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Jun 27, 2008

Team of the tournament

Euro 2008 has been an endearing blend of the expected and the unexpected. So it is appropriate that a select XI from the tournament contains a mix of established stars and surprise successes.

There are players from seven countries and while there are no Turks - though Mehmet Aurelio, Ardan Turan, Semih Senturk and Nihat Kahveci all had their claims for a place - Fatih Terim's side's exploits also showed that the outstanding individuals weren't necessarily to be found in the finest teams.

Of course, the final could produce some different candidates for this team and, as the last World Cup showed, premature selection runs the risk of the acclaimed individuals, say, headbutting the nearest Italian irritant in the final. Assuming that doesn't happen, however, these are the best of Euro 2008.

Goalkeeper: Gianluigi Buffon
The best goalkeeper in the world: it is a tag that the supporters of Petr Cech and Iker Casillas often claim for their man. The Czech's fan club may have taken a vow of silence and, while the Spaniard has had a fine tournament, Gianluigi Buffon has been better. Among a host of excellent saves, the remarkable penalty stop from Adrian Mutu - preventing an embarrassing first-round exit - stands out. Buffon saved a spot kick, too, in the shootout against Spain but while Casillas blocked two, the Italian's exploits over the whole competition earn him this vote.

Right-back: Aleksandr Aniukov
Russia appear to have been imbued with an adventurous spirit, and few were bolder than Aleksandr Aniukov. The right-back appears a believer in the theory that the best form of defence is attack and, raiding forward, he almost presented a mirror to Yuri Zhirkov on the opposite flank. Despite Zenit St Petersburg's UEFA Cup exploits, Aniukov is one of several to have really made a name for himself in Switzerland and Austria.

Centre-back: Robert Kovac
It has not been a vintage tournament for central defenders, but while some with loftier reputations have suffered, the dependable Robert Kovac proved quietly reliable. Croatia exited Euro 2008 having only conceded two goals, one of which should have been disallowed, and Kovac and his central defensive partner Josip Simunic showed the merits of unflashy solidity.

Centre-back: Ricardo Carvalho
Portugal had their problems defensively, but they rarely seemed to involve Ricardo Carvalho. Rather, opponents prospered by aiming for players the Chelsea man was not designated to mark. When he was involved, Carvalho's reading of the game, timing in the tackle and speed were apparent. And no one strolls out of defence with greater class.

Left-back: Yuri Zhirkov
Three weeks ago, he would have seemed a left-field pick, but since then the cavalier Yuri Zhirkov's reputation has grown exponentially in the Alps. The Russian has established himself as a one-man left flank, equally capable of marauding forward and tracking back. In a competition flooded with attacking left-backs, none seem to have spent as much time overlapping as Zhirkov. With the skill of a winger and the stamina of a box-to-box midfielder, he was a revelation.

Defensive midfielder: Marcos Senna
Marcos Senna is one of the players of the tournament yet his finest moment was... well, it is hard to remember. The words 'quietly influential' have rarely been appropriate, but the Villarreal man is a stranger to spectacular. Instead, he excels at the seemingly unexceptional, the interception, the short pass and the rapid recognition of where danger lies and how he can snuff it out. Operating with stealth, he has been the straight man alongside the more flamboyant talents who top the Spanish bill. The success of Senna and Turkey's Mehmet Aurelio suggests the rest of Europe should join the search for Brazilian-born midfield anchormen.

Central midfielder: Michael Ballack
No one has covered more ground in Euro 2008 than Michael Ballack, and few have exerted such authority either. Germany's captain has produced two examples of forceful leadership when his country needed it most. The rasping, unstoppable free kick against Austria rescued Germany from a poor performance and secured qualification for the quarter-finals. In the last eight, Ballack's commanding display against Portugal, capped by the winning goal, ranks among the best of the tournament.

Right midfielder: Bastian Schweinsteiger
It has been a competition of two halves for the spiky Bastian Schweinsteiger. His participation in the group stages is best forgotten: dropped for the first game, leading to ineffectual cameos and a needless red card, he was headed for a place in the select XI of the worst players of the tournament, not the best. His subsequent renaissance is remarkable. Brought back on the right of the German midfield, he has made beautifully-timed runs infield to score in both the quarter- and semi-final. Bristling with energy and having recaptured his spark, he has been arguably Germany's best player in the knockout stages.

Left midfielder: Wesley Sneijder
In pure statistical terms, Wesley Sneijder scored two goals and created two more. The memories of his magnificent, 25-yard strike against France and the wonderful counter-attacking team goal against Italy will live longer in the mind that the bare facts, though. Expert passing, and the ability to change positions with Rafael van der Vaart at will, made Sneijder's contribution still greater. Unlike many of his team-mates, he did not fade against the Russians in the quarter-final. Holland departed leaving many wanting to see more of them, Sneijder in particular.

Attacking midfielder: Andrei Arshavin
Given the proliferation of eye-catching passers, there is a temptation to gorge on playmakers and overload the side with them. Instead, one man stood out so - with apologies to Deco and Xavi - the pivotal role is granted to Andrei Arshavin. His tournament only encompassed three games, but two produced world-class performances, both featuring a goal and also an assist in one. The nonchalant shrug to the camera after creating Dmitri Torbinski's goal against Holland was the reaction of a man entirely aware of his talent and the growing global recognition of it. Superstardom appears to have arrived late for the 27-year-old; he seems intent on savouring it, preferably at Barcelona.

Striker: Fernando Torres
He has been outscored and overshadowed by strike partner David Villa, but Torres' contribution is far greater than a total of one goal would suggest. Indeed, Villa's first goal was courtesy of the Liverpool forward's unselfishness and his semi-final display was a key factor in Russia's defeat. It may not have been a vintage tournament for the out-and-out goalscorer and Luis Aragones has shown a fondness for substituting for star striker, but he has done enough to earn a place in this team.

Substitutes
There are plenty of others worthy of a place - Mehmet Aurelio, Iker Casillas, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Deco, David Villa and Lukas Podolski, to name a few - but Euro 2008 has witnessed several high-class substitutes, so it seems fitting to pick Semih Senturk, Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas instead.

The Alternatives

John Brewin: Buffon; Ramos, Kolodin, Zhirkov; Modric, Aurelio, Deco, Sneijder; Arshavin, Villa Podolski. Subs: Ballack, Fabregas, Van Nistelrooy

Jon Carter: Casillas; Van Bronckhorst, Carvalho, Ignashevich, Ramos; Turan, Ballack, Modric, Podolski; Villa, Pavlyuchenko. Subs: Zhirkov, Sneijder, Arshavin

Phil Holland: Van der Sar; Zhirkov, Simunic, Ignashevich, Ramos; Senna, Podolski, Hernandes, Schweinsteiger; Sneijder, Torres. Subs: Prodl, Ballack, Pavlyuchenko

Dale Johnson: Buffon, Aniukov, Simunic, Pepe, Zhirkov; Senna, Modric, Ballack, Podolski; Villa, Pavluchenko. Subs: Ramos, Fabregas, Arshavin

Dom Raynor: Casillas; Aniukov, Simunic, Marchena, Zhirkov; Senna, Sneijder, Fabregas, Ballack; Pavluchenko, Podolski. Subs: Ramos, Villa, Deco


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