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How to survive the Group of Death

BERN, Switzerland – Thierry Henry spoke like he was delivering a religious mantra. Over and over he delivered his sermon – that Group C at Euro 2008 is much more than a three-way tussle between traditional powers France, Italy and Holland.

That outsiders Romania cannot be discounted. That strength on paper means nothing in a major tournament. That anything is possible in international football.

A little later, head coaches Marco Van Basten of Holland and Italy's Roberto Donadoni echoed the French striker's message, but it all made little difference.

For all the talk about the emerging strength of Romania and the key injuries that have struck the Italy and Holland camps, failure to reach the quarterfinals of the European Championships would be seen as a disaster for any of the Big Three.

However, at least one and maybe two of them must be cut down in what became known as the Group of Death from the moment the draw was made last December.

Holland is no stranger to being forced to do it the hard way, having emerged from what was tagged as the Group of Death in the 2006 World Cup (along with Argentina, Serbia and the Ivory Coast) and Euro 2004 (with Germany, Czech Republic and Latvia).

This time it is even tougher, though, as highlighted by the FIFA World Rankings, which has Italy third, France seventh, Holland 10th and Romania 12th.

Here are the key elements that could unfold over the next nine days that, in football terms, literally mean life or death.

FRANCE

What can save them from an early "death"?

By being drawn against Romania first, the French hope to kick off with three points to put them in pole position in Group C. Coach Raymond Domenech needs Franck Ribery to continue his spectacular club form this season with Bayern Munich and Thierry Henry to put a dismal campaign with Barcelona behind him.

What can lead them to an early "death"?

For all the talent in the France squad, there is no disputing the fact that several key players like Lilian Thuram, Claude Makelele, Patrick Vieira and Henry are approaching the end of their careers. Critics question how much is left in the tank and suggest age could be the French's downfall.

What are the possible repercussions of early "death"?

Failure in Austria and Switzerland would give the much-celebrated older generation a sad send-off into international retirement, and it would force the rebuilding around Ribery, Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri.

ITALY

What can save them from an early "death"?

Italy will need to show the same sort of grit and determination that made it world champion two years ago after being widely written off. Andrea Barzagli, set to join German Bundesliga side Wolfsburg from Serie A Palermo, is an underrated defender for whom coach Roberto Donadoni has declared high hopes, while Luca Toni will be expected to lead from the front.

What can lead them to an early "death"?

Fabio Cannavaro is not just one of the world's greatest defenders but also a talismanic and powerful figure for Italy. His injury just days before the tournament was a crushing blow, and the Italians must find a way to compensate for his ability and leadership.

What are the possible repercussions of early "death"?

Elimination would result in a gloomy return to Italy, in stark contrast to the glorious homecoming following the 2006 World Cup. It would also place the suitability of head coach Donadoni under the microscope in the lead-up to qualifying for the next World Cup.

HOLLAND

What can save them from an early "death"?

Ruud Van Nistelrooy is one of the most dangerous strikers in Europe, but with Arjen Robben likely to miss most if not all of the group stage, the attacking trio of Rafael Van Der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt must set him up. If that unit can fit together effectively, then the Dutch will like their chances.

What can lead them to an early "death"?

The relationship between head coach Marco Van Basten and Van Nistelrooy is strained at the best of times, and it may not take much to send the pair towards open warfare once again. Dutch presence at a major tournament without some kind of internal feud is a rarity.

What are the possible repercussions of early "death"?

Defeat in the group would leave a mess for Van Basten's successor Bert Van Marwijk to sort out. Also, there would be a genuine sense of public disillusionment with a group of players who are perceived to have failed to live up to their potential.

ROMANIA

What can save them from an early "death"?

Some would say only a miracle can prevent the Romanians from bowing out before the knockout stages, but they were undefeated against Holland in qualifying and lost only one of 12 games. Several members of this young and hungry team will have one eye on impressing big clubs in western Europe – if they stay focussed and organized then upsets are possible.

What can lead them to an early "death"?

Defeat to France in the opening game would be a setback that would be hard to recover from. As soon as this team loses its belief and confidence, it could be a slippery slope towards disappointment.

What are the possible repercussions of early "death"?

No one will be shocked if Romania props up the group and, provided they are not embarrassed, they won't face a fierce backlash at home. However, it could spark a re-evaluation of their standing on the international stage and cause a long, hard look about how to turn qualifying prowess into success in major tournaments.