Euro contenders ready for battle

UEFA's midweek deadline for managers to submit their final list of 23 players passed with not a little blood being shed and egos bruised.

updated: June 04, 2008 16:40 IST
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One could almost hear the sound of knives being sharpened as coaches of the 16 Euro 2008 finalists trimmed their squads ahead of the start of battle in Austria and Switzerland next Saturday.

UEFA's midweek deadline for managers to submit their final list of 23 players passed with not a little blood being shed and egos bruised.

France coach Raymond Domenech, in what he described as the hardest moment of his professional life, dropped Marseille's former Liverpool star Djibril Cisse while Spain had no room for Raul.

Cisse was one of seven players considered surplus to requirements by Domenech who preferred to gamble on the likes of the raw once-capped Bafetimbi Gomis.

The Saint Etienne striker only made his international debut on Tuesday but he used the occasion to score two spectacular goals to become the first French player since Zinedine Zidane to bag a double on his debut for Les Bleus.

After wielding the axe on his squad an emotional Domenech said: "I've experienced the toughest time of my career as coach.

"There are moments when, even though the emotional bonds are there, the professional side must take precedence."

Spanish coach Luis Aragones had the job earlier on in the month of telling in-form Real Madrid captain Raul that he wouldn't be needing to pack his suitcase, while his German counterpart Joachim Loew dropped three - striker Patrick Helmes, plus midfielders Jermaine Jones and Marko Marin, the latter had been seen as being one of the potential young stars of the tournament.

Hardman defender Khalid Boulahrouz was the unlucky one for the Netherlands as Dutch coach Marco van Basten decided he was excess to demands.

Over in the Azzurri's camp Italy manager Roberto Donadoni said goodbye to Fiorentina midfielder Riccardo Montolivo preferring to keep on board instead fiery and controversial striker Antonio Cassano and also veteran Alessandro Del Piero.

Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon says the world champions are justified favourites at Euro 2008.

"We're the team to beat. We're favourites, but it's not going to be easy to repeat what we did in Germany, notably in defence with fellow World Cup winners Fabio Cannavaro, Marco Materazzi, Fabio Grosso and myself. Especially as the years are passing.

"But it's obvious, everyone wants to succeed."

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 (also a Juventus player).

"In some respects the Euro is harder than the World Cup."

The busy programme of warm-up games continues this week with Spain due to play Peru and the United States.

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 - a surprising statistic perhaps given Spain's last international title was back in 1968.

From the bedroom back to the pitch and Germany were held to a shock 2-2 draw by Belarus this week while Austria drew 1-1 with Nigeria to extend the co-hosts' winless run to five matches.

Germany captain Michael Ballack downplayed his side's draw.

"It is not an excuse, but the training camp is very physical, people are tired, but I am sure we will be on form for the beginning of the tournament," said the Chelsea midfielder, for whom a good Euro will help offset the disappointment of defeat in the Champions League final to Manchester United.

The Czech Republic's 2-0 win over Lithuania produced an embarrassing diplomatic faux pas when the Latvian national anthem was played before kick-off.

The blunder which cost a Czech football association official his job was compounded with the match programme containing pictures of the Latvia team and national flag.

That's not something one can expect to happen with the tournament being staged in two countries renowned for their attention to detail.

The first two teams to arrrive for the finals are 2004 hosts and finalists Portugal and Turkey who turn up at their base camps on Sunday.