Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Thu 5 June 2008

Euro 2008: Guide to Group B

Group B
If Group C is the group of football death then B is the group of actual death. If proceedings are handled badly we could be looking at a new European War stretching from the Ruhr Valley to the Balkans via the Baltic Sea. Thank God England didn't finish top of their qualifying group. Imagine being shoved in with that lot?

Austria

Qualifying
No qualifying for the Austrians. They're the co-hosts, you see. It’s a privilege given to only a select few countries, namely those with the biggest, most bulging brown envelopes addressed to Michel Platini, c/o UEFA.

How the mighty have fallen
Once upon a time, Austria were one of the kings of world football. Go back to any year between 1930's and 1950's and you'll have seen them giving almost anyone a decent match. Even in the 70's and 80's they were still getting to the World Cup Finals and when FIFA introduced their World Rankings, they registered a high water mark of 17th in June 1999 (see graph, above).

Nowadays, they're ranked 92nd below such giants of the game as Mozambique, Guatemala and Qatar and last month they reached an all-time low of 101st. The only way is up, as they say...

Players you might have heard of
Between the sticks there's former Arsenal goalkeeper Alex Manninger (now playing for Siena in Italy) and in defence we have Middlesbrough's Emanuel Pogatetz.

Players you won't be seeing
Wigan's Paul Scharner. Having made twelve appearances for the Austrian team, he had a major falling out with current coach Josef Hickersberger and called his country's F.A. setup a shambles. Despite attempts to rebuild bridges with Hickersberger, he remained absent from the Austria squad for Euro 2008 promptung Scharner to call time on his international career.

Recent friendlies
March 26: Austria 3 Netherlands 4
May 27: Austria 1 Nigeria 1
May 30: Austria 5 Malta 1

SPAOTP's Top Tip For Greatness
Martin Stranzl. For a team that's going to have to defend like fury against the might of Germany and Croatia, their 6 ft 4 inch centre back is going to have to be on his mettle in no uncertain terms. He can also score the occasional goal, too, as he's proved at 1860 Munich, Stuttgart, Spartak Moscow (his current club) and in the international side.

Croatia

Qualifying
Us English know all too well how the Croatians did in qualifying. They topped the group by five clear points ahead of Russia having lost only one of their twelve games. Key to their success was Arsenal's Eduardo da Silva who bagged ten goals, but after breaking his leg in the Premier League, he'll be noticeably absent over the next few weeks.

Current Form
Despite an emphatic qualifying round, they're finding life without a prolific forward not so easy. In the four friendlies since the 3-2 defeat of England that clinched their place at the Euro's, they've won just one and scored only three. Worrying…

Players you might have heard of
Aside from coach Slaven Bilic, who fans of West Ham and Everton will remember fondly, the squad boasts Manchester City's Vedran Corluka in defence and Portsmouth's Niko Kranjcar in midfield.

Recent friendlies
March 26: Scotland 1 Croatia 1
May 24: Croatia 1 Moldova 0
May 31: Hungary 1 Croatia 1

A small price to pay
Clubs and countries were on high alert recently when it became clear that Slaven Bilic's contract with the Croatian FA was about to run out when Euro 2008 was over. Given the fact that he was earning a paltry £35,000 a year, it's fair to say that he could easily earn a higher wage elsewhere but Bilic made a big commitment to the Croatian team by agreeing to renew his contract unconditionally until 2010.

Curiously he left it to his employers to award him a salary they thought was appropriate given his recent successes, but did make one stipulation - that his assistants be given a considerable wage. Robert Prosinecki is one of those that fits into that category and to date he hasn't earned a single penny for helping out his former Croatia team-mate

SPAOTP's Top Tip For Greatness
In the absence of Eduardo, the man being asked to step into his boots will be Luka Modric. The Dinamo Zagreb midfielder has the critics cooing over him something rotten. He's got a powerful right foot, can distribute the ball better than most and has been likened to none other than Johann Cruyff. "He's hard even to foul" said Bilic.

Germany

Qualifying
Some people have made big news of the fact that Germany only finished second in Group D behind the Czechs, but we think that's poppycock. The fact of the matter is Germany were the first to qualify from the group (maybe even the whole competition, if we remember rightly) and did so before Euro 2000 had even finished. More or less.

Oh yes - and they beat San Marino 13-0 as well.

Kit check
Germany do love their kits and you only have to go back to the 1980's to see a wide range of styles and designs to suit every taste. For Euro 2008, however, they've gone for a very bold black stripe across that famous white shirt. We're sure they've used the black stripe thing before now - perhaps back in the days before the Second World War - but we can find no evidence to prove it. Perhaps we're thinking of the German athletics team or something.

