Friendlies fuel Euro '08 fever

MORRIS DALLA COSTA

, Last Updated: 1:02 PM ET

The latest round of European friendlies did nothing to dispel the notion that Euro '08 will be one of the most competitive - and unpredictable - European championships in many years.

It has Euro '04 to live up to. No one would have predicted that Greece, a soccer minnow, would emerge as champion.

But betting lines for a competition like Euro are always unpredictable, given that you have most of the top European sides participating in the tournament.

The global nature of the sport, where there are no limits on how many foreign players can play on a club side, has allowed for the accelerated development of players from smaller countries.

MEASURING STICK

As an example, in a quarter-final Champions League game between two English Premier League sides - Arsenal and Liverpool - only two of the 22 starting players were English.

While friendlies are only exhibition games, they provide a valuable measuring stick in evaluating who is on the right course for Euro.

It wasn't a happy day for the co-hosts of the tournament. Switzerland was dominated 4-0 by Germany.

In recent years, the Germans have always looked ill-prepared for major tournaments. Yet when the opening whistle goes, they always find a way to finish among the top nations.

Their form has been excellent. Joachim Low took over as coach from Jurgen Klinsmann and has the confidence of his team.

Germany will have a formidable strike force with Miroslav Klose likely pairing with Mario Gomez. With Lukas Podolski in a supporting role, they should not lack for goals.

Germany has won three European championships - more than any other nation.

There were several other notable results.

The Greek victory of four years ago is considered something of a fluke, a combination of everything going right.

But Greece is sending out a message that they will not give up their title easily. In a recent friendly, they yet again defeated Portugal, this time 2-1.

It's difficult to overlook a defending champion, no matter how small a nation it is.

Coach Otto Rehhagel became a national hero and he is preparing his team with the same degree of attention he did four years ago.

As has become their trademark, the Greeks will rely on a stifling defence.

Portugal did not play well, but will only get better. They were missing the best player in the world, Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo, as well as Nani and Deco.

The Dutch also made some big noise at the expense of the other hosts, Austria.

Austria took a 3-0 lead in Vienna, but the Netherlands came back with four goals to win 4-3.

It's an indication of what the Netherlands can do in Euro.

Of course, the Dutch hope to play better defence. But this is a team whose history has always been to entertain.

DELIGHTFUL TO WATCH

It will be coach Marco van Basten's last tournament with the Orange.

The former star striker has put together a delightful team to watch, especially van Basten-clone Klaas Jan Hunterlaar.

The Netherlands will play in a group with France, which defeated England 1-0 in a friendly despite missing several key players; Italy, losers to Spain 1-0; and Romania.

How difficult will it be in that grouping?

Romania finished ahead of the Netherlands in qualifying for Euro and moved into the Top 15 in world rankings.

Coach Victor Piturca is a former striker who loves attacking soccer and he has a pair of world-class strikers in Adrian Mutu and Ciprian Marica.

Romania defeated Russia, another Euro '08 participant, 3-0.

The teams that appear in the final in Vienna will have certainly earned their trip there.

But who those teams will be is virtually impossible to determine.


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