UEFA EURO 2008™ gets started on Wednesday and the majority of the competitors have hopes of joining co-hosts Austria and Switzerland in the finals. With both FIFA World Cup finalists in the same group, and two new nations in contention, uefa.com takes a look at the seven pools, each of which will produce two qualifiers.
Runners-up on home soil four years ago and World Cup semi-finalists, Portugal are confident. Luís Figo and record scorer Pauleta have bowed out but the talismanic Luis Felipe Scolari remains in charge. Poland also have a high-profile foreign coach in the shape of Leo Beenhakker, who is keeping faith with the established players as they attempt to qualify for their first EURO finals. Playing in their debut qualifiers are the now separate Serbia, coached by Spaniard Javier Clemente and able to call on most the squad that reached the World Cup in partnership with Montenegro. Belgium will build around German-based defensive duo Vincent Kompany and Daniel Van Buyten when they open their campaign on Wednesday against Kazakhstan, who are making their EURO bow. Finland will be coached by the experienced Roy Hodgson, but although hopes of a first qualification have grown over the last decade, there is limited back-up to the first-choice lineup.
On 6 September France and Italy will meet in their second qualifier less than two months after their encounter in Berlin. France are (again) looking to life after Zinédine Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele, while world champions Italy have a new coach in Roberto Donadoni as they aim to become only the second team to win the European title two years after gaining the world crown - after France in 2000. Ukraine, who lost to Italy in the World Cup quarter-finals, will be keen to reverse that result but another challenge could come from Scotland, much improved under Walter Smith.
Holders Greece have stuck by Otto Rehhagel and his established lineup, but are still smarting from their World Cup campaign when they finished fourth in their pool. Turkey also have unhappy memories of that tournament, as the aftermath of their play-off defeat by Switzerland has left them having to play their 'home' games against Malta, Moldova and Norway on neutral territory. Norway themselves have reached play-offs in their last two campaigns and welcome back Ole Gunnar Solskjær from injury. Dark horses Bosnia-Herzegovina have become a difficult team to beat.
Jürgen Klinsmann's successor Joachim Löw takes over a Germany team high in confidence, full of up-and-coming talent like Phillip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski, and with only one departure - Oliver Kahn, who had already lost his place to Jens Lehmann. Of course, it is a while since their last competitive away game, but only one of Germany's rivals, the Czech Republic, qualified for the World Cup, and their experience was one of disappointment. However, they have only seen Karel Poborský retire, and the vastly experienced Karel Brückner remains in charge. Two other teams with strong chances are the Republic of Ireland, under former player Steve Staunton, and Czech neighbours Slovakia, only beaten by Spain in the World Cup play-offs.
England's new coach Steve McClaren is in place, keen to improve on three consecutive quarter-final results, and looks to be making changes. Croatia have qualified five times for major tournaments in six attempts and there is plenty of optimism following the appointment of the 37-year-old Slaven Bilić as coach. Russia too have an inspiring new leader in Guus Hiddink and while Israel may have to switch their home games, Avraham Grant's successor Dror Kashtan inherits a team that were not beaten in World Cup qualification. F.Y.R. Macedonia, who play Estonia this week, are coached by Srečko Katanec, who led his native Slovenia to two major final tournaments.
Spain may sometimes disappoint at major tournaments but they have not failed to qualify in well over a decade. The fluency of their performances in the group stage in Germany suggest that run will not end, with the major threats coming from Scandinavian neighbours Denmark and Sweden. Denmark did not make the World Cup but have a stable and experienced squad while Lars Lagerbäck will again lead Sweden as they attempt to reach a fifth consecutive major finals, though Henrik Larsson is no longer available. Of the outsiders, Northern Ireland’s victory against England in September will be a warning for no one to take them lightly, but Latvia could find it tough to match their 2004 heroics. Even Liechtenstein proved in their World Cup campaign that they are no longer pushovers.
Two EURO semi-final defeats in a row will motivate the Netherlands, who departed the World Cup in a bizarre match against Portugal but otherwise have looked good under Marco van Basten with a talented, young team. Romania finished third behind the Dutch and Czechs in World Cup qualifying, but with established names including Adrian Mutu, Cristian Chivu and Cosmin Contra available, this could be the competition that ends a run of three near-misses. Bulgaria, Belarus and Slovenia are all potential challengers.
Click here to see the seven groups in full.
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