It's time for everyone's favorite game: Baker vs. Gioia! Watch as we brave, intrepid souls banter back and forth on EURO2004. Onward!

Portugal's got the advantage of having easily the best winger in the world, maybe the best player in Figo. They also get to play at home, which could be either a blessing or a curse. It's nice to play at home, but the pressure to win is going to be unbelievable. This is the
Golden Generation's last best chance to win something. Ever since the Youth World Cup title, this team's always been on the cusp of greatness, but never quite there. Now, it seems, the clock may run out on them.

Spain was downright robbed in the World Cup. To me, they are clearly the best team in Europe, and their biggest obstacle to success is their traditional awful luck and an obsession with a system that does not compliment the personnel. Raul and Valeron are two of the world's greatest players, but since Valeron is a pure playmaker and Raul is not
really a pure striker, they don't compliment each other that well. It's like they try and run to the same space. So how can this team still play only the one striker up top? Give Valeron a traditional target! Let Raul be Raul.

Yarstev has the rep of a miracle worker. The coach will need to live up to his rep. The schedule breaks poorly, as they don't play Greece until last, so they have to get at least an early draw. They can score seemingly at will, with guns like Bulykin and Kerzhakov in the lineup, but the defense is porous at best. Their grand homefield advantage during qualifying won't be around in the heat of Portugal, and they'll need to find a marking back to take care of Figo and Raul.

They beat Spain in qualifying which can mean two things: Greece won't be afraid of them and Spain, in turn, won't take Greece lightly. They play a slogging style and will make life miserable for creative players, but the rub is this: they can't score goals. They never
scored more than two in any qualifier, and against tougher teams in the Finals, they might fail to score at all.

THE PICK: Spain, Portugal, Greece, Russia
I see no reason why Spain and Portugal will not advance. Neither Greece or Russia can compete with the top two in this group, and it should be a cakewalk. I give Greece the nod over Russia because Greece at least has a shot of stealing a point from Portugal in a 0-0 draw.

Gioia: Home field helps. A lot. Think Japan, South Korea, France, USA. Portugal is still loaded with talent, and I still can’t figure how they choked in the World Cup. They are not as good as Spain, but those two should advance. I also agree that Russia will bring up the rear. They lost two defenders to injury, and the offensive stars of Portugal and Spain will exploit that all day. Greece actually won their qualifying group after that upset of Spain. But in qualifying, the best players from the best teams frequently don’t show. Spain will bring all the guns for the real deal.

The defending champs are obviously talented, but they are getting real old. That backline looks ready to fall apart at any second. Zidane is probably the best player in Europe and he's not even the scoring threat, Trezeguet and Henry are. Barthez is the most overrated goalie in the world, maybe ever. As the defense deteriorates, so does his play. France's D was never a result of his play. Also, this team is fairly untested, having a joke of a qualifying group.

Is there a more acclaimed team that has accomplished less in the last 20 years than England? Holland at least managed a European Cup. This is Group Overrated, and you can see the most overrated player on earth, David Beckham, He's not a bad player, he's just not as good as you've been led to believe. He's not even the best English midfielder,
Michael Owen is. So if this team can keep their swelled heads in check, they can stun France and advance. That's a big if, particularly without the banned Rio Ferdinand.

Never highly rated, this team always seems to come up big when it matters most. During qualifying, much was made of team disunity, but they still made it through a particularly brutal group. OK, they lack any star players, but they are extremely physical and extremely deep. Baric needs to advance to keep his job, and he's placed his hopes on
waves and waves of young players. Prso may be the go-to guy, but he needs to step up to give them some sort of offensive identity. There's no reason to pick them, but I like their chances.

I'm not sure how they actually qualified, and since then they've suffered a rash of injuries. No team looks more outclassed than the Swiss. It was an accomplishment to make it this far, now welcome to the big boys.

THE PICK: England, Croatia, France, Switzerland
I'm not sold on this pick, but I do like Croatia to sneak into the second round. I'm just not sure at whose expense. England's already complaining about their long domestic schedule, giving them a built-in excuse to lose. But I don't think France's World Cup loss was a fluke. This team just looks old. And while there is some scoring touch upfront, the defense looks like it could be terrible.

Gioia: You did such a good job analyzing Group A that it seems you took a break and let one of your dogs do Group B. In the last 12 months exactly 3 goals have been scored against the French national team. That’s after facing Holland, Brazil, Germany, Turkey, Japan, Cameroon, and Belgium. Suddenly, you’ll have me believe their defense has dissolved. Get real. France is winning this group. England will be runner-up. Yeah, Croatia could shock England if they have a good day and the Brits are in a funk. But Owen, Beckham, Vassell, Scholes, and Butt are too good a core.

