Euro 2000 runners-up Italy take on 1992 champions Denmark in Monday’s showpiece match on day three of Euro 2004.
The Italians, second favourites behind their Euro 2000 conquerors France, will be eager to get their Group C campaign off to a winning start against the Danes in the Alfonso Henriques Stadium, Guimaraes.
Giovanni Trapattoni’s attack-minded Italians are seen by many as potential winners of the competition, while the Danes, coached by former star Morten Olsen, have arguably the most respected record of any small nation in world football. Euro 2004 is their fifth major tournament in a row, and their sixth consecutive European finals in a row, dating back to France 1984.
Trapattoni, 65, possesses one of the most glittering managerial CVs in world football. However, he knows that after the heartbreak in 2000 and the controversial defeat by South Korea in the World Cup two years ago, only another appearance in the final will be good enough for the fanatical Italian fans and press.
A self confessed disciple of ‘catanaccio’ throughout his managerial career, Trapattoni has bowed to public opinion and transformed his team into a potent attacking unit. Expect to see a much different Italy to the side in Korea and Japan. Italy’s exit in 2002 left Trapattoni clinging to his job, with speculation about his future increasing after Wales’ famous 2-1 victory in the qualifying section. However, a marked change in tactics after that game resulted in a ten match unbeaten run that saw them top their group and eventually qualify in some style.
It is a switch not lost on Trapattoni’s players, least of all the lone striker Christian Vieri of Internazionale.
“I am ready for the first game,” says Vieri. “I am looking forward to scoring many goals. A few years ago we may have been a defensive side, but in the past two years that has changed.”
Italy’s strength lies in the spine of the team with Trapattoni, who announced his line up last week, using his now familiar 4-2-3-1 formation. The goalkeeper/central defensive trio of Gianluigi Buffon, Alessandro Nesta and skipper Fabio Cannavaro is arguably the strongest on show in Portugal.
The bustling Vieri will be deployed as the main striker, with Francesco Totti just behind him in a central playmaking role. Width will be provided from full back by Christian Pannucci and the converted midfielder Gianluca Zambrotta, while nationalized Argentine Mauro Camoranesi and the out-of-form and under pressure Alessandro Del Piero will flank Totti further up the pitch.
The ace in the Italian pack is almost certain to be Totti, fresh from his best ever season with Roma. He will be hoping his impact on the tournament mirrors that of Euro 2000, where his form carried the Italians all the way to the final.
In contrast Totti suffered a poor World Cup in 2002 and will be keen to prove that he is indeed the finest playmaker of his generation, such is his billing across Europe. Trapattoni, coach of the legendary Juventus side of the early/mid 1980s, has often compared Totti to former France and Juventus star Michel Platini, whose form in 1984 led France to their first major honours. Many observers believe that this could be Totti’s tournament, and Trapattoni sharesthat view.
“Anyone would have Totti,” he said. “He is fundamental and there is no other player like him. Totti is like Michel Platini for France when the won the European Championship in 1984. I don’t think there has ever been an Italy player to compare with Totti. Surely he is unique, but it’s not to be said that he wins matches alone. Francesco is our added value.”
Trapattoni was quick to praise the preparations of the players. He stated they are full of confidence but would be expecting a tough game from the Danes, some of whom successfully ply their trade in Italy’s Serie A.
“We are ready. Vieri is in good condition and the other players too. Jon Dahl Tomasson (Milan) Thomas Helveg (Inter) and Martin Jorgensen (Udinese) know Italian football well, so they will have done their homework. Nordic teams have always been tough, but now they play with a little Latin flair. We know we can expect a tough match, but we are well prepared and full of confidence.”
Denmark’s plans for this afternoon’s match have been shrouded in secrecy. Coach Morten Olsen’s ‘open house’ attitude towards the media has been shelved in the run up to this match, with Denmark’s final training sessions taking place behind closed doors. Olsen, the first Dane to make 100 appearances for his country and the former coach of Ajax and FC Koln, was in no doubt as to the significance of keeping his plans under wraps.
“The Italians read our newspapers just as we read theirs in our headquarters,” he stated on Saturday. “There’s no reason to give them any information they can use against us. Therefore we are closing training.”
Olsen will select a similar formation to Italy’s, with Jon Dahl Tomasson occupying the ‘Totti’ role just behind FC Shalke’s Ebbe Sand. Tomasson, scorer of 12 Serie A goals for champions Milan last season is seen as the Danes’ most potent threat. He is relishing the task of playing against the formidable Italian defence, which includes his club mate Alessandro Nesta.
“I don’t expect to get much room, but the Italians are not used to playing against two wingers so I’m sure we’ll cause them trouble,” he claimed.
A suspension to midfield anchor man Thomas Gravesen (Everton) and the absence of Chelsea winger Jesper Gronkjaer due to his mother’s illness are undoubtedly blows for the Danes. The consistent Gravesen will be particularly missed as a protector of the back four, with his job of shadowing Totti perhaps his team’s most crucial this afternoon. Inter’s Thomas Helveg may be moved up into the midfield to take Gravesen’s place, with the speedy Brian Priske perhaps slotting into the right back position vacated by Helveg.
Dennis Rommedahl of PSV, so impressive at the 2002 World Cup, may regain his place on the right wing in Gronkjaer’s absence, while it seems that Martin Jorgensen has recovered in time from a thigh strain to take his place outside Tomasson on the opposite flank.
The vastly experienced Helveg, winner of over 80 international caps, certainly refutes the claims that Denmark’s hopes this afternoon are forlorn.
“We have beaten Italy before and we certainly think we can do so again,” says Helveg.
“Italy are unlikely to surprise us. It’s obviously important not to lose the first game. I suspect they will be under more pressure than us and we tend to do well in those circumstances.”
The onus will certainly be on the Italians, who have never lost an opening European Championship game, to produce the right result and get off to a good start and take control of Group C. Anything less than a convincing display of fluent attacking football will satisfy neither their fans nor the demanding press.
The economical, counter-attacking style of the Danes may well frustrate them for long periods of the game, however, and it will be the Italians’ temperaments just as much as their famed technical ability that will be tested.
Likely line ups:-
Denmark: Sorensen; Priske, Laursen, Henrisksen, N Jensen; Helveg, Poulson; Rommedahl, Tomasson, Jorgensen; Sand
Italy: Buffon; Panucci, Nesta, Cannavaro, Zambrotta; Zanetti, Perrotta; Camoranesi, Totti, Del Piero; Vieri
Referee: M Mejuto Gonzalez (Esp)