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By unknown | May 12, 2008 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

LONDON - Stung by a surprise triumph by Greece four years ago, Europe's major soccer teams are out to make sure there is no upset winner this time.

LONDON - Stung by a surprise triumph by Greece four years ago, Europe's major soccer teams are out to make sure there is no upset winner this time.

Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, France and the Czech Republic - as Czechoslovakia - have all won the European Championship, and they are among the favourites again this time when the tournament kicks off on June 7 in Austria and Switzerland.

Most of them failed to produce anything like their best form in Portugal at Euro 2004 and the Greeks, 80-1 outsiders who had never before won a match at a major championship, took advantage.

The team's German coach, Otto Rehhagel, is still in charge and will use many of the players who triumphed four years ago.

Since then, the big European teams have restored dominance in world soccer, shutting out the rest of the globe by reaching the 2006 World Cup semifinals with Italy beating France on penalties in the final in Berlin.

Germany are now the favourites with the bookmakers to win a fourth European title and are the shortest price team to reach the quarterfinals.

That's because Joachim Loew's team has a comparatively easy group with Croatia, Poland and co-hosts Austria, whereas Italy and France are in the toughest - facing each other, the Netherlands and Romania.

Two teams from each group qualify for the quarterfinals and Greece, a 25-1 shot this time, have a realistic chance in a group with Sweden, Russia and Spain.

Portugal, who lost to Greece twice at home at Euro 2004, face Turkey, the Czech Republic and co-hosts Switzerland. That failure four years ago was embarrassing for Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who had guided Brazil to their fifth World Cup title only two years earlier.

Now he's carefully calculating what his team's chances are this time.

"There will be 16 national teams and each one has a 6,2 percent chance of winning the trophy next summer," Scolari said. "If we get through to the next stage our chances will increase to 12,4 percent and so on. However, we have a good team, that's a fact."

Because no leading contenders are hosting the tournament, it appears to be wide open with eight teams, plus defending champions Greece, capable of winning the title.

They include Croatia, World Cup semifinalists on their debut in 1998, who have improved under 39-year-old coach Slaven Bilic.

The Croatians knocked England out of qualifying with a 3-2 win at Wembley.

Bilic has assembled a squad of enterprising and well-organised players who are capable of showing that the victory at Wembley was no fluke. They also beat and outplayed England 2-0 at home.

"I will never be under more pressure than now," Bilic said. "I'm managing my own country. This is personal. It is not like I'm managing England or some other foreign nation."

Bilic will be without talented Arsenal striker Eduardo da Silva, however. He is recovering from a fractured left leg and dislocated ankle and won't be back until well into next season.

"We are seriously hit by Eduardo's injury, but we still have enough manpower to play better than in the qualifications," Bilic said.

"Our goal is to play at least as good as the best teams in the tournament."

A lot depends on how the top players are able to recover from another long, gruelling season in domestic and European club competitions.

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani and Ricardo Carvalho, the Netherlands' Edwin van der Sar, Germany's Michael Ballack, France's Florent Malouda and the Czech Republic's Petr Cech will be playing when Manchester United and Chelsea face each other in the Champions League final in Moscow on May 21.

After that, they then have to link up with their national teams to prepare for Euro 2008 with warmup games at the end of May and beginning of June.

The Spanish, Italian and German leagues don't finish until the middle of May and, as recent World Cups and European Championships have proved, some of the top players are simply worn out by the time the big tournaments come around.

"I have no doubts [that some players will be worn out] but there are a few matches to play before the end of the season and there are players who can improve or decline in form," Scolari said.

"There's a lot going on before the end of the season but I have nothing to worry about. The players I choose will be in perfect condition."

A few will come out of their seasons nursing injuries and then have to play two games every four days in group play. The two finalists will have played six times in a month.

The English players won't have to worry about the gruelling schedule because they failed to qualify for a major championship for the first time since the 1994 World Cup. - Sapa-AP


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