Dutch clash with Italy as Group of death at Euro starts
Dutch coach Marco van Basten's biggest problem ahead of Monday's Euro 2008 group C opener against world champions Italy has been solved, the dpa reported.
In theory, the Bondscoach has four offensive players who would probably play in most other national team throughout the world: SV Hamburg's Rafael van der Vaart, the Real Madrid duo of Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, and Arsenal's Robin van Persie.
But even for the offensive-minded Dutch - playing the four together would be a bit too risky, giving Basten a difficult decision whom to leave out.
But van Persie is not fully fit to play in a return from a thigh injury and Robben is even out for the game in Berne, Switzerland, with a groin strain he picked up during training on Saturday.
"This is obviously a huge setback for Arjen himself. But also for the team this is a huge blow," said van Basten.
Van Persie, 24 has accepted his place on the bench, saying: "I am not yet 100 per cent fit and I will not be able to play the full 90 minutes, even though I was hoping to be fit."
Italy had their own injury scare just ahead of their game when AS Roma's Christian Panucci had to withdraw from training after injuring his knee on Friday.
On Saturday, the 35-year-old defender said he should be ready for the game against the Dutch, a big relief for Italy which lost captain Fabio Cannavaro for Euro 2008 last Monday over an ankle injury.
"I should be fine to play against Holland because I really want to play," said Panucci.
"I'm not looking to be a hero because I know there are quality players who can play instead of me. My knee's a bit swollen but it should be fine. Today I feel a lot better and I know I've got enough time to recover," he said.
Like his coach Roberto Donadoni, Panucci was at AC Milan at the same time as Van Basten, but they never played together because the Dutchman was sidelined with an ankle injury which eventually forced him into retirement.
Van Basten, however, expects no favours from Donadoni, with whom he periodically plays golf.
" Italy is a good footballing side. They are the world champions for a good reason. They are a strong team, who play good football and have a lot of experience. It is going to be a huge challenge," he said.
The other two teams in the so-called Group of Death, two-time champions and 2006 World Cuop finalists France and Romania, clash in the earlier game on Monday in Zurich.
France midfielder Claude Makelele believes the Les Bleus can do well at this tournament.
"If we play to our strengths, I'm confident we'll go a long way," Chelsea's Mekelele said.
A question mark hangs over the participation of captain Patrick Vieira, who injured himself during training. Coach Raymond Domenech, however, was hoping that the inspirational midfielder would recover sufficiently to be available.
Former Romanian international Ioan Lupescu, who is now general secretary of the country's football federation, said he is looking forward to the start of the tournament.
The 39-year-old, who played 60 games for the national side, said that his side was eager to present themselves to the world.
"I do not care if we are a dark horse, favourite or an outsider, we want to go into the next round," said Lupesco, who also rather praised than scorned Victor Piturca for his belief that Romania can win the tournament.
"We need players and officials who are confident and optimistic, even if they do expect a bit much."