OK, why do I think France's defense is on the verge of collapse?
Actually, collapse is too strong a word, I don't think it'll be the
brick wall it once was. Well, let's look at each of their schedule
post-World Cup. In Euro Cup qualifying, they got blessed with a group
of Malta, Cyprus, Israel, and Slovenia. Only Slovenia is a credible
side, and they aren't that good. Yes, they only allowed two goals in
qualifying, but name me a world top ten team that wouldn't have. Even
an offensive minded club like England could have gone through that
group allowing only two or three goals. Sweden might have found a way
to hold them in the negatives.

Then there's the Confederations Cup. France shut out New Zealand (FIFA
rank #80), Colombia (37), and Cameroon (13). I'll give them huge
credit for Cameroon. They allowed one goal to Japan (23) and two to
that offensive juggernaut of Turkey (68). They have been impressive in
friendlies, shutting out, as you said, Brazil, Holland, Belgium,
Germany, the Czechs, and Yugoslavia. That's quite a run. But you also
admit teams tinker with their lineups in friendlies, and I'm reluctant
to draw conclusions based on them. I think the Confederations Cup is a
better example, as it was exactly one year ago and on French soil.
It's also when France allowed all of their goals, leading me to believe
they wilt when teams turn up the offensive pressure. I'm not sold on
their defense. It's what cost them in the World Cup, and they haven't
added skill since then.

Speaking of defense, this group is being called the Group of Winners, but it could also be called the Group of Defense. There is no nation on earth that plays a tougher brand of defensive soccer than Sweden. They're like the Dutch in reverse, both employing a possession style, just on different ends of the field. It's not like they can't score. Ljungberg is a brillaint playmaker, and he's even more effective as they lull you to sleep. The problem, as always, is staying within the system.

ITALY (11)
I must once again point out that Italian national football is the root of all evil. They are the kings of playing not to lose, and when your buddy complains that soccer is boring and there's no action, he'd be right if he was talking about Italy. Which is infuriating, because they are loaded with talent. Totti and Vieri could be scoring by the bushel if they would actually attack and when they do, not take a dive on every possession. They are a scourge on the beautiful game and must be stopped. Please, Italy, play some offense.

It's not like we hate defense. Denmark is another great defensive team, but they are so physical, it's pretty fun to watch. The Scandanavians just physically punish you, the Italians play in a shell and take nonstop dives. Tomasson has 27 goals in just 57 caps, and
he's the key to the Danes' hopes. Though they play a physical style, Denmark's prone to huge lapses of concentration, so they can't play for the 1-0 win. They qualified against defense-first teams and they also warmed up for the cup by beating powerhouses England and Turkey. Here's your sleeper team.

But don't count out Bulgaria. The team is very young, but really talented. Petrov and Hristov key what is perhaps the most talented midfield of the group.The problem is this: the group is simply loaded. There's just no vulnerable team. Had Bulgaria drawn Group B, they might be a threat to advance, but here? I'm not sure they can beat three straight punishing teams.

THE PICK: Denmark, Italy, Sweden, Bulgaria
Yes, Italy is the scourge of the beautiful game, but they'll keep playing this style as long as it works. I think it holds them back from being truly great, the system needs a ridiculously talented guy like Baggio to make it work right, but it can consistently get you to the knockout rounds (no knock on Vieri to say he’s not Baggio, few people are). I just really like this Denmark team. I love Sweden as well, but somebody's got to be the odd man out.

Gioia: I agree that any of the four can advance. But I think Sweden will win the group and Italy will advance too. You are right on the money in calling this the “group of defense.” The Swedes have two prolific scorers in Allback and Larsson, and they DO play within the system. Hell, they are nearly flawless in their system. Despite the incompetence of the Italian coaching, Italy has talent on the offensive attack. When they actually do try, they’ve got great scorers. Denmark and Bulgaria will make every game in this group competitive, but I’m going with the teams with better strikers.

It's the Group of Death, but I don't think it's as tough as Group C. The Czechs are perhaps the most underrated football nation on earth except for the United States. They even have a Euro Cup on the mantle and no one takes them seriously. Even more recently, they won the U-21 World Cup in 2001, and some of those players are now just cracking the roster. Pavel Nedved is the current European Player of the Year, and he's got perhaps my favorite player on earth as a target up front, the 6'7" awkward giant, Jan Koller. He's got lousy moves, but he's a pure goal scorer, netting 27 in 48 caps. It's not about looking pretty.

