- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2008

GROUP A: Czech Republic, Turkey, Switzerland, Portugal - Portugal, a finalist in 2000, is the favorite in this group thanks to star winger Cristiano Ronaldo. The Czech Republic has fared well in past Euros and should reach the quarterfinal round behind the efforts of keeper Petr Cech and 6-foot-8 striker Jan Koller in his swan song. Co-host Switzerland is tough defensively but doesn’t have enough on offense. Turkey left star forward Hakan Sukur at home, along with its best chances.

GROUP B: Poland, Austria, Croatia, Germany - Pre-tournament favorite Germany is a near lock to come out of the weakest group in the competition. The three-time winners return 15 players from a team that finished third in the 2006 World Cup, including matured defensive stalwarts Philipp Lahm and Marcell Jansen. Poland gave the Germans a tough game in the Cup but is making its Euro debut. Croatia, which knocked out England in qualifying, has a strong midfield highlighted by up-and-comer Luka Modric. Co-host Austria may not score a goal.

GROUP C: Italy, Netherlands, France, Romania - It’s sure to be a tough group when a pair of teams (Italy and France) decided the World Cup two years ago. Add some Dutch firepower and an unheralded group of Romanians who won their qualifying group and there’s not an easy out on the list. Italy was dealt a huge blow when it lost captain Fabio Cannavaro to an injury in training, opening the door for either Romania or the Netherlands. The Dutch looked especially strong in warmup matches behind the work of midfielder Wesley Sneijder. France will be without captain Patrick Vieira for some of group play, but the team has enough depth to persevere.

GROUP D: Spain, Russia, Greece, Sweden - Perennial underachiever Spain has its strongest group in years. They look downright frightening on offense with strikers Fernando Torres and David Villa in front of midfielders Cesc Fabregas, Andreas Iniesta and Xavi. Greece did everything right four years ago when it topped host Portugal for a surprising title win. It might be even better this time around with a deeper midfield. Russia snuck in behind England’s failures, but the squad doesn’t have a single player who can create on his own. Sweden has not looked good in recent friendlies but should get a boost with the presence of healthy striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

GOAL OF THE WEEK

Argentina’s Leo Messi vs. Mexico

Argentina put on an exhibition against Mexico at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego on Wednesday night, winning 4-1. Messi finished off a furious series of precise passes for Argentina’s second goal, which showcased the team’s possession-oriented attack. The South Americans should pull off a similar performance Sunday when they play the United States at Giants Stadium.

See the match highlights at: http://youtube.com/watch?v=lFM6L4RJ5iU

MATCHES TO WATCH

Netherlands vs. Italy Monday, 2:45 p.m., ESPN2

The Dutch will be without wing Robin van Persie but should have enough to give the Azzurri a tough test in the Euro 2008 opener for both teams.

Revolution at Dynamo Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPN2

Houston plays host to New England in a rematch of the 2007 MLS Cup, which the Dynamo won 2-1 at RFK Stadium.

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