- Czech Republic
There is exactly one real soccer team in this group, and that team belongs to the Czech Republic. They feature enormous (and suprisingly skilled) striker Jan Koller up front, and have a number of interchangeable attacking midfielders/withdrawn strikers who provide pace and scoring threats. The Czechs sailed through qualifying, winning their group and losing only one of 12 qualifying matches. More than any other team in the group, the Czechs have a collection of players that complement each other and are at or near the peaks of their careers. A legit threat to make a run to the semis or beyond.
Turkey have a limited number of skill players (primarily Hakan Sukur and playmaker Emre, who seems to play better for country than for his club), but abundant commitment and passion. Picking them over Portugal represents a mild upset, but the Portuguese were disjointed in qualifying and lack a top-quality striker up front now that Nuno Gomes is in his 80s. Also, their coach tried to pull a Woody Hayes on some random Serb during qualifying. Portugal will be very reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo, who might be the best player in the tournament (if also one of the whiniest c--ts), and will need a big three games out of him if they are to advance.
Switzerland has fine chocolates, prompt trains, and a team that lost a friendly to the United States's JV team last month. The Swiss are only here because they automatically qualified as joint hosts; nothing to see here.
Key Statistic: Number of yellow + red cards in the Portugal/Turkey game. The Portuguese have some of the world's great instigators, and the Turks' passion has been known to tip over into madness every so often. If Turkey can keep 11 men on the field in the game against Portugal, they'll go through. If not, the Portuguese will take advantage.
Group B--The Group of Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Jesus fuck, that looks like the ethnic breakdown of the VFW hall in most cities of the upper Midwest. Any ties in the group will be broken by a sausage cookoff, to be judged by an impartial Scandinavian observer from Minneapolis.
So, the goddamn Germans always qualify for major tournies, and always make it out of the group stages. Despite the recent struggles of the German club league, there's very little to make one suspect that they'll miss out on the quarters this year, either. Croatia are probably best-known at this point for beating England in London last month to knock about $300M in English Premier League players out of Euro '08 at the first hurdle. The team's best player is probably striker Eduardo Da Silva.
What's that you say? You hadn't previously known that Da Silva was a Croatian name? Well, fast Eddie is in fact a naturalized Croat, haveing come over from Brazil a number of years ago. One Brazillian > three Austrians, so I'm putting Croatia down for the second ticket to the knockout round.
Austria and Poland are pretty much interchangeable. I'm giving to edge to the Austrians because they are tournament co-hosts and will play their group matches at home. Also because in Austria they produce dangerous, megalomaniacal leaders like Hitler and Schwarzenegger, whereas in Poland they produce popes and think the Internet is something you fish with. Safety first.
Key Statistic: Each team's Central European Culinary Death Index. The CECDI is calculated by multiplying a team's aggregate HDL cholesterol count by its median blood alcohol content percentage. Low score wins the group.
Group C--The Group of Death
Boy. Boy oh boy. So let's try to justify this pick,which I've already changed three times.
For much of the qualifying period, Italy exhibited all the rigorous tactical shape of an unmade bed. However, I'm chalking that up to a post-World Cup hangover, and the lingering effect of the match-fixing scandal that has hovered over the Italian club league. Although Italy never really going well enough to stomp anybody, they did close out qualifying with a 4-0-1 run, complete with away wins over pesky teams from Scotland and Ukraine.
Italy's traditional team selection problem of choosing between Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti up front has been neatly solved by the benching of Del Piero and the latest petulant retirement of Totti. The new frontline of Luca Toni and Antonio Di Natale is both quicker and more compatible, which I think will give Italy the leg up it needs to win the group.
Taken individually, Holland's attacking players are arguably the best in the tournament. The problem has been finding a formation that lets those players interact to best advantage. Assuming Robin van Persie is healthy, I think that Holland will revert to an attacking 4-3-3, and give the older Italian and French backlines problems with their pace and quick passes. That should be enough to get them through.
Counting out France has been a losing play for much of the last decade. That said, striker Thierry Henry isn't getting the burn at Real Madrid that he was at Arsenal, and Zizou has finally left the international team to spend more time with the whore that is his sister. Unless Nicolas Anelka has one of his biennial runs of greatness, I don't think France has enough firepower to move on.
Romania could actually beat any of these teams on their day, especially if Adrian Mutu finds a coke connection in Austria.
Key Statistic: Vegas has set the +/- line on the number of asprin it takes to handicap this group at a solid 6.5.
Group D--The Group of Choke
Predicted Order of Finish:
This looks like on of those groups where the final point totals will be along the lines of 4-3-3-2, with goal difference deciding second place. Spain are Europe's most renowned chokers, having spit the bit in a number of major tournaments over the years. But, when in doubt, pick the best team to advance. Spain is joined on the gag list by Russia, who tried to give away their qualifying spot by blowing a halftime lead against Israel last month.While Russia's coach Gus Hiddink usually squeezes his teams through group play, I think he'll be pipped by defending champion Greece, who come in with essentially no hype despite winning Euro '04 and their (admittedly weak) qualifying group this year. Greece's steadiness should set it up well to beat out whichever of the choking twosome decide to add to their legacy this year. Sweden has lots of talent up front, but currently lack the midfield pivot necessary to bring it all together.
Key Statistic: The scoreline of the Spain-Russia game, which kicks off the round-robin in this group. A shaky performance by either side could lead to a quick and gruesome downward spiral, given the iffy historic performance of Spain, and the iffy recent performance of Russia.
Quarterfinals (winners in italics):
Czech Rep. v. Croatia
Germany v. Turkey
Italy v. Greece
Holland v. Spain
Czech Rep. v. Germany
Italy v. Spain
Czech Rep. v. Spain
N.B.--If that final actually happens, I'll eat my hat. But Euro '04 was full of upsets, and with the host teams not a threat, I feel like things could open up for some new blood this year.