Sunday, 8 June 2008

[Euro 2008] Azzurri start quest to rule Europe

Just once, eight years ago, have the World Cup holders won the ensuing European Championship.

Italy, beaten in that 2000 final, begin their bid to emulate France on Monday against a Netherlands team confident they can overcome the absence of Arjen Robben.

Azzurri coach Roberto Donadoni succeeded Marcello Lippi after the 2006 World Cup victory in Germany and, as he considered the Netherlands encounter in Berne, as well as the subsequent Group C tests against Romania and France, he admitted that their exalted status could be a burden.

"When a side are world champions, there are obviously expectations," Donadoni said.

"People think that because you won the World Cup it is a guarantee that you are going to win. But it happens at club as well as international level – you can win the UEFA Champions League but it doesn't mean you will win it again.

"Every time there is a different winner and it is very difficult to repeat victories."

The captain from 2006, Fabio Cannavaro, is out with an ankle injury and Marco Materazzi is favourite to take his place alongside Andrea Barzagli in central defence while Antonio Di Natale could beat the squad's new skipper, Alessandro Del Piero, to a start on the left of the attack.

Christian Panucci did tweak a knee tendon on Friday but Donadoni – who was still experimenting with different lineups in today's training – said the right-back has "no problem" now.

As for Italy's opponents, Donadoni said: "The Netherlands did well in qualifying and have some interesting players with plenty of skill, so we have taken that into consideration. It is not going to be easy."

"I think the Netherlands team are helped by the fans all dressing in orange – you really notice them. Aesthetically, it is beautiful," he added.

Donadoni's former AC Milan club-mate Marco van Basten, who was already without Ryan Babel for the tournament, lost winger Robben to a groin injury which the Netherlands coach said looks likely to rule him out for "at least seven days" – including for the France game on 13 June.

However, Robin van Persie is training again after a thigh complaint and may yet pip Ibrahim Afellay or Dirk Kuyt to selection. Right-back Mario Melchiot, meanwhile, has recovered from a pubic bone problem.

"Robben is an important player – it is a disadvantage that he is not playing. But we played a lot of qualifying matches without Arjen and other players, so we are still capable of getting a good result," Van Basten said.

Not that it will be easy against Italy, whom the Netherlands have not defeated since 1978. "Two years ago they were world champions and they still have mostly the same players," the Oranje trainer continued.

"It is going to be a difficult job for us and the group will be difficult with France and Romania. We will have to perform very well but we will give it a try."

Source: UEFA

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