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Saturday, May 31, 2008

PREMIER REPORT

Players facing short summer with Euro 2008, World Cup qualifiers


LONDON — The Premier League's leading players are set for burnout this summer despite England's absence from Euro 2008.

Christopher Davies

England will be a spectator when the action in Austria and Switzerland gets under way.

Yet Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool will still have around 40 players on duty at the European Championship and 2010 World Cup-qualifying ties over the coming weeks.

While England ends the season with a 2018 World Cup vote-gathering friendly away to Trinidad and Tobago on Sunday, Euro 2008 kicks off six days later. The group stages end on June 18 with the final on June 29.

But it will still be a working summer for many of the United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool players.

Chelsea will be the hardest hit with a likely 13 players dotted around the globe.

Arsenal will probably lose 13 — Liverpool and United escape lightly in comparison with seven and eight, respectively, here, there and everywhere.

As most of the Big Four's players play for countries favored to reach the Euro 2008 knockout stages, they probably won't finish their summer's work until around June 22 at the earliest — just two weeks before preseason training for 2008-09 begins.

The Euro stars will be given extra time off, but Sir Alex Ferguson and company are not happy with this as it disrupts preseason plans, with inevitable worries about burnout for those who spent June playing rather than resting.

It does not end with European worries, either, because there are 2010 World Cup-qualifying ties in Africa, Asia and South America this summer.

Brazil's Anderson (Man Utd), Gilberto (Arsenal) and Alex (Chelsea) are likely to be involved in games against Paraguay (June 14) and Argentina (June 17). Carlos Tevez (United) and Javier Mascherano (Liverpool) will represent Argentina.

United midfielder Park Ji Sung has two World Cup qualifiers for South Korea next month — away to Turkmenistan on June 14 with the "derby" against North Korea in Seoul eight days later.

Chelsea's Michael Essien (Ghana), John Obi Mikel (Nigeria) plus Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou (Cote d'Ivoire) will be on World Cup-qualifying duty until June 22. So will Arsenal's Ivorian pair Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue, plus Cameroon's Alexandre Song.

It is small consolation to Arsene Wenger that Emmanuel Adebayor's commitments with Togo end in the first week in June.

* * * * *

THERE IS no obvious favorite for Euro 2008. Champion Greece and joint-hosts Switzerland and Austria are the rank outsiders.

Turkey, Romania, Sweden, Poland and Russia will need the commitment, organization and breaks that Greece enjoyed four years ago to succeed.

Which leaves the Czech Republic, Portugal, Germany, Italy, Holland, Croatia, France and Spain.

One of France, Italy and Holland from the Group of Death will not make the knockout stages, with the Dutch the most likely for an early return.

The Czech Republic lacks the quality to go all the way, while Spain will no doubt flatter to deceive — it has outstanding talent but the club and regional divides mean Luis Aragones' team struggles for the spirit all would-be champions need.

We are now left with Portugal, Germany, Italy, Croatia and France.

In Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal has probably Europe's finest attacking player, but the supporting cast is lacking.

Never underestimate Germany because even its bad sides are good.

World champion Italy has the experience and individuals to repeat its success in Germany two years ago.

Croatia is the wild cards. There is little pressure on it, but it is a battle-hardened squad and in Slaven Bilic has an innovative coach.

France has few obvious weaknesses, though key players such as Thierry Henry have not enjoyed the best of domestic seasons.

The crystal ball says Portugal vs Germany and Italy vs France in the semifinals, with Italy beating Germany in the final.

* * * * *

EARLIER this season Chelsea agreed to a £20 million severance package when Jose Mourinho was dismissed.

Avram Grant, who was shown the door at Stamford Bridge a week ago, had over three years to run on his £3.5 million a year contract, so the Israeli will fight for the £13 million he is owed.

Claudio Ranieri was reported to have been paid £6 million when he was booted out to make way for Mourinho in 2004, which means Chelsea has coughed up almost £40 million to three sacked managers in four years. Staggering.

Roman Abramovich did not become a billionaire by making such expensive decisions in his business world, but Planet Football operates under different rules.

The Russian has added a new dimension to ruthlessness because he can — £40 million is loose change to him.

Mark Hughes (Blackburn), Roberto Mancini (Inter) and Luiz Felipe Scolari (Portugal) are the front-runners for the next compensation check.

Abramovich wants a Hollywood team, full of top stars playing exciting attacking football managed by someone with charisma but who doesn't cross the egotistical line in the sand.

Oh, and two Champions League titles in the next three or four years.

Hughes, a former Chelsea striker, would be the most popular choice. He has probably taken Blackburn as far as he can and is ready for whatever the next step is.

Off the pitch the Welshman is soft spoken, but on it or in the technical area he is a raging bull.

Chelsea is at the same time one of the best and worst clubs to manage. The best because it has almost unlimited financial resources for additions to the second-best team in England and Europe.

The worst because rarely a day goes by without intrigue or scandal, while finishing runnerup in the Premier League and Champions League is a firing offense.

Whether it's a win bonus or a severance payment, the next Chelsea manager cannot lose.

Christopher Davies is author of the recently released book"Behind The Back Page."


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