France | Holland | Italy | Romania
Group A |
Group B |
Group C |
Whether Les Bleus coach Raymond Domenech opts to go with his favourite 4-4-2 formation or a 4-2-3-1, the ground rules do not alter.
France feel far more comfortable circling the wagons, letting the enemy go for the kill, frustrating them with their hermetically-sealed rearguard, then breaking out for a swift counter-attack. Not surprising really bearing in mind that Domenech was a rough-and-ready defender during his playing days in the 1970s and 80s.
As was shown in their home and away defeats to Scotland in qualifying, France are extremely ill at ease when they have to take a game by the scruff of the neck, when they themselves have to find the key to unlocking a packed and well-organised opposition back line.
Any team facing France at Euro 2008 would be advised to follow the Scottish lead. Make sure you have plenty of numbers at the back and in midfield to deprive the French of space; press energetically in your own half, block off the wings, generally frustrate them and hope to perform the coup de grace on the break or from a set-piece. Easier said than done.
Like all good 'catenaccio' sides, France are never more effective than when they have their noses in front. In fact, since Domenech took over in July 2002, they have never lost a game in which they have taken the lead.
The midfield in the 4-4-2 model is made up of veterans Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele guarding the back door, while Franck Ribery and Florent Malouda supply the thrust and pace on the right and left wings respectively.
Malouda, who has found it hard to settle in at new club Chelsea this season, grafts prodigiously when France are not in possession. Ribery only exists to torment defenders with his brilliant ball-skills. Despite his problems at Barcelona, Thierry Henry is, barring injury, a certain starter up front and will be paired with either Nicolas Anelka or Lyon wonder kid Karim Benzema.
In the 4-2-3-1, one of the strikers is sacrificed, Ribery does his magic just behind Henry and the speedy Sidney Govou appears on the right side of midfield.
Greg Coupet is the first-choice keeper, ably protected by a back-four featuring Willy Sagnol and Eric Abidal as right and left-back and William Gallas and evergreen Lilian Thuram in the middle.
A unit of infinite experience, their highly competitive instincts, athleticism and ability to stick together as a group make them a tough side to overcome.
Probable line-up: 4-4-2 formation Coupet; Sagnol, Thuram, Gallas, Abidal; Vieira, Makelele, Ribery, Malouda; Anelka, Henry
Inevitably for someone brought up the Ajax way, Holland manager Marco van Basten has a natural affinity for a 4-3-3 set-up where wingers are supposed to make the difference, so it was quite a sensation when the Oranje boss announced early this year that he would henceforth be employing a 4-2-3-1, the international flavour of the month.
Apparently, it was not entirely Van Basten's call, advised to do so by senior pros such as keeper Edwin van der Sar, striker Ruud van Nistelrooy and now departed midfielder Clarence Seedorf.
Van Basten argues that the pair of newly-installed midfield holders - likely to be Feyenoord's Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Demy De Zeeuw of AZ Alkmaar, with Denny Landzaat and Hedwiges Maduro also in contention - give his side a more constructive base in the middle of the park and makes it easier for the back-four.
Yet to make the system function, he needs high quality men in this area and it has to be open to question whether Van Bronckhorst and De Zeeuw have the necessary presence and tactical nous.
Holland certainly seem spoilt for choice in the attacking midfield area. Van Basten has the unenviable job of picking three from Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder, Ibrahim Affelay, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie, all wonderful ball-players and blessed with the supreme self-confidence of every top Dutch player.
However, the Holland coach must as a matter of course sort out their lack of tactical discipline, their tendency to bunch in the centre of the pitch. Van Persie, Van der Vaart and Sneijder are the favourites to start. If they can get their act together, putting their egos to one side and intelligently switching positions, they could cause huge problems to the opposition.
Van Nistelrooy is the undisputed point of attack. Cover is provided by Ajax's prolific young marksman Klaas Jan Huntelaar, who will be keen to prove that he is not solely a Dutch League flat track bully as he eyes a move to a major European club this summer.
Van der Sar aside, Holland's defence is their weak link. Hamburg centre-back Joris Mathijsen was awful in a recent friendly in Austria and could lose out to Aston Villa's Wilfred Bouma, while full-backs Mario Melchiot and Tim de Cler have their limitations.
