Group C

The Group of Death. 

Which is wholly unfair to the French and Italians as they already went to head to head, along with the Scots and Ukranians, in the qualification stages? version of the group of death.  But here they are, the rivals and World Cup championship game contestants, paired again and with one of the other top nations in the world, the Netherlands, and the plucky, underrated, yet still highly ranked Romania.  A look at the FIFA World Rankings of these four nations will show them all in the top 12:  Italy at 3, Francce #7, Netherlands #10 and Romania #12.  This group is sick and is a perfect example of how I disagree so passionately with UEFA?s and FIFA?s seeding systems, which are a joke.  All four of these nations should be advancing and playing in the later stages, and in any other group they would be, but here, only two can advance.  This is easily the most difficult group to call.  The task further compounded by all of the key injuries throughout the teams.  Only Romania seems to be heading into the group fully fit.  The outcome will surely have to be proven by the best two on the field.  

Odds 8/1
Seems like the team to beat on paper, until you factor in the intangibles of a stubborn coach who plays favorites and the difficulty of so many stars gelling together to form a cohesive unit.  Raymond Domenech, the coach, seems to have injected new blood into the squad more in terms of justifying players he wanted to leave off the roster, most notably David Trezeguet, than trying out new faces.  It is important to note that before taking up this post as manager of the full national side, Domenech was the manager of the youth national team so really, these new faces are mostly old favorites for the coach, keeping his m.o. of playing favorites  But the new faces are there and there is so much talent and such a fantastic blend of older experienced heads to run with the fresh legs and fearlessness of the young guns.  No matter the outcome of this tournament, like all national sides, their needs to be a coaching turnover following this championship.  Hopefully Domenech?s swan song will be his best tune to date, having fallen just a game short of becoming World Champions on Zinedine Zidane?s brilliance in the last World Cup.  Zidane, sadly, has retired from football, and for my money he was the greatest player of the last 20 years.  The French survived a group of death qualifying group only to land out of the pot and into the fire, with the Italians, into this group of death in the finals.  Anything less than a championship will likely be seen as a disappointment for the French, but they have the quality to do it. The defense is solid and this is a team that can grind out the 1-0 win as well as put teams away with multiple goal efforts.   
Players to Watch: Frank Ribery (#22), once dubbed the ?Next Zidane? and Samir Nasri (#11) also called the ?Next Zidane?, will provide most of the spark from the midfield.  They are both great at holding the ball and moving forward, but there is no doubt that the heart and spark of the team is Ribery.  However, the most important cog is probably the captain Patrick Viera (#4), the ageless tower of a midfielder.  He is fantastic box to box and can defend just as well as he pushed forward to open up the attack.  He will be absent from their opening match at least due to a muscle injury in his thigh but is already back in training and will likely be fit for the most difficult matches against Italy and the Netherlands.  Thierry Henry (#12) who, despite playing out of position at Barcelona will be the primary goal scorer up front.  But look for Karim Benzema (#9), dubbed the ?Next Henry? to do some damage up front as well.

The Netherlands
Odds 12/1
The Dutch are a curious bunch, they have so much talent yet always seem to be undone by their constant bickering within the team.  The bad news for this tournament is that the in-fighting has already begun with the experienced Clarence Seedorf already pulling out of the squad due to conflict with the manager and former star for the Oranje himself, Marco Van Basten.  The coach has recently changed the team?s system from the tested and true 4-3-3, which the Dutch were perhaps the best at employing, to a more contemporary 4-2-3-1 on some of the player?s influence.  How will these players be able to adjust to the new system on the highest stage remains to be seen, given that they grew up in proven 4-3-3 and I am not sure they have the personnel developed for the two holding midfielder roles.  The team?s chances were also dealt a cruel blow when the talented young Ryan Babel was ruled out to injury.  But there are plenty of other players ready to step up and enough quality to see them through, but can they come together to do it?  Perhaps more importantly is whether their tactical change will produce dividends or despair.
Players to Watch: The seemingly ageless Edwin Van der Sar (#1) lines up between the sticks.  He has been on excellent form with his club, Manchester United, leading them to the double of English Premier League champs and club champions of Europe.  However he won?t have enough help just in front of him in defense, especially given the quality of the opposition.  Ruud Van Nistlerooy (#9) is the focal point of the attack with most of the strategy to get him the ball in a dangerous position and let his critical final touch do the rest.  There is a wealth of attacking talent coming forward from midfield but I think Wesley Sneijder (#10) will prove the most class.  