Gioia: Ah, so you’ve seen the photo of Koller in his bio. Both Koller and Raul are good bets to win the scoring title.

The aliens who inhabited Oliver Kahn's body have apparently gone back to their home world. They need Kahn to be his superhuman self to have any real hope, as they've looked downright awful at times since the World Cup. Then again, counting out this team would be pretty stupid, it's the ultimate system team. Just insert Player E in Slot 4 and
enjoy. However, I can't ever remember a German team that looked so... ordinary.

I'm a big fan of Dutch soccer, but how on earth can FIFA rank this team fourth? On what grounds? They've had the misfortune of being in the Czech's qualifying group, Euro Cup group, and soon World Cup qualifying group; but in their last two meetings, the Czechs have simply been the better team. It's also time to face an uncomfortable truth: Kluivert
is a total ass. People don't like playing with him and his form and those of his teammates invariably suffers. He shouldn't be allowed on the pitch during the finals despite his awesome skill. The dream pairing with Van Nistlerooy has not worked. Just like they've finally dumped the de Boer twins, it's time to move on.

A tough luck draw for Latvia. We're still trying to figure out how a country with only 100 professional players managed to beat Turkey in a playoff. They even beat Sweden in qualifying, albeit in a game that Sweden had no incentive to win. So they are lucky to be here, but they also earned it. They are hoping to just eke out one draw. Their best chance is against Germany or maybe Holland if the Dutch have already advanced by the time they meet.

THE PICK: Czech Republic, Holland, Germany, Latvia
You know, for a Group of Death, there's an obvious pecking order. The Netherlands are the glamour team, but the Czechs are better. Germany looks like they are in a brief lull, but they are still Germany. And Latvia is clearly outclassed.

Gioia: Congrats to Latvia for getting there. Since they are in with three heavyweights, it means that all 3 will try to run up the score for tiebreaker purposes. Latvia will get outscored by 12 in their 3 games. Of the big 3, who’s the odd man out? Germany. You are right not to expect Khan to be the same super-goalie we saw at WC2002, and the Germans are talking about putting two teenagers in the starting line-up. They’ll get a good education for their play in the next World Cup, and they’ll also get exploited by the Dutch and Czechs. The Czechs may win this group…they do seem to have Holland’s number.

It's Group A vs. B and C vs. D. I like Portugal and Spain to both advance to the semis. I just think they are better than every team in Group B. The other half of the bracket will be a bloodbath. There's just no obvious favorite and several teams with title aspirations. I'm going to say Holland starts playing for real and Italy (or Sweden) frustrates the Czechs to death. Holland will then get revenge for the last European Cup, when Italy beat them without taking a single shot. Italy would win on penalties, and it was easily the most unjust result in Euro Cup history. And then I like Spain to finally get their act together and make the finals.

The Dutch will get better as the tournament goes on, and so long as they don't have to play the Czechs, I like their chances to make the finals. I just don't see anyone on the other side of the bracket capable of beating a motivated Spanish team. France is a heavy favorite, but I don't think they are nearly as good as their press clippings say they are. They might have one last gasp left in them, but Raul should abuse their defense if they meet. Besides, this would be a terrific final between two attacking sides, that even non-soccer fans could enjoy. So it's worth openly rooting for that result.

Gioia: Gee, I’m flattered you see it my way. Our readers should know that at first Mr. Baker didn’t have much faith in Holland. I picked them to win it all (over Spain) and I stand by my pick. Welcome to the Orange side! Sort of.

Ed. comment- He’s right, I originally mocked his choice of the Dutch to play in the finals. But they are supremely talented, extremely motivated, and still smarting over the fact they were robbed in Euro 2000.

The Dutch have gotten a lot of bad press in the last couple weeks. They played poorly against Ireland and Belgium in friendlies. But just about every team has had stumbles in the warm-ups—Ireland beat the Czechs too. The compatibility problems with Kluivert are well-known. But the Dutch are always controversial. They’d be bored without it. For all the talk of the “golden generation” of Portugal, this Dutch squad has a golden generation of its own in Cocu, Davids, Stam, Van der Sarr, de Boer, and Overmars. This is a solid team with experience in the big matches, yet they are a hungry team after missing out on WC2002. The Dutch are a feast or famine team, and I’m betting they’ll feast.

