tactical discipline and top level experience should help them go far.
I'm going to go out on a limb here - the winners of Euro 2008 will be favourites Germany. Or Spain. Or Portugal. Or world champions Italy. Or France. Yep, definitely one of those five. Though Holland have a chance - if they get out of their group - as do the Russians...
and just for fun...
Breakout Tournament XI (a.k.a. Our Values Will Double in Four Weeks XI)
Igor Akinfeev (Russia, CSKA Moscow)
Aleksandr Anyukov (Russia, Zenit St. Petersburg)
Emre Gungor (Turkey, Galatasaray)
Dorin Goian (Romania, Steaua Bucharest)
Philipp Degen (Switzerland, Liverpool)
Luka Modric (Croatia, Spurs)
Ruben de la Red (Spain, Getafe)
Alberto Aquilani (Italy, Roma)
Andrei Arshavin (Russia, Zenit St. Petersburg)
Mario Gomez (Germany, Stuttgart)
Karim Benzema (France, Lyon)
We're Good, But Our Bloody Team-Mates Were No Help in Qualifying XI
Antti Niemi (Finland)
Alan Hutton (Scotland)
Nemanja Vidic (Serbia)
Daniel van Buyten (Belgium)
John Arne Riise (Norway)
Christian Poulsen (Denmark)
Anatoliy Tymoschuk (Ukraine)
Martin Petrov (Bulgaria)
Wayne Rooney (England)
David Healy (Northern Ireland)
Not Even In The French Squad But Still Better Than Most Other Countries' First XI's XI
Mickael Landreau (Paris-SG)
Bakary Sagna (Arsenal)
Philippe Mexes (Roma)
Julien Escude (Sevilla)
Gael Clichy (Arsenal)
Steed Malbranque (Spurs)
Alou Diarra (Bordeaux)
Mathieu Flamini (AC Milan)
Hatem Ben Arfa (Lyon)
Djibril Cisse (Marseille)
David Trezeguet (Juventus)
(subs: Pascal Chimbonda (Spurs), Sylvain Distin (Portsmouth), Mikael Silvestre (Manchester United), Jonathan Zebina (Juventus), Mathieu Valbuena (Marseille), Jeremy Menez (Monaco), Ludovic Giuly (Roma), Louis Saha (Manchester United)