Odds 7/1
The Italians are the reigning world champs and are pushing to become only the second team ever to hold both the world and European titles at the same time.  But they have one great obstacle to overcome in this quest, the injury to Fabio Cannavaro.  Cannavaro is not just their captain but also the focal point of their strength, their defense.  In their successful World Cup campaign two years ago this unit was so strong it only allowed 2 goals in the entirety of the tournament, one an own goal proving in fact that they were the most likely team to score against themselves, and the other from the penalty spot by the best player in that tournament in only the final.  But my criticism of that team was how thin that defense appeared, and that there was no cover.  An injury or red card along the back line, especially in the center, could see their campaign come to an abrupt end.  Well not only has that injury occurred, 2 years too late, but the other half of the central defensive pairing, Marco Materazzi (yeah, that guy who?s chest Zidane buried his head into) is coming off a disastrous season where his complete lack of class and absolute selfishness has been on center stage.  For all the options in attack, I can?t see the Italians as having a shot at winning this tournament, especially considering the toll this group will take on them.  But the world class talent could allow them to escape to the knockout rounds.  
Players to Watch: Luca Toni (#9) is the big hitman up front and will be finding himself in the right places to finish of goals, although it has been Antonio Di Natale (#11) that has been in the headlines and on the best form of late.  Genarro Gattuso (#8) is a walking yellow card.  He?s a tough tackling brute but unlike another of his countrymen and fellow starter Danielle De Rossi (#10), Gattuso has the intelligence and restraint to choose his moments to dive in and rarely gets his team in trouble by giving up the dangerous set piece or seeing himself off the pitch and the team a man down.  On the other hand, look for the occasinal horror tackle by De Rossi that could set the whole team back a goal, or a man.  I think their fate lies in the capable hands of Gigi Buffon (#1), who along with the Czech Republic?s Petr Cech is the second half of the best two goalkeepers in the world at the moment.  

Odds 40/1
Had it not been for this grouping I would have picked Romania as my sleeper team of the tournament.  Given the present circumstances they will be hard pressed to find their way out of the group stage.  The hurdle is perhaps the greatest of any team with a realistic chance of accomplishing it in the tournament, but they just might have the quality, and the luck, to do it.  They are the only team in the group entering the tournament healthy and fully fit.  They seem to have a confidence about them and they just might profit from having the lowest profile in the group.  There won?t be much separating the winners from the losers here and is one team overlooks the Romanians it might be at their own peril.  They will play a 4-2-3-1 and if they stay organized along the back I think they have the quality up front to get that one goal and maybe surprise someone with a 1-0 win which could go a long way to sending them through, or certainly sending the opposition out.  In the end I think the Romanians will have more to say about the latter, and play someone else out of the tournament that keep themselves in.  The hurdle is too high this time.
Players to Watch: The defense and identity of this team must be set by midfielder and captain Christian Chivu (#5).  It is around him their ability to keep themselves in the game and give the attackers a chance at making a difference starts and ends.  Up front Ciprian Marica (#9) will make his post.  He is another hot young player that could make a big impression.  But if they do pull off any magic the magician will be Adrian Mutu (#10).  Mutu will be given the reign to float wherever he can find the space, or a weakness to exploit.  

Group C Predictions
France will advance.  I am certain of that.  I am not so sure on their position as they might not top the group and slip by in second.  They should get a good start with all three points from Romania and will be able to better navigate their way through the final two games with an understanding of what is at stake.  The opener of Italy and the Netherlands could be decisive, but the next two matches with each successive against Romania may be more telling.  If Romania can get points off one it could end the tournament for that team.  If Romania can get points off both it might even see them through.  Romania was able to pull a draw and a win from the Netherlands in qualifying, and I am looking at the Dutch as the most likely side to fall in this scenario.  Ultimately I see the most likely suspects France and Italy getting out of the group and advancing, but I wouldn?t really be surprised by any result here.