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Euro 2008: It's Germany's tournament to lose

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The best international soccer tournament outside of the World Cup kicks off in Austria and Switzerland this weekend with defending champions Greece looking to repeat and a handful of underdogs dreaming of a similar miracle run.

Yet while the European Championships has regularly been kind to unfancied teams, like the Greeks four years ago and Denmark in 1992, this year's event should see the big boys step forward and stamp their authority.

It is hard to look past Germany as favorites, and Joachim Loew's team will be backed by thousands of fans making the short hop across the border. After losing in the semifinals on home soil in the 2006 World Cup, the Germans will be more determined than ever.

All eyes will be on the individual superstars on display, with Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Franck Ribery (France) and Fernando Torres (Spain) given the responsibility of spearheading their nations into the latter stages.

I expect a semifinal lineup involving the Big Four mentioned so far, with Holland and World Cup winners Italy as surprise early casualties. However, don't be surprised if Croatia, Romania or even those plucky Greeks uphold the unpredictable tradition of the Euros and make a deep run.

Picking a winner in this event is always fraught with danger, but I will go for Germany's ruthless efficiency to prove too much for France in the final, with Portugal and Spain losing at the last four stage.

But whatever happens, we are in for an exciting three weeks as Europe's finest strut their stuff. Here's a closer look at the 16 teams in the tournament's four groups (listed in predicted order of finish).

GROUP A

1. Portugal

• Key player: Cristiano Ronaldo

• Secret weapon: Miguel Veloso

• Outlook: Big Phil Scolari's team are led by the world's greatest player in Ronaldo, but it also has strength in every position and will fancy its chances of going all the way. Ronaldo will be the catalyst, but look out for a breakthrough performance from Veloso, the young Sporting Lisbon midfielder.

2. Czech Republic

• Key player: Tomas Ujfalusi

• Secret weapon: Martin Fenin

• Outlook: An aging team will be hurt by the absence of the injured Tomas Rosicky and could struggle to make serious progress even if the Czechs qualify from this group. Everything could hinge upon a tough final group game against Turkey.

3. Turkey

• Key player: Nihat Kahveci

• Secret weapon: Colin Kazim-Richards

• Outlook: The Turks desperately need a solid start against group favorites Portugal before they take on hated rivals Switzerland for the first time since the infamous Battle of Istanbul in 2005. They'll probably fall just short, but keep an eye on Nihat, the explosive Villareal striker.

4. Switzerland

• Key man: Philippe Senderos

• Secret weapon: Johan Volanthen

• Outlook: Home advantage may not be enough for the star-less Swiss to emerge even from this moderately stacked group. They will live and die by their well-organized defense but are likely to have trouble scoring enough goals to make a real impact.

GROUP B

1. Germany

• Key man: Michael Ballack

• Secret weapon: Mario Gomez

• Outlook: Always one of the toughest and most resilient teams in any tournament, the Germans are loaded with talent and will be satisfied with nothing less than the trophy. Ballack will hope to transfer his superb Chelsea form to the international stage and the tournament favorites.

2. Croatia

• Key man: Luka Modric

• Secret weapon: Ivica Olic

• Outlook: Slaven Bilic's side is a genuine threat and has the creative flair to break down any team on its best day. Modric is on his way to becoming an international star, and Bilic will instill plenty of fire and passion.

3. Austria

• Outlook: The co-hosts are the worst team in the tournament on paper, and their main objective will be to avoid embarrassment. They should be outclassed by Germany and Croatia, with their best chance of a result coming against Poland.

• Key man: Andreas Ivanschitz

• Secret weapon: Martin Harnik

4. Poland

• Key man: Euzebiusz Smolarek

• Secret weapon: Jakub Blazczykowski

• Outlook: Poland is wildly unpredictable as evidenced by a victory over Portugal in qualifying and a thumping defeat to the United States in a home friendly. In the Euro finals for the first time, reaching the last eight would be a tremendous achievement.

GROUP C

1. France

• Key man: Franck Ribery

• Secret weapon: Samir Nasri

• Outlook: Many are predicting doom and gloom for the French in this ridiculously strong group. But Ribery has emerged into a special talent and could dominate. He'll be backed up by an experienced core of stars hungry for one last hurrah.

2. Romania

• Key man: Christian Chivu

• Secret weapon: Razvan Rat

• Outlook: The Eastern Europeans lost only once in qualifying and must have wondered what they did to deserve such a tough draw. But they are more than capable of springing a couple of upsets and sending two of the group's big names tumbling.

3. Italy

• Key man: Andrea Pirlo

• Secret weapon: Mauro Camoranesi

• Outlook: The Italian game is in turmoil, but this has yet to have a negative impact on the national team, which stunned soccer by winning the 2006 World Cup. Italy can never be discounted, but without Francesco Totti and Fabio Cannavaro , it could find this group too hot to handle.

4. Netherlands

• Key man: Ruud van Nistelrooy

• Secret weapon: Wesley Sneijder

• Outlook: Coach Marco Van Basten is headed to Ajax after the tournament and will need to keep a lid on the usual "player-power" issues that have plagued past Dutch squads. No shortage of ability here, but do they possess the sprit needed to conquer the Group of Death?

GROUP D

1. Spain

• Key man: Fernando Torres

• Secret weapon: David Villa

• Outlook: Once again, the Spanish have arguably the most talented team in the tournament, but can they finally end their chronic run of underachievement? Failure to get past the quarterfinals since 1984 remains a national embarrassment, but Luis Aragones's side should cruise through its group at least.

2. Greece

• Key man: Angelos Charisteas

• Secret weapon: Stelios Giannakopoulos

• Outlook: The Greeks are better than when they won the tournament four years ago, but a repeat of that epic upset would still be a major surprise. They have a decent chance of reaching the last eight, though, and then who knows?

3. Sweden

• Key man: Henrik Larsson

• Secret weapon: Kim Kallstrom

• Outlook: Larsson has been tempted back despite his advancing years to add some spice to a solid yet unspectacular team. But the squad lacks overall creativity and imagination and faces an uphill task.

4. Russia

• Key man: Dmitri Sychev

• Secret weapon: Roman Pavlyuchenko

• Outlook: One key and devastating factor looms over the Russians – playmaker Andrei Arshavin's suspension for the first two group games. By the time he returns, it could be too late for an unpredictable squad. Still, Russia is led by one of the world's best coaches in Guus Hiddink.

QUARTERFINALS

• Portugal defeats Croatia: Croatia's plucky campaign ends in a scrappy and ill-tempered contest.

• Germany defeats Czech Republic: Tourney favorites march on with a comfortable victory.

• France defeats Greece: French avenge 2004 defeat with a clinical all-round display.

• Spain defeats Romania: Romania's dream run ends in an entertaining goal-fest.

SEMIFINALS

• Germany defeats Portugal: Efficiency and organization of the Germans blunts Ronaldo's individual brilliance.

• France defeats Spain: The Spanish's big-game nerve fails them again as the experienced French dominate.

FINAL

• Prediction: Germany defeats France: The Germans make up for World Cup heartache as their commanding midfield proves too strong to handle.

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