Group of Death

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:36 AM ET

KLAGENFURT, AUSTRIA -- The Dutch believe the Italians are scared of them. The French play against Romania, a team everyone should be afraid of. The Italians aren't afraid of anyone.

So it goes in the Group of Death, which opens play today in the Euro 2008 soccer tournament.

Italy and the Netherlands play in Berne in an early highlight game. In the early upset special, Romania plays France in Zurich.

Be afraid France, be very afraid.

The skinny is simple in this game. France faces major concerns. It did not have an easy time qualifying. It was only average at best in friendlies leading up to Euro 2008.

Since the French came to this championship, the scuttlebutt around most of the camps has been about the French lack of precision. They are being called old.

They will have Franck Ribery attempting to take over from Zinedine Zidane, and Karim Benzema, who has been handed the mantle as the next great young player.

He will be paired with Thierry Henry, who has done little in the last year.

When you toss in the fact French coach Raymond Domenech is getting grief for never having won anything, then things don't look rosy for the French.

To start against Romania won't be easy. The Romanians know they have nothing to lose as no one expects them to emerge from this group.

It's not a bad position to be in.

"We are not here for a holiday," Romania defender Cosmin Contra said. "We are aiming to reach the quarter-finals and play good football in what is an illustrious group.

"A positive result against France is key and could spur us on to great things."

It isn't as if the Romanians don't have dangerous players. Adrian Mutu is considered a first-class striker, Christian Chivu is a Serie A player in Italy who will provide leadership and stability to a Romania side who hasn't played in the last three major champion-ships.

The Italians are everyone's target.

As World Cup winners, they are trying to become only the second team, behind France, to win the double, a World Cup and the European champion-ship in the same cycle.

There is always gamesmanship involved in these events.

"Look at the Italians, they are also afraid of us, be sure of that. They are terrified," Dutch player Wesley Sneijder said last week.

Well, if there is one noticeable thing about the Azzurri in their preparations this week and their appearances in the news conferences, it's that nothing has rattled them.

When key defender Fabio Cannavaro went down, they merely went about their business. Even though Christian Panucci claims he's healthy after a knock to his knee, coach Roberto Donadoni will not start him.

One other thing that's been plainly evident with this Italian team, it has developed a flexibility it didn't have in the past.

They can attack, defend, interchange parts, play young or old. No wonder they have great confidence.

Alex Del Piero will get the start, most likely as a winger.

He is an example of how flexible and how much better this team is than the World Cup squad. Two years ago, Del Piero was considered cooked, well-done, finished. This year he had a phenomenal Seria A season and is even hinting he'd be glad to take the captain's armband.

Does it mean the Italians will win?

Of course not. But they have all the parts.

"So many things happened in these two years," Del Piero told Italian journalists at their camp in Austria.

Coincidentally, the final is in Vienna. The Italians wouldn't have to move far.

"We've had two extraordinary seasons on the national team with a new coach and new style of play," Del Piero continued. "These last 24 months have made me as happy as ever."

As for that scary Dutch side, they have a list of injuries that would stuff the scared quote down Sneijder's throat. Those include Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Ryan Babel.

They should be worried about living up to expectations they so seldom fulfil.


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