Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Crowning a King of the Alps Part 2

(Part 2 of my Euro 2008 Preview. This will come out next week in the sports pages of the Business Mirror.)

Is there a Trojan Horse in this year’s Euro 2008?
Bookies pegged Greece to win Euro 2004 with 150-1 odds. It certainly didn’t help that the Greeks never won a European match before. Even as they stunned Portugal with a 2-1 win in the tournament opener, teams only began to take the German coach’s wards seriously by the quarterfinals. And on their way to the title, they subdued many favorites with incredulous 1-nil wins. They not only beat the host nation twice (also during the finals no less) but also the defending champions who they sent home packing in the quarters.

This Greek side is almost an entirely different one that hoisted the cup in 2004. More than half the team is new but it should be noted that on their way to the Euro Finals they compiled an 11-1 record while scoring 25 goals to their foes’ 10 while displaying that stingy defense that saw them shoot up FIFA’s rankings. And with a line-up far superior to the one that failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, they’ll be a handful in the Group D bracket (Russia, Sweden, and Spain).

So who could spring a surprise here?

If Eduardo was playing for Croatia I’d give the nod towards Slaven Bilic’s side. But this time, I’d give a snowball’s chance to Poland.

After luring away Leo Beenhakker from Trinidad and Tobago which he led to the 2006 World Cup Finals, the veteran German coach gave some bite and pride to the much maligned Polish national team. He promoted previously unheralded players while recast others in different roles. The once porous midfield was strengthened and in doing so found a dangerous twin attack with Maciej Zurawski and Ebi Smolarek. Dariusz Dudka is the central midfielder who is the glue here. He’s quick on the counter and a leech on defense.

During the qualifiers, Poland won their bracket that included Portugal (whom they drew and beat), Finland, Belgium, Armenia, Serbia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. Their only losses were to Finland and Armenia but their reward was their first ever trip to the Euro Finals.

The Poles are lumped together with traditional foe Germany, Austria, and dangerous Croatia. But don’t figure them to be intimidated. This is one team with a huge chip on its shoulder and they intend to make their first trip to Euro a most memorable one.

Can France win without Zinedine Zidane?
Like Spain, before France can hurdle its challenges on the pitch they have to take care of internal ones. Les Bleus ended their 2006 Word Cup campaign on a painful and bitter note and they head to Austria and Switzerland with questions surrounding the fitness and mental frame of mind by some its veterans as well as the non-inclusion of David Trezeguet. And like Spanish coach Luis Aragones, France’s Raymond Domenech is constantly second guessed for his personnel decisions. That Les Bleus made it to the World Cup Finals is accorded to the return of Zidane, Lilian Thuram, and Claude Makalele from retirement. In fact, France’s poor showing in 2002 was partially attributed to Zizou’s nagging injuries that prevented him from directing his side’s offense.

Domenech has rectified some of his mistakes (aside from his tactics) from France’s last major international competition by announcing that Lyon stud net minder Gregory Coupet will take the place of the now-retired Fabian Barthez who made some horrendous misplays in Germany. But Coupet has been far from form as he recently recovered from a knee injury and he isn’t listed anywhere near all-world keepers Gigi Buffon, Edwin Van Der Sar, or Iker Casillas.

Also conspicuously absent from the line up are Barcelona’s Ludovic Guily, Villareal’s Robert Pires, and AS Roma’s Philippe Mexes. All three are solid players and would certainly boost France’s campaign. While the French have a great midfield corps, the back four, as led by Arsenal’s William Gallas and Thuram will have to play airtight defense as the team in this ‘group of death” are parading new attack formations.

Of the current quad, it is only Frank Ribery (who had a superb first season with Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich), exciting newcomer Karim Benzema, and Nicolas Anelka who’ve had great seasons.

Unlike in Germany where they were seen as an aging squad, the French have nevertheless assembled a talented yet somewhat flawed team for Euro 2008. Although they only lost twice -- to Scotland – in the qualifiers, they barely qualified as they only spotted their tormentors a two-point advantage in the standings. Italy, their newfound nemesis topped their bracket, but lost to the French 3-1 on aggregate. Each team would dearly love to knock the other out of Euro 2008 and having both teams in Group C makes every game a must win situation.

Can Joachim Low duplicate if not better Jurgen Klinsmann’s feat?
Lukas Podolski certainly would wish that Joachim Low, like his predecessor Jurgen Klinsmann, would start him. Instead after a distinguished tenure with FC Koln and scoring goals at an astonishing rate for Germany, he has found himself coming off the bench for Mario Gomez.

It isn’t solely “Prinz Poldi,” as Podolski is called, who is in need of game time. Defender Christoph Metzelder and midfielder Torsten Frings just got back from extended time from sick bay. Team captain Michael Ballack after nearly on ice for two seasons at Chelsea has rounded out into form. Starting keeper Jens Lehmann spent a season in hell as a backup in Arsenal after a nightmarish start that saw him fall out of favor with the Gunners’ boss Arsene Wenger.

Low has continued the attack-oriented football that Klinsmann got the national side playing during the 2006 World Cup. While they derive their strength from the chances offered by the diamond formation of a 4-4-2 alignment, they conceded only seven goals in 12 matches en route to the Euro 2008 Finals. The catch there is they scored 35 goals including a 13-0 shellacking of San Marino at the Stadia Olimpico in this tiny country bordering Italy.

They have the 2006 World Cup Golden Boot awardee Miroslav Klose up front partnering with Gomez with Ballack and Bastian Schweinsteiger behind them. It was Schweinsteiger’s two goals that allowed Germany to take third place from a disheartened Portugal side in the World Cup semis which in turn gave him a massive dose of confidence heading into football’s second biggest event.

The Germans likewise have a favorable draw as they’re lumped in Group B with Poland, undermanned Croatia, and the unheralded Austria. Expectations are high over some great football the last two years and that means the pressure is on. And Low’s boys might find overconfidence and lack of conditioning to be their strongest foes come June. anything less than a semis berth, no, a finals slot, will be considered a failure.

But for Podolski, all he wants is another chance to prove to one and all that there was a reason why he won the Best Young Player two years ago in the World Cup.

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