Spain is perhaps the best team in the tournament, and I expect them to go far, into the finals in fact. Depending on how the draw works, I like the chances of France and the Czech Republik, to advance out of the quarterfinals. Sweden is a good sleeper team, and your sleeper team, Denmark is dangerous as well. Of course, they all can’t because the Dutch and Spaniards will be beating whoever they face.

Enjoy the Euro Cup, people. It’s worth checking out.

posted by Poseur 6/10/2004 06:58:00 PM


Let's break down some regionals!

As expected, the Horns cruised. Oral Roberts gave them a good game on Saturday, but failed to hold a 5-3 lead in the eighth when Texas went for four on a two-out rally. Across the bracket, Vanderbilt had no problems in their subregional, dispatching the hosting Virginia with apparent ease. Vandy even used Sowers against Mason, not exactly a sign of respect to the one-seed.

Coastal Carolina had a 5-1 lead over UNC, only to choke on that and eventually get booted in two games. The Gamecocks won a bitter game against the Tar Heels, which UNC was lucky to be in at all. Hey, at least hatred is alive and well. USC plays will probablyplay East Carolina, but UNC Wilmington is still clinging to life.

A nine-run 7th pretty much decided things, as the Canes cruised over State 19-6. They seem to be clicking on all cylinders. They'll get their cross-state rivals of Florida, who had suprisingly little trouble with a tough regional.

They got in the modd by clobbering Jacksonville St, and then never looked back. It was a regional that had precisely zero upsets. The end result means GT will host hated rival Georgia, who won game two of a brutal double header against Clemson. Georgia lost the first by giving up eight unanswered runs to lose 10-9, but won the second by scoring the last three runs, including one in the ninth, to beat Clemson by one.

Stanford never loses in Palo Alto. Until now. The Beach came into town and just dominated play, actually having more trouble with St. John's than the vaunted Cardinal. Long Beach will even host a Super, as Notre Dame lost their opener to Kent St and could never really rally back, watching Arizona, the three-seed, win the regional. The Cats were the only Pac-10 team to advance for a miserable west coast weekend.

Rice lost to the worst team in the field, 18-33 Texas Southern. They rallied back, and even had a two-run lead over Texas A&M in the eighth inning on Sunday, but they couldn't hold it in the end. Who would have ever guessed the pitching would give out? The Aggies reward is a trip to Baton Rouge to play LSU, who just demolished their regional without trouble.

The most controversial seed, the Sun Devils didn't even make it to Sunday. As expected, Fullerton won this regional, but they had to rally from the lsoers bracket to unseat four-seed Pepperdine. Combined score of the final day doubleheader? 41-4. Fullerton gets to host Tulane, who won a crazy Oxford bracket. One-seed Ole Miss left without notching a single win, and Washinton had to crawl from the losers bracket to make the final day. At which point, Tulane won with suprising ease.

The little seed that could, the Razorbacks avoided being the fourth national seed to fail to make the Supers, rallying to beat Wichita St in two games. Actually, they were down 9-6 in game one, but a grand slam by Brady Toops with two outs gave the Hogs a miraculous come from behind win. They followed things up with a tight 4-3 win in game two. They now get to deal with Florida St, who actually dropped a game to UCF before regaining their compusre and winning 19-3 in the second game.

posted by Poseur 6/07/2004 02:05:00 PM

The Draft

The Padres fooled us all and picked a high school shortstop with the #1 pick. High schoolers are always further from ready than college players, so this pick is inherently risky. Let's just say this is like swinging for the fences. You either knock it out of the park, or you strike out.

Also, three Rice pitchers were taken in top eight. But how did Jred Weaver, the pitching Holy Grail, slip to #12?

posted by Poseur 6/07/2004 01:39:00 PM

Smarty Jones

The conspiracy theorists are out. so are the boo-birds. My inbox is littered with people playing the blame game, as if there was no way Smarty Jones could lose an honest race. Well, he did. And it comes down to the fact that no one can predict what will happen over the course of one and a half miles. I've bet on a lot of horses in my day (thank you, OTB), and if there's a major race, I've probably placed some money on it at one time. Except Belmont.

I will never place hard-earned money on what is essentially a crapshoot. It's impossible to know whether these horses can go the distance, a distance they have never nor will ever race again. Smarty Jones simply died down the stretch. He blew away all of his rivals, only to be beaten by a marginal horse, Birdstone. Such is life in the Belmont. I really thought this was the year, but in the end, the horse couldn't run for that long.

So don't blame the trainer, the jockey, or some nefarious saboteur. Smarty Jones lost the race, and he lost because he wasn't quite good enough. I really thought he was, though.

posted by Poseur 6/07/2004 01:25:00 PM

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