European Championship: Premier talent makes up for absent England

Liverpool spine can inspire Spain while Ronaldo is capable of stealing the show
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The Independent Football

It may be a European Championship without England that is starting on Saturday, but the days are long gone when any major tournament took place without some form of affinity for followers of the English game. Remarkably, of the 16 nations competing, only Russia do not have in their squad at least one Premier League player past or present. Even then, the progress of Guus Hiddink's side will be scrutinised with particular interest, as the team who took what was regarded as England's place; the frightening thought being that they will do well to get out of a group in which Greece, the winners four years ago, are probably the weakest link.

Not that that is even the strongest section. To the delight of everyone except those countries concerned, there is an authentic "Group of Death", in this case Group C, in which all four teams are drawn from the top 12 of Fifa's rankings. To make the mix even spicier, two of the combatants are France and Italy, who contested the World Cup final two years ago and were then thrown together again in qualifying for this competition.

Italy, starting slowly as Roberto Donadoni succeeded Marcello Lippi, lost 3-1 in Paris and were held to a goalless draw in the return, but by beating Scotland twice while France managed to lose to them twice, Donadoni's team still finished three points clear at the top.

The Azzurri have 10 of the World Cup final starters in their squad – only Francesco Totti has bowed out – and look strong in central midfield. As ever the defence will take some beating, with GianluigiBuffon behind Fabio Cannavaro and Marco Materazzi, the provocative victim of Zinedine Zidane's butt in the Berlin final.

Zidane, of course, bowed out of international football with head down after that explosive moment. Others such as Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry have their best days behind them, though bright youngsters in Franck Ribéry, Karim Benzema and newcomer Bafétimbi Gomis are pushing for Nicolas Anelka's place alongside Henry. The meeting with Italy to climax the group on Tuesday 17 June is one for the diary.

Goals have been a problem for Holland – they scored only 15 times in their 12 qualifying games against moderate opposition, with not one coming from two games against the Romanians, who make up Group C with no inferiority complex, towards the Dutch at least. If Marco van Basten sticks to Holland's new 4-2-3-1 system, then Ruud van Nistelrooy's position will be under threat from Ajax's Klas-Jan Huntelaar.

Whichever two teams survive from that quartet, they will come up against the qualifiers from Group D, in which Spain and Sweden ought to be capable of progressing beyond Greece and Russia. Finishing top could offer Spain the opportunity for properrevenge over France, who knocked them out of the last World Cup with two late goals.

Spain's veteran coach, Luis Aragones, who gives way to Vicente del Bosque after the finals, has won even fewer prizes for diplomacy than Spain have for football, but he is being more restrained than usual in insisting: "I refuse to go shoutingabout how great we are."

Others are tempted to do that in admiring the Liverpool spine of Pepe Reina, Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres, augmented by Cesc Fabregas. Throw in the Barcelona pair of Andres Iniestaand Xavi alongside Fabregas and less determined opponents may have trouble securing possession of the ball. If Torres, after his dazzling first season (33 goals) in England, stays fit and flourishes, this might be the year at last for a politically divided country to pull it all together.

Russia, who open against Spain, almost blew qualification altogether by losing in Israel, when the defensive inadequacies exposed at Wembley were laid bare again. Hiddink, as he has proved with South Korea and Australia, may be a wily exponent of tournament football, but the loss of Zenit's playmaker Andrei Arshavin for the first two games is a heavy one. Hiddink has picked him anyway, hoping there will be something for Russia to play for in the final match against Sweden, whose decision to recall Henrik Larsson may make them more interesting than is normally the case. Greece, meanwhile, will rely on seven of the winning squad from 2004 and the same virtues of organisation and teamwork.

The draw has been kind to the bookmakers' favourites, Germany, who ought to have few problems in local derbies against the desperately weak co-hosts Austria and Poland. Michael Ballack has recovered all his old confidence after a fine second half to the season with Chelsea, and the youngsters are two years wiser after their fine effort in the home World Cup. Poland should contest second place with Croatia, one of them going on to meet the winners of Group A, in which Switzerland hope home advantage will give them a shout against the superior Czech Republic, Portugal and Turkey.

Cristiano Ronaldo will naturally attract most interest in that section, the worry for Luiz Felipe Scolari being who will help him conjure up some goals – Nuno Gomes and Helder Postiga have never quite managed it before. They still ought to finish above the Czechs, now without the injured Tomas Rosicky.

So an admittedly fallible combination of form plus instinct suggests a mouth-watering last four of Germany v Portugal and Italy v Spain. Were that to be the case, serious football enthusiasts might just about manage to cope with England's absence.

Odds (William Hill): 4-1 Germany; 11-2 Spain; 7-1 Italy, Portugal; 15-2 France; 12-1 Croatia, Holland; 16-1 Czech Republic; 22-1 Greece; 25-1 Switzerland; 28-1 Russia, Sweden; 40-1 Romania, Turkey; 50-1 Poland; 100-1 Austria.