euro giants not sure bet

TOP FORM: Portugal's striker Cristiano Ronald. Pic. 16/06/20004. © Getty Images
TOP FORM: Portugal's striker Cristiano Ronald. Pic. 16/06/20004. © Getty Images

VIENNA - Switzerland will get a rare chance to grab the limelight when the joint hosts and rank outsiders face the Czech Republic in tomorrow's Euro 2008 opener.

VIENNA - Switzerland will get a rare chance to grab the limelight when the joint hosts and rank outsiders face the Czech Republic in tomorrow's Euro 2008 opener.

A three-week extravaganza that organisers hope will draw a global TV audience in excess of eight billion viewers gets under way with a relatively low-key game in Basel.

The Swiss, along with co-hosts Austria, are expected to be among the eight casualties of the group stage while World Cup winners Italy, beaten finalists France, Germany, Spain and Portugal should all reach the quarterfinals.

But four years after Greece made a mockery of the bookmakers by becoming European champions in Lisbon, there is no certainty of a heavyweight final in Vienna on June 29.

Poland and the Czechs, beaten by Germany in the 1996 final at Wembley, could go all the way, helped in large part by a kind draw and a new championship format.

Germany are the only traditional powerhouse in Groups A and B, who will play each other all the way to the final, giving the Czech, Polish and Croatian fans real hope of causing an upset.

By contrast, one former European champion is certain to fall by the wayside in Group C where Italy, France and the Netherlands do battle with Romania.

Spain, whose Primera Liga is widely viewed as the best league in the world for technique, should come through a tight Group D featuring the Greeks, a Russia side that can draw on UEFA Cup winners Zenit St Petersburg, and Sweden. Teams aside, there will be no shortage of individual talent on display.

Portugal can count on Cristiano Ronaldo, fresh from Premier League and Champions League glory with Manchester United.

Germany will look to captain Michael Ballack, though Italy will be the poorer for losing captain Fabio Cannavaro to injury.

There should be plenty of excitement up front with 20-year-old Frenchman Karim Benzema and 36-year-old Swede Henrik Larsson on show, and Spain praying Fernando Torres matches his prolific season with Liverpool.

France coach Raymond Domenech, who watched his team beat Colombia 1-0 in their final warmup on Tuesday, is clearly expecting more from his strikers as they bid to repeat their Euro 2000 triumph.

"We will need to be more efficient in front of goal. I hope we can step up a gear during the tournament," he told reporters.

"We believe we're ready but only after our third match will we find out if we were better prepared than our opponents."

France, along with Italy and Germany, will clearly fancy their chances.

But Croatia coach Slaven Bilic summed up the views of many outsiders, saying: "There is a very realistic possibility a surprise package will win like Greece did in 2004 and I think we are quite capable of doing it." - Reuters

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