/ 20 May 2008

Goal merchants set sights on Euro glory

They are the men who will reap the plaudits and milk the applause — the goal poachers who can grab glory for their nation in an instant.

And they will deserve the adulation if they can rise above the increasingly defensive fare of the modern international game and the fear of losing, which hung heavy over the finals of both Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup.

Although the 2,5 goals a game average of Euro 2004 bears comparison with earlier editions, the final served up sterile fare, when Greece shocked hosts Portugal with a goal from Angelos Charisteas after seeing off the French and the Czechs in similar 1-0 smash-and-grab style.

Two years on from a similarly sterile World Cup final, fans will be hoping for more effervescent stuff from the likes of Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo, fresh from being crowned English Premiership player of the year, and Spanish vulture Fernando Torres.

Four years ago, most of the fireworks came after the final whistle when organisers launched them from the roof of the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon to accompany a Greek lap of honour in front of a stunned Portuguese crowd.

Spain, perennial under-achievers at this level since they won their only major honour at Euro 1964, will hope this time they will have the requisite firepower to stage a repeat.

Torres is Spain’s golden boy after scoring 24 league goals in his debut season at Liverpool, eclipsing the previous 23 debut-season mark for a foreign star of former Manchester United hit man Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Torres goes into the tournament after scoring in eight straight league games at Anfield, equalling the club record of Roger Hunt, a member of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning team.

Although Liverpool failed to land a trophy, Torres clearly enjoys the full confidence of coach Luis Aragones, who has seen fit to drop all-time leading Spanish scorer Raul from his squad despite the latter’s iconic status and more importantly his good form for La Liga champions Real Madrid this season.

”There are many other players who, when you look at the number of minutes played, have scored more than Raul and they haven’t made the squad either,” was Aragones’s defensive response — while he also raised some eyebrows by saying Brazilian football was better than Spain and that the Italian and German national sides were also superior.

But with Torres and Valencia hotshot David Villa — who actually outscored his partner in the qualifiers — in his ranks, as well as up-and-coming Mallorca star Daniel Guiza, the ”Wise Man of Hortaleza” clearly feels his squad has enough ammunition in its tank.

On league form Ronaldo should, meanwhile, instil fear into opposing ranks after his 31 goals in the Premiership for Manchester United.

As with United, so with Portugal he has increasingly come in from the flank and scored eight times in the qualifiers, his country’s best haul.

Germany will hope that Bayern Munich pair Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose can kick on from their Bundesliga title-winning exploits and that Mario Gomez, whose parents are Spanish, can also bring his shooting boots, having managed six goals for his country in his first nine appearances.

Italy will rely heavily on their own Bayern star in the shape of Luca Toni, who helped secure qualification with vital goals in the Azzurri’s tough matches against Scotland.

France coach Raymond Domenech, while he has the evergreen Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Sidney Govou and budding star Karim Benzema in his attacking ranks, has dispensed with David Trezeguet, despite his 20 goals for Juventus and his experience of the big stage.

Instead, Domenech has plumped for young St Etienne striker Bafetimbi Gomis, and Trezeguet joins a growing list of proven goal-getters who will not be on the Euro 2008 stage.

”You have to make a choice,” insisted Domenech.

”What do I think of his season with Juve? That’s no longer my problem.”

So Domenech joins the risk-takers’ club as France go for a title hat-trick after 1984, when Michel Platini scored the goals, and 2000.

No Raul, no Trezeguet — and no Eduardo Da Silva for Croatia, the Arsenal star recovering from a horror tackle from Birmingham defender Martin Taylor in February.

Three of the most prolific strikers in the game will be missing from this summer’s showcase.

The purists may cringe — but Greece showed four years ago and Italy proved at the last World Cup that one goal is enough. — Sapa-AFP