Probable line-up - 4-3-2-1 formation: Van Der Sar; Melchiot, Heitinga, Bouma, De Cler; De Zeeuw, Van Bronckhorst, Van Persie; Van Der Vaart Sneijder
Azzurri boss Roberto Donadoni constantly chopped and changed his playing system throughout the qualifiers, switching from 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 and 4-5-1, from the Roma-inspired 4-2-3-1 to the 4-1-4-1, which his predecessor Marcello Lippi used to great effect in winning the 2006 World Cup.
All options remain open. In the 2-1 win in Scotland which clinched their place at Euro 2008, the 4-3-3 worked very well, with wingers Mauro Camoranesi (right) and Antonio Di Natale (left) ably supporting excellent target man Luca Toni and a nicely balanced midfield comprising cerebral playmaker Andrea Pirlo flanked by the gutsy talents of Massimo Ambrosini and Rino Gattuso.
In single front-runner mode, Camoranesi and Di Natale simply pull back, while the 4-1-4-1 usually sees Roma's tough yet skilful Daniele De Rossi operating just in front of the back-four and Pirlo and Gattuso providing the ideas and the bite a little further forward.
The 4-2-3-1 option sees Pirlo and De Rossi as the deepest midfielders and Gattuso on a search-and-destroy mission on the right side.
For the Italians, retaining good possession is key. They like to play in neat triangles and they have a masterly creative touchstone in the shape of 'quarterback Pirlo', who has few peers as the man for a killer through ball.
Equally vital to their attacking plans will be the riproaring raids of left-back Gianluca Zambrotta and a Luca Toni firing on all cylinders. Big, strong and technically-accomplished he can do it all; hold the ball, finish adroitly with his right-foot and power home headers.
There is no such thing as mediocre Italian international back-line. Full-backs Christian Panucci and Zambrotta are streetwise and cultured at the same time; stopper Marco Materazzi breathes fire; his central defensive partner, skipper Fabio Cannavaro is a true class act of positioning and anticipation; while keeper Gigi Buffon remains inspirational.
Italy are all things to all men. They can be pragmatic and economical, keeping it tight at the back while waiting for a chance to riposte. Or they can take the game to their opponents. Such tactical adaptability plus their renowned will to win is their edge.
Probable line-up - 4-4-2 formation: Buffon; Panucci, Cannavaro, Materazzi, Zambrotta; Gattuso, Pirlo, De Rossi, Camoransei; Di Natale, Toni
The rank outsiders of the devilishly tough Group C, no-one gives them a prayer of making the quarter-finals.
Yet underdogs status could well work to Romania's advantage, offering them the chance to sneak up on the rails while heavyweight rivals Italy, France and Holland worry about each other.
The 4-2-3-1 formation carefully constructed by coach Victor Piturca certainly has many of the qualities needed by a giant killer: resilience and spirit, unheralded organisation at the back and the ability to turn defence into attack in an instant.
Opponents would be well advised to keep a watchful eye on the ability of defensive midfielder and captain Cristian Chivu, to instigate their offensives with incisive passes from deep, the subtlety on the ball of playmaker Nicolae Dica and the drive on the right-flank of Banel Nicolita or Florentin Petre.
Then you have the marksmanship and line-leading nous of striker Ciprian Marica and the creativity and goal threat of the incomparable Adrian Mutu, who floats with menace in the attacking third, sometimes as striker, sometimes on the left-side of midfield.
And there are more weapons in their arsenal. Both full-backs, Cosmin Contra on the right and the left-footed Razvan Rat love to get forward and do not tend to waste their final ball. Their dead-ball work is to be commended too, Chivu taking a devastating free-kick and giant central defender Dorin Goian able create havoc every time he jumps for a set-piece.
Piturca has his side well-drilled defensively, where Goian and fellow centre-back Gabriel Tamas play with ruggedness and solid positioning. First-choice keeper Bogdan Lobont of Dinamo Bucharest has fortunately cut out the lapses that afflicted him during his time at Ajax and is renowned for his fine distribution with either hand or foot.
An alternative shape is a 4-3-2-1.This would see three defensive midfielders (Chivu, Razvan Cocis and Paul Codrea), plus Mutu and another attacking midfielder in support of the solo flyer Marica.
Probable line-up - 4-2-3-1 formation: Lobont; Contra, Goian, Tamas, Rat; Cocis, Chivu; Nicolita, Dica, Mutu; Marica