June 11, 2008

Thomas Rongen is back as a special contributor for SI.com, this time to provide periodic analysis on the European Championship. The U.S. Under-20 national-team coach offered up weekly insight during the 2006 World Cup and is again lending us his coach's eye. Rongen is a former Dutch national-team player and veteran of the NASL, but he made his name as a go-to coach in America with head gigs at four Major League Soccer franchises.

After the first round of games, there are four teams that have clearly set themselves apart as favorites: Portugal, Germany, Holland and Spain. And the best thing about that is that all four play a degree of Total Football, the offensive-minded tactical strategy popularized by my fellow Dutchman, the late, great Rinus Michels,in the 1970s. In fact, I came to the U.S. in '79 to play for Michels, who was then coaching the NASL's Los Angeles Aztecs.

Essentially, Total Football means that any player on the field can contribute to the attack. In this case, all four Euro favorites have been rewarded for their attacking football. That's a nice change from 2004, where Greece shocked everyone by winning with defense.

Portugal and Germany have shown they can put together a comprehensive performance. Michael Ballack may be the best player on both sides of the ball in this tournament, and he showed that in Germany's 2-0 win over Poland on Sunday. The way Portugal is playing is also telling. Cristiano Ronaldo, who may be the best overall player in the Euros, hasn't even scored yet, but he was still been involved in both goals Portugal scored in its opener, a 2-0 win over Turkey. That's scary.

Holland and Spain probably displayed the best football by perfectly utilizing the transition game -- the counterattack wins games in the modern era of soccer. And the key to the counterattack is the involvement of a third player. Take, for example, Holland's second goal against Italy: Andrea Pirlo missed a free kick, and the Dutch counterattack began. Wesley Sneijder was the third player involved on the goal, and he came from extremely deep in his own half -- about 80 yards back -- to receive the feed from Dirk Kuyt, who in turn took a width-of-the field pass from Giovanni van Bronckhorst.

Similarly, Spain's first goal came from an unsuccessful Russia corner kick, after which David Villa came from his own half of the field and bridged 60 yards to receive Fernando Torres' pass and finish. These teams have a keen understanding that there are only a few moments in games when teams are unbalanced and fall asleep.

The first goal Holland scored on the World Cup champs was a tough one. Ruud van Nistelrooy wasn't ruled offside because Italian defender Christian Panucci was down behind the goal. The way you interpret the rules, it was probably the correct call. In fact, all three goals the Dutch scored occurred at similarly terrible breakdown moments for Italy.

But I was impressed by what the Italian players said in the press after the game -- they took responsibility. Italy always plays better when things don't go well. Look at the '06 World Cup, when the entire country was involved in a match-fixing scandal. The players get stronger as a group during adversity, and I think this loss will bring them together. They've got such an unbelievable tournament mentality -- they notoriously start slow and pick it up as they go.

Now, coach Roberto Donadoni will have to take some risks, which isn't very Italian-like. Maybe he'll realize that he has to mix things up, perhaps even bringing in guys like Alessandro Del Piero or breaking up the AC Milan midfield duo of Gennaro Gattuso and Pirlo.

Croatia didn't show a lot even though it won its opener against Austria. I'm not sure they're for real. Sweden won in a dull match against Greece, where the difference was a moment of brilliance by Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Czech Republic, on the other hand, is another one of these aging teams like France and Italy. They got the win over Switzerland, but I think they were lucky. PetrCech made seven great saves, which were more than the Czechs deserved. With Tomas Rosicky out and Jan Koller and Milan Baros struggling, it's a challenge to see where the goals are going to come from.

In the Group of Death, only two teams are going to advance, and I feel like France's time may finally be up. Getting Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira back from injuries will make a difference, but I don't think they have enough to do it. Les Bleus put on a horrible performance in their scoreless draw with Romania and showed some bad signs, like using two holding midfielders and creating a logjam in the middle of the pitch.

Franck Ribéry -- France's sparkplug at the '06 World Cup -- is horribly out of position. You've got to give him Zinedine Zidane's old role in a central spot instead of out wide. That said, France was always clicking with Zidane, even when they didn't have the manpower. I don't see anyone creating like Zizou did -- he was the heart and soul of that team. Samir Nasri could be that guy -- he's a 20-year-old with ridiculous talent and he's ready. But coach RaymondDomenech notoriously goes with experienced guys, so I doubt he'll get that chance.

I had my eye on Portugal's 21-year-old João Moutinho, but it looks like the secret is already out; he's big-time. But there are a handful of guys I saw first-hand at the '07 Under-20 World Cup of whom I'm expecting big things. Another Portuguese player, Miguel Veloso, could see a star turn. He may be the best young holding midfielder in the world. He tackles well and he's tactically savvy. He's sort of like a young, 22-year-old version of Claude Makélélé.

Another player to watch is Czech striker Martin Fenin, a 21-year-old who plays for Eintracht Frankfurt. He scored three goals at the '07 U-20 World Cup; if the Czechs struggle to find the net, he could see more action. The two youngest players in the tournament -- Swiss striker Eren Derdiyok (19) and Turkish midfielder Arda Turan (21) -- are also worth keeping an eye on. Both are replacing their respective teams' injured captains: Derdiyok takes Alexander Frei's spot, while Turan steps in for Emre.

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