For entertaining soccer, stirring comebacks and fantastic finishes, Euro 2008 is shaping up so far as the best major tournament in a long, long time. (Help me out, older folks: were the World Cups in 1970, ’82 and ’86 better than this? I only go back to World Cup ’90.)
As we head into Monday’s Group B finales (Germany-Austria and Croatia-Poland), it’s time for our second edition of the Euro 2008 Power Rankings. Same caveats as always: the Rankings are based solely on how impressed—or unimpressed—I’ve been with these teams’ performances on the field in this tournament, and the quality of opponents’ performances is being taken into account as well:
1. Netherlands (last ranking: 1). In hindsight, it was the 3-0 Dutch romp over Italy last week that got this tournament headed in such a memorable direction. It’s hard to single anyone out with this entire team cranking on all cylinders, but Wesley Sneijder has been incredible in the midfield.
2. Spain (last ranking: 2). If you get a chance, take another look at the sublime piece of skill shown by David Villa on his last-minute goal to beat Sweden. Genius, I say. I’ve got concerns about Spain's defense—just as I do about the D on the top two other teams as well—but does it really matter if you can simply outscore your opponents?
3. Portugal (last ranking: 3). Don’t worry about the meaningless hiccup against Switzerland. Portugal got a chance to rest all of its big guns, which should come in handy for a likely quarterfinal date against Germany.
4. Croatia (last ranking: 10). The checker-boarders came to play against Germany, toppling the pre-tournament favorite with an often-exquisite display of skill and (even more surprising) midfield domination. I’d still like to see a little more from Luka Modric, however.
5. Turkey (last ranking: 6). What more can you say? The Turks’ epic 3-2 win over the Czech Republic was one of the greatest comebacks in the history of European soccer. Losing goalie Volkan Demirel and midfielder Mehmet Aurélio (to suspensions) for the quarterfinal against Croatia will hurt, but this team seems to make up for personnel losses (see: Emre) with aplomb.
6. Sweden (last ranking: 5). That was a great first half against Spain. The second half? Not so much. Wednesday’s winner-take-all game against Russia may shape up as another classic to rival Turks-Czechs, but it will certainly help if Zlatan Ibrahimovic is healthy and ready to go.
7. Germany (last ranking: 4). I’m still not sure why Michael Ballack played so poorly against Croatia, though the opponent surely had something to do with it. Forwards Mario Gómez and Miroslav Klose have been abysmal, and only Lukas Podolski has saved the Germans from further embarrassment.
8. Italy (last ranking: 8). The Azzurri got a raw deal on their incorrectly disallowed goal against Romania, but I’m still leaning toward Italy getting out of its extremely convoluted group. Penalty-saving ‘keeper Gianluigi Buffon has been a lifesaver so far, especially with a makeshift back-line in front of him.
9. France (last ranking: 13). It may be hard to believe, but I feel a lot better about the French after their 4-1 loss to Holland. Franck Ribéry looked more like himself, and Thierry Henry is a much bigger threat than Nicolas Anelka. But Raymond Domenech has been the worst coach in the tournament so far, and I fear he’ll do something else to sink his team in Tuesday’s showdown against Italy.
10. Romania (last ranking: 15). At least the Romanians opened things up a little more against Italy, although they’re the one team in this tournament that seems to be succeeding by playing defensive-minded soccer. It would be a shame if the Netherlands took the foot off the gas against Romania on Tuesday, but I don’t see that happening.
11. Czech Republic (last ranking: 7). I’ll be curious to see if Petr Cech can put his gigantic mistake behind him as he moves forward in his career (though I sense that the U.K. media won’t ever let him forget it). Yes, that was an epic collapse against Turkey, but I think the Turks deserve more credit for winning the game than the Czechs do for giving it away.
12. Russia (last ranking: 12). I enjoy watching the baby-faced Russians play, but there does seem to be a real lack of quality when it comes to finishing in the box. Still, Guus Hiddink has put these guys in an enviable position: win against Sweden (not impossible) and they’re in the quarters.
13. Switzerland (last ranking: 9). The more-skilled of the co-hosts came away with three points after all, and as we’ve mentioned before, there’s a lot of promise in youngsters Eren Derdiyok, Johan Vonlanthen, Gelson Fernandes and Tranquillo Barnetta.
14. Poland (last ranking: 14). The Poles missed a great chance to bag three points against Austria (dubious late penalties notwithstanding), and now they need a lot of help to survive. For me, Ebi Smolarek has been one of the more disappointing forwards in Euro 2008.
15. Austria (last ranking: 11). Given the low pre-tournament expectations, it’s probably a small victory that Austria is still alive on the final day of group games. I thought the Austrians were supposed to have some promising youngsters. Aside from Sebastian Prödl, where are they?
16. Greece (last ranking: 16). From first to worst in four years. But if that’s the case, then how do we describe England?
Germany-Austria (2:45 p.m. ET, ESPN). If an Austrian brewery is giving a lifetime supply of free beer to any Austrian goal-scorer, then what will you get if you score the game-winner to eliminate the Germans? (The possibility boggles the mind.) Yet that just doesn’t figure to happen in this one, despite the wishes of the rabid home fans. Germany usually gets its act together after a bad performance, and it sounds like Ballack cracked some heads on the team after the Croatia loss. A bigger question: Who will start up front for Germany? If I were Joachim Löw I’d keep Klose (for his big-game experience) and drop Gómez for Oliver Neuville, whose speed could unsettle the big, slow Austrian back line. (Then again, if I were Joachim Löw I'd be constantly talking about how great I was in Twin Peaks and Showgirls.) Germany 2, Austria 0. (Reminder: If you’re recording this game, it’s on ESPN, not ESPN2.)
Croatia-Poland (2:45 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic). Anyone who thinks Group B winner Croatia won’t take this game seriously only needs to recall their victory at England in qualifying when it was only playing for pride in that game, too. I wonder what the chances are of U.S. Olympic coach Peter Nowak getting a shot at the Poland job down the road? (I’d think they’d have to be pretty good.) Croatia 1, Poland 1.
Who do you like in the games today? Is this the most entertaining major soccer tournament you’ve ever seen? And what do you think of our Power Rankings? Please post your comments below, and check back for another edition of the Euro Blog after today’s games ...