France vs. Spain and Italy vs. Portugal headline a week of intriguing International Football
Whilst the whole world and his mother are hypothesizing about Don Fabio and his crew, I thought it might be a good idea to look at some of the other fixtures in what looks like a (dare I say it) appetising week of international friendly football, with fifteen of the sixteen Euro 2008 qualifiers in action, including six ties between the Euro 2008 competitors.
Here’s hoping that there are no injuries to top players, and no compensation paid out — although these days, so tight is the dialogue between club and national managers (a perquisite not available in days gone by) that players may be rested or asked by royal decree to play just half a match. That said, as a Spurs fan, I wouldn’t be too miffed if some divine force threw a lightning bolt or two at Cesc.
Czech Republic vs. Greece (Tuesday, to be played in Cyprus) and vs. Poland (Wednesday)
The Czech Republic are many people’s not-so-dark “dark horses” for Euro 2008, and the Czechs will be hoping for a comfortable victory against Euro 2004 winners Greece, although they will have to perform without Tomas Rosicky, Marek Jankulovski and Tomas Galasek, all of whom have pulled out through injury, as well as manager Karel Bruckner, who has a fever. However, a supremely strong squad can still call upon the likes of Cech, Grygera, Ujfalusi, Plasil, Koller and Baros, alongside starlets Kalouda (targeted by the two barcodes – Juventus and Newcastle — during the January transfer window), Mario Holek and Martin Fenin, who scored a hat-trick on his debut for Eintracht Frankfurt on Saturday afternoon.
The Czech Republic and reigning champions Greece qualified for 2008 with consummate ease, and both will be reasonably confident of progressing past the group stages this summer.
If they are victorious, the Czech Republic will avenge the 1-0 reverse suffered at the hands of the Greeks at the semi-final stages of Euro 2004, a match (and a tournament) in which they were highly fancied.
Both sides are expected to field weakened teams, since both have fixtures the following day (the Czechs vs. Poland and Greece over the side Poland have just beaten, in the shape of Finland), however, this may offer up an opportunity for the younger members of the two squads, vis-Ã -vis Euro 2008. Coach Bruckner had claimed that he would not field a much weakened side for either of the matches, although it remains to be seen what the club managers have to say about that.
Poland have named a squad that will be unfamiliar to most English fans (though not to the massive Polish contingent currently residing in the UK), since it is composed entirely of domestic players. However, for Championship Manager buffs, there is a place for Pawel Brozek of Wisla Krakow: Brozek was once one of the great young players on CM.
Croatia vs. Netherlands
English eyes will be on this tie since it involves Croatia, the side who knocked the Angles out of the contention for Euro 2008 at such a premature stage.
Croatia will expect to qualify out of group B at this summer’s competition, probably along with Germany, and have named just one domestic-based player in their squad against the Netherlands, following a request on the part of the managers of Dinamo Zagreb and Hadjuk Split that certain players be given time to rest. However, in-demand manager Slaven Bilic still names an extremely experienced squad that contains Premiership stars Kranjcar, Corluka and in-form Eduardo, as well as Luka Modric, who has attracted attention from top clubs around the globe, and was rumoured to be the subject of a bid by Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
The Netherlands left out beleaguered Liverpool frontman Dirk Kuyt, who has just three Premiership goals to his name this season, and the squad coached by Ajax target Marco Van Basten has been depleted by numerous withdrawals, the most high-profile of which are the names of Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Clarence Seedorf. Kuyt’s Liverpool team-mate Ryan Babel should play, however. The Netherlands cancelled a previously arranged meeting with Italy, since the two have been drawn in the same group at Euro 2008.
Spain vs. France
This mouth-watering tie in Málaga will be notable for many reasons: it is the first chance for Spain to get their own back on France since their Pyrenean neighbours sent them packing from World Cup 2006, it is a match Spain approach on the back of a 12-match unbeaten streak, and, perhaps most significantly, it should mark the international debut of the fantastic talent that is Bojan.
Both selections have opted against including charismatic strikers who divide opinion: Raúl continues to be left out of Luis Aragonés’s plans, despite Tamudo’s injury, whilst David Trezeguet, top scorer in Serie A this season, must be wondering what the hell he has to do to get a look-in (one is reminded of the Dhorasoo’s film Substitute about which Jennifer wrote so exquisitely). There is also no place for Real Madrid’s inconsistent wonder, Guti.
Spain’s squad continues to be dominated by Valencia players (David Silva has withdrawn with injury, however), with ex-Valencia captain David Albelda retaining his place in the squad despite finding himself excommunicated under Ronald Koeman. Mallorca defender and ex-culé Fernando Navarro should get a game under his belt, the midfield will be primarily composed of the Catalan cycle that is Xavi-Cesc-Iniesta whilst up front Spain can call upon Fernando Torres, who has returned to the international fold after injury had previously ruled him out; a rejuvenated David Villa, who broke a scoring duck on Sunday; as well as the aforementioned Bojan. Liverpool defender Ãlvaro Arbeloa, who had been in line to make his debut for the selección, misses out through injury.
France come into the match with a fairly strong squad, although talisman Franck Ribéry will be receiving treatment instead of participating — the Bayern Munich star will be out of action for some three weeks. Patrick Vieira should be fit to play for an hour, whilst Samir Nasri will hope to take some part in the match. Arsenal star Gael Clichy, who has been without doubt the best left-back in the Premiership this season, should make his debut for France in tomorrow’s “A” fixture against Congo. Man United target Karim Benzema should start against Spain.
