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Sabre rattling is over as Euro contenders ready for battle

SoccerNews in European Championships 6 Jun 2008

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The phoney war is over and now the real one begins as the 16 Euro 2008 finalists can get down to the real business of who is the fairest or rather the best of them all in footballing terms on their continent.

The usual suspects such as world champions Italy, 2006 World Cup finalists France, three-time champions Germany and perennial contenders Spain and The Netherlands go into the championships as favourites – but in truth they appear to be wide open.

Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon believes the world champions are justified favourites at Euro 2008, though, the blow of losing inspirational captain Fabio Cannavaro earlier in the week could prove to be a decisive blow in stopping them from emulating France in adding the European crown to the world one that the French managed in 1998 and 2000.

Italy are in Group C, the group of death, with the team they beat in the final in Berlin in 2006, France, the Netherlands and Romania.

“It's hard, but that's also because we're in the group. We're calm, and we respect our rivals – the Dutch and the French of course but also Romania who have strong players like (Adrian) Mutu,” said Buffon, who plays with Mutu at Juventus.

“In some respects the Euro is harder than the World Cup.”

Spain look to have their strongest squad for many a year but unimpressive performances against Peru and the United States may be the precursor for another letdown as they seek to add to their sole senior title, the European championships back in 1964.

Despite their role as perennial underachievers the Spanish can count on strong support if the results of a survey on sex and football are anything to go by.

The poll conducted by one of the Euro's backers indicated that over 70 percent of Spanish football fans would prefer to watch an important game rather than have sex.

From the bedroom back to the pitch and Germany coach Joachim Loew is convinced that the Germans can at least break their winless streak in terms of matches at the finals which dates back to when they won their last title in 1996 – starting with beating old rivals Poland on Sunday.

“We have made progress since 2004 in all aspects of our game in terms of tactics, fitness and organisation,” said Loew reflecting on the difference between Germany's class of Euro 2004 and 2008.

“If we go flat out on Sunday and are physical we will win the game.”

But while Germany are favourites to win what Loew described as “the toughest tournament on earth”, the German coach insists sides such as France and Italy, as well as Portugal, Spain or even Russia are also threats.

“There is no such thing as a clear-cut favourite, because there are so many unusual factors which you just can't plan for,” said Loew.

“The winner will have to play six matches at the highest possible level to become champions.

“There are the usual suspects who can win, but also a few dark horses to watch including sides like Russia (coached by master handler Guus Hiddink).

“Some of it will come down to the luck of the draw and penalty kicks.

“If we are to live up to our billing as one of the pre-tournament favourites then we will have to play at the highest possible level.”

That is not to forget teams such as the Czech Republic, whose veteran 68-year-old coach Karel Bruckner believes are as strong as the squad he guided to the 2004 semi-finals.

They have their first challenge against co-hosts Switzerland on Saturday and could soon bear out the feeling that they and their fellow hosts Austria are the weakest countries ever to host the championships – but that will not make it any easier to pick who the winner will be.

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