Anyway, if you think the white-with-a-black-stripe effect is bold, wait til you see the change strip. It features a red shirt with a broad black stripe running down the middle from top to bottom (see above). Apparently we've got Jurgen Klinsmann to blame for the switch from green to red. He figured that teams wearing red were statistically more successful than any other. It certainly worked for England in 1966...

Clear-cut favourites?
Even though everyone and his dog seems to be backing the Germans to win Euro 2008, there seems to be plenty of reasons not to. For a start, the squad contains many young players that lack a decent amount of experience on the international stage.

Of those that do have the experience of playing for their country, many, ironically, haven't been playing much for their clubs of late, and one key example is Jens Lehmann. He's just signed for Stuttgart after a season of only sporadic appearances for Arsenal, and his lack of regular match practice will be shared by other members of the squad like Christoph Metzelder, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski. Whether their undoubted star qualities will shine through anyway remains to be seen, but we won't bet the house on a German tournament win just yet if it's all the same with you...

Recent friendlies
March 26: Switzerland 0 Germany 4
May 27: Germany 2 Belarus 2
May 31: Germany 2 Serbia 1

Players you might have heard of
We've already mentioned Lehmann and Ballack, so that just leaves Thomas Hitzlsperger as a remaining Premier League stalwart to bring to your attention. He's the former Aston Villa midfielder with a blistering left-foot shot which these days helps him bag goals a-plenty at Stuttgart. He may only be used as a replacement for Torsten Frings, but what a good alternative to have, we say.

SPAOTP's Top Tip For Greatness
Michael Ballack. Yeah yeah, you know who he is and all that, but he's arguably the one main talent that the German team is based around, thanks to his goalscoring ability, experience and skill at distributing the ball to all parts of the team. And he takes a mean penalty, too.

Poland

Qualifying
What can we say... the arrival of coach Leo Beenhakker signalled a renewed sense of inner belief for the Poles during qualifying. After losing their first match 3-1 to Finland, they went on to top Group A ahead of Portugal, Serbia and the Finns. A particularly impressive 2-1 win over Portugal to accompany their previous 1-1 says everything you need to know - that Poland are capable of great things this summer. However...

Current form
'Iffy' would be a good way to describe it. Since qualifying for the finals last October, Poland have struggled to maintain the convincing form they'd shown previously. At the start of the year they beat the Czechs 2-0 in Cyprus but then lost 2-0 to the USA at home.

More recently they've scored three goals in their last three games during which they could only draw with Macedonia and scrape past Albania with a 1-0 win. Do we here the sound of wheels coming off?

Players you might have heard of
Several to choose from here. For a start, take your pick from all three goalkeepers well known to British fans - Arsenal's Lukasz Fabianski, Man United's Tomasz Kuszczak and Celtic's Artur Boruc.

Up front, Celtic fans will also recognise Maciej Zurawski - now at Larisa in Greece - plus there's Southampton striker Marek Saganowski.

Recent friendlies
May 26: Macedonia 1 Poland 1
May 27: Albania 0 Poland 1
June 1: Poland 1 Denmark 1

A man of some experience
What about that coach, eh? Leo Beenhakker - the man with a CV longer than Ruud van Nistelrooy's face. He's been everywhere and done everything during his career, so let's take a roll call of all the places where 'Don Leo' has brought his unique brand of leadership...

1972-1975 SC Cambuur; 1975-1976 Go Ahead Eagles; 1979-1981 Ajax; 1981-1984 Real Zaragoza; 1985 FC Volendam; 1985-1986 Netherlands; 1986-1989 Real Madrid; 1989-1991 Ajax; 1990 Netherlands; 1992 Real Madrid; 1992-1993 Grasshoppers Zürich; 1993-1994 Saudi Arabia; 1994-1995 Club América; 1995-1996 İstanbulspor A.Ş.; 1996 Guadalajara; 1996-1997 Vitesse; 1997-2000 Feyenoord; 2000-2003 Ajax; 2003-2004 Club América; 2004-2005 De Graafschap; 2005-2006 Trinidad and Tobago; 2006- Poland.

Marvellous.

SPAOTP's Top Tip For Greatness
Euzebiusz Smolarek. Scorer of nine goals during the qualifiers and a man of some considerable footballing pedigree. He was named after Portuguese legend Eusebio by his father who himself was no mug. Wlodzimierz Smolarek played for the Poland team that finished third at the 1982 World Cup and was the last Pole to score against Portugal before his son replicated the feat in October 2006.

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