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Where Are the Powerhouses?

SOCCER / MIKE PENNER

June 20, 2004|SOCCER

The best team at Euro 2004?

Round up the usual suspects and you will find all of them troubled by something significant. With France, it's defense. With Italy, it's too much defense. Spain can't finish. Germany can't score. Portugal can't figure out which 11 players should start. England can't avoid being England.

Sixteen teams have played two group games at the European Championship in Portugal and only one -- the slow-starting, better-late-than-never Czech Republic -- is 2-0. Of course, to get there, the Czechs had to overcome a 1-0 deficit against Latvia and a 2-0 deficit against the Netherlands, scoring four of their five tournament goals after the 70th minute.

NFL-style parity has seeped overseas, contaminating a prestigious soccer tournament that has produced only two teams that have gotten the most out of their abilities through their first 180 minutes.

And they are Greece and Latvia.

The Greeks hadn't qualified for a European Championship since 1980 and came to this one with high hopes of taking a two-week break from all the Olympic construction behind schedule at home. Not only were the Greeks 50-1 outsiders, they were sandwiched into Group A as sacrificial tapas for the two Iberian giants, Spain and Portugal.

Greece opened the tournament by beating Portugal and tying Spain and can win the group with a victory today over 0-2 Russia. Otto Rehhagel, the 65-year-old German coach who defied odds just to get Greece to Euro 2004, has been left with so little to complain about he's taken to griping about the color of the nets.

"What I don't like, and I have to say this, is these black nets," Rehhagel told reporters in Porto after his team played Spain to a 1-1 draw on Wednesday. "They are an absolute catastrophe and could only be the work of some bureaucrat and not some footballer.

"Fans want to see the ball go into the nets, white nets, like at Wembley. Not these ugly black ones.... This is not an event where we should mourn. This is a celebration. And that is all I have to say on this."

Black nets. That must be the problem for the favorites. Italy has scored one goal in two matches. Must be the black nets. Spain has peppered the Portuguese countryside with missed shots. Must be the black nets. Germany has scored only once in two games against the Netherlands and Latvia -- and that was a gift from the Dutch, who strangely decided not to follow the bouncing ball on Torsten Frings' hopeful free kick. Must be the black nets.

Saturday, Latvia shut out Germany. That's right: Latvia 0, Germany 0, in Latvia's second-ever match in the European Championship. In the first, in Aveiro on Tuesday, Latvia led the Czechs until the 73rd minute and were tied in the 84th before eventually succumbing, 2-1.

And the Latvians were unlucky not to have beaten the Germans. Striker Maris Verpakovskis was taken down in the German penalty area twice during the second half, but Mike Riley, the English referee, refused to blow his whistle.

Latvia entered Euro 2004 as the longest shot on the board, 150-1. Germany entered Euro 2004 as reigning World Cup runner-up. Yet, initial appearances were deceiving. Germany reached the World Cup final in 2002 by defeating Saudi Arabia, Cameroon, Paraguay, the United States and South Korea. Not one victory against a European team. Counting this competition, Germany is winless in its last eight matches against European rivals in major tournaments.

Knowing this, Germany Coach Rudi Voeller tried selling this bit to the German media Saturday: "It's no disgrace. Naturally, we hoped for more. We certainly didn't take [Latvia] too lightly.... Now we have to beat the Czechs."

Voeller spoke before watching the Czechs' wild 3-2 victory over the Netherlands, the match of the tournament so far. The Dutch took a 2-0 lead in the first 19 minutes, the Czechs countered with two goals in the last 19 minutes. The action was back and forth from start to finish, the teams combining for 34 shots at goal -- or more than Germany has managed since arriving in Portugal, training sessions included.

With one group game left, the Czech Republic is the only team to have clinched a spot in the quarterfinals.

Italy, with one goal and two draws and no Francesco Totti for its Group C finale against Bulgaria, is on the brink of elimination. To advance, Italy must defeat Bulgaria on Tuesday and have someone lose the Sweden-Denmark rivalry clash in Porto. If Sweden and Denmark draw, Italy's hopes for advancement will come down to goal differential and how big a score the Italians can manage against the Bulgarians.

France was fortunate to beat England, scoring twice after the 89th minute on a free kick and a penalty kick, and lucky to escape defeat against Croatia. French Coach Jacques Santini rested several starters against Croatia and paid for it, watching the once-great central defender Marcel Desailly continue with his shocking Gary Payton impersonation in a 2-2 draw.

Resurrected from the French bench, Desailly, now 35, whiffed on a ball to set up Croatia's second goal and looked helpless as Ivica Mornar nearly won the game for Croatia in the 92nd minute, spinning Desailly for a point-blank shot that somehow sailed over the crossbar.

England looked sensational against 10-man Switzerland, less so before Swiss defender Bernt Haas received a second yellow card late in the second half. Nervously protecting a 1-0 lead at the time of Haas' ejection, England scored twice with the man advantage in a 3-0 triumph.

Backed into a corner by the Greeks, Portugal faces the daunting assignment of probably needing to defeat archrival Spain today to advance. Greece moves on with a victory or a tie against Russia. Spain can advance with a draw against Portugal. Portugal probably must defeat Spain, which appears unlikely. Spain has not lost to Portugal since 1981.

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