In an interesting aside, there has been some controversy over the fact that Les Bleus have done away with their old blue kits in order to don a completely red strip, a fact which has irritated some in Spain, a nation that traditionally plays in red.
Luis Aragonés has played up the importance of the friendly, stating that: .
“The game against France will be an important test of how much we have really progressed, against one of the top sides in Europe,”.
Austria vs. Germany
The meeting between these two traditional neighbours, who will face off in group B at Euro 2008, is particularly exciting since it sees the international return of Germany captain Michael Ballack, who has been in scintillating form for club Chelsea. Germany generally approach this match in good stead, with striker Kevin Kuranyi on a particularly hot streak. Ballack is due to win his 78th cap as Loew named an almost undiluted side; only Werder Bremen midfielder Torsten Frings and Real Madrid defender Christoph Metzelder, who is expected to undergo an operation sometime soon, are missing due to being unfit. Tim Borowski of Werder Bremen is a high-profile cut on Lowe’s part. The impressive Loew will continue to experiment with out-of-favour Bayern Munich striker Lukas Podolski in a midfield position. Schalke midfielder Jermain Jones could be in line for a debut, meanwhile; I wonder if Jermain Jones and Jermain Jenas might face off anytime soon!
Austria, on the other hand, go into this tie in fearfully bad form, with morale at what could be called an all-time low. An automatic qualifier for Euro 2008 as co-hosts, Austria won just one of twelve friendlies last year, with their performances terrible enough to prompt a group of Austrian supporters to start up a petition in which the nation were urged to forfeit their place at this summer’s championships. Very few of Austria’s squad are well-known, although Emanuel Pogatetz of Middlesbrough has been extended an olive branch after 17 months of international exile, whilst goalkeeper Alex Manninger started a handful games for Arsenal.
Sweden vs. Turkey
In what is a slightly less high-profile match, Sweden travel to Istanbul for a friendly against Turkey, who are notoriously poor performers in friendlies. Lars Lagerback (a name that is music to English ears!) has named a relatively strong squad, although the absences of the English-based trio Erik Edman, Freddie Ljungberg and Olof Mellberg, as well as star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, all of whom are being rested, someone takes the shine off the occasion. Ex-Arsenal midfielder Sebastian Larsson, scorer of Birmingham’s goal on Saturday, will be expected to start, along with Spurs targets Kim Kallstrom and Johan Elmander.
Turkey have also named a reasonably strong set of players, with Middlesbrough’s Tuncay a notable absentee, although the terrific Nihat (Villareal), Emre (Newcastle) and Basturk (Stuttgart) are all included.
Italy vs. Portugal (played in Zurich)
This match, arranged after Italy had cancelled their fixture against the Netherlands due to the two being grouped together at Euro 2008, has all the makings of a classic, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see weakened sides fielded for at least 45 minutes. The game is also important since it will allow UEFA officials the first type of “dress rehearsal” in the build-up to this summer’s spectacle.
Italy continue to exclude Del Piero, despite some fantastic club performances — what is it with managers and leaving out the “old guard” attackers who have regained the form which their permanent class promised? — and there is no place for the consistently inconsistent Cassano, who has been pretty decent in recent weeks. Andrea Barzagli looks likely to keep out the returning Materazzi, with 2006 World Player of the Year Fabio Cannavaro odds-on to play despite his horror-show for Real Madrid at the weekend. Milan striker Alberto Gilardino and Juventus forward Vincenzo Iaquinta have also been omitted, leaving space for manager Roberto Donadoni to experiment. On Cassano’s omission, Donadoni remarked:
“Cassano is a player who I know best… He needs to be stimulated and call-ups don’t do that. He needs to grow more, so I am waiting expectantly.”
With Gattuso and Buffon out injured, most of Italy’s available big stars are expected to play (Totti of course is no longer available for international selection), including giant striker Luca Toni, who scored at the weekend for Bayern Munich. Fabio Quagliarella, who was reported to be interesting Manchester United at one point, should also take part. There is curiously no place for Villareal star Giuseppe Rossi — a strange decision, in my opinion, considering Rossi’s superb form. Genoa striker Marco Borrielo, scorer of 12 Serie A goals this season, could be in line for a debut as he is called up to the squad for the first time.
For a full preview of the game, as well as Roberto Donadoni’s comments on his current squad selection, see Marco’s “Preparing for Italy-Portugal: Coach Roberto Donadoni Talks About His Most Recent Azzurri Call-Ups” article on mCalcio.
As for Portugal, manager Luiz Felipe Scolari will most likely stick to a familiar line-up, with household stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Quaresma, as well as Manchester United target José Boswinga, looking to start, although Scolari has suggested that he may be willing to try out new tactics in order to combat Italy’s “peculiar style”. Nuno Gomes will not be fit for the encounter, having injured himself playing for Benfica, whilst an out-of-sorts and recently-returned-from-injury Deco may not start. Inter’s new signing Maniche will likely line up against his Serie A rivals, although no Inter team-mates will be on the opposing side.
Benfica’s new signing Ariza Makukula will be hoping to build on a debut goal against Kazakhstan in what will be his third appearance for his adopted nation.