In Group of Death, expect no quarters to be given
Monday's Group C game between Holland and Italy should feature some real fireworks, writes Diego Maradona.sports Updated: Jun 10, 2008 11:44 IST
I have played alongside Marco Van Basten and Roberto Donadoni in AC Milan but I can assure you that as coaches of Holland and Italy respectively, they won't be exchanging any favours on Monday in what promises to be the most exciting game of Group C.
World champions Italy are the favourites but they are never comfortable playing the role. Captain Fabio Cannavaro is out with an ankle injury and will be replaced by Barzagli while defender Panucci has a thigh injury and is doubtful for the match. Italy play a modified 4-3-1-2 formation with Pirlo allowed to dictate the tempo. The probable formation will be Buffon in goal, Zambrotta on the right side, Barzagli and Materazzi as central defenders with Grosso on the left.
In the mid-field, Donadoni has the tried and true talents of Pirlo, De Rossi, and Gottuso. These three have won everything at the national and club level. Up front, Luca Toni will be flanked by Mauro Camoranesi and the speedy Antonio Di Natale. It will be hard to unsettle the world champions. However, if Holland succeed in getting an advantage, don't be surprised to see the mad genius Antonio Casino getting into the match or the talented Alessandro del Piero. Italy's bench is very deep and talented and is certainly one of their strong points.
Van Basten won the Euro Cup in 1988 with a spectacular goal. I am sure he would love to relive that moment by beating Italy in the opening game. Holland play offensive full-press football with a 4-4-2 formation. They have a team with great stars but a weak defence is their Achilles' heel. In the goal, however, you have the experienced Edwin van der Sar.
You will be hard pressed to find a better midfield in this tournament with Clarence Seedorf, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Babel or Nigel de Jong. Up front Robin Van Persie is supported by one of the best strikers in the world, Ruud Van Nistelrooy.
Van Nistelrooy and Van Basten have seemingly buried the hatchet that saw Nistelrooy excluded from the national team for over a year. It is Holland's fate that the best players such as Cruyff or Van Nistelrooy miss big tournaments and matches due to problems with their coach.
This is a game that should feature some real fireworks. The absence of Cannavaro and Pannucci can give Holland's dangerous strikers some hope. With their mid-field and Van Persie, Van Nistelrooy could be set up for some real opportunities. Materazzi looks to be the one facing Van Nistelrooy in a battle that could well determine the outcome of this match. On the other side, Luca Toni will be facing central defender Mathijsen and there is no doubt that the Italians have an advantage here.
However, the man to stop is Andrea Pirlo in the middle. Nobody has been able to do that so far. Carlo Ancelotti invented a position for him as a playmaker in front of the defence that led Italy to the World Cup in Germany and Milan to two Champions League titles. He can defend and launch a 60-yard pass with the same ease. He is impossible to mark as he plays deep within his own half but can also score on penalties and from far. Holland must find a way to stop his effectiveness in finding Luca Toni up front.
Pirlo and Gattuso together tip the scales in Italy's favour. I can't help but favour the Italians in this match and believe the scoreline to be 2-1. But whoever loses this match probably goes home or faces an uphill battle to stay in the tournament.
In the other group match, France are heavily favoured over Romania. The combination of Thierry Henry, Anelka, Benzema, Makelele, Ribery and Nasri should overcome Mutu, Chivu and company. France are simply the better talent. Although Romania are a very solid team who did well in the qualifiers, their success would surely be an upset. Look for Domenech, the French coach, to play a 4-4-2 with Diarra, Thuram, Gallas and Abidal in the back. Malouda, Makelele, Ribery form the mid-field with Flamini replacing the injured Viera. Henry and Anelka lead up front with revelation Gomis making a substitute entry.
Romania will try their best to find a defence with Ogaru, Tamas, Chivu in the back and Codrea, Coci, Nuculae and Ovidiu in the middle. But France won't be stopped so easily. I see France winning 2-0.
Should both Italy and France win, they could coast to a draw in the final game in Group C. But Holland have the ability to be the spoiler in this Group of Death. The opening game against Italy will tell us what we need to know if the Dutch have settled their personal differences and are looking to regain the crown they won in 1988 or if the Italians will move on to fight for a trophy they haven't won in over 40 years, something I would love to see.
Diego Maradona | Former skipper, Argentina