The maestros of Euro 2008
Group A - Cristiano Ronaldo
For Cristiano Ronaldo, life has lately become a continuous procession of awards ceremonies. He's won 10 major player of the year awards in the last five seasons (that's excluding baubles like the Manchester United Players' Player of the Year awards), he has just collected the European Golden Shoe, and he is hailed as the world's best by everyone but a rogue cell of Irish TV analysts who are probably only doing it to wind everybody up.
More than any other player at Euro 2008, Ronaldo is the man people will turn up to see. Over the last two seasons he has discovered himself as a footballer. He used to think he was a tricky winger. Now he has realised he is actually a goalscoring power player - maybe the best power player there has ever been. He has immaculate control and plenty of tricks, but he doesn't quite have the deceptive instincts of a Maradona, a Ronaldinho or a Messi when it comes to beating opponents one-on-one. His game is about the application of power at incredible speed with incredible accuracy. The spectacularly headed goals against Roma at the Olimpico and West Ham at Upton Park are perhaps the best showcase of his unique ability to attack space at lightning speed and arrive with perfect timing to make a decisive intervention.
He is improving year-on-year. In season 05/06 he scored 12 goals in 47 games, two years on his tally is 41 goals in 47 games. Three seasons ago he rarely put a free-kick on target; now he regularly thrashes them into the top corner, even though he usually uses the outside of the boot, which makes the shot more difficult to control.
Barring injury, it looks like the only pitfall in the immediate future is that he is seduced by all the goalscoring into thinking of himself as a striker. He's not a front player, he is more of a goal threat when he's facing towards goal, joining attacks at speed from deeper down the field. Portugal are light on orthodox centre-forwards and it is to be hoped that coach Luis Felipe Scolari does not succumb to the temptation to use Ronaldo in that position.
GROUP B - Michael Ballack
Michael Ballack is the only player to make the all-star team at the last three major international tournaments. Yet this time last year, Ballack looked washed up. A dreary first season at Chelsea had ended in a row with the club over how to treat a complicated ankle injury. The media speculated that his £6.5m a year salary had dulled his competitive appetite and he was being bracketed with Andrei Shevchenko as another expensive Chelsea mistake.
Instead, Ballack has come back and taken his game to another level. At 31, he is now running on average 3km more per game than he did in his Bayern Munich days and is scoring regularly again. He attributes the improvement to the cut-throat competition for places at Chelsea. “When you feel your place on the team is in danger, you have to send a clear signal saying: I'm not going to budge one inch,” he told Stern magazine. “You have to face the challenge. You have to make people sit up and take notice of you otherwise you just go under in a team like this. You're just devoured by the machine. And so I've become more ruthless.”
With his height and composed style, Ballack always radiated a natural authority, but now that time is running out on his international career there is a new intensity about him. For a man who probably considers himself the outstanding midfield player of his generation he has been second too many times. Germany have not won a European Championship match since beating the Czech Republic in the 1996 final. Led by their rejuvenated captain, they are about to end the wait.
GROUP C - FRANCK RIBERY
Thierry Henry, who knows something about speed, said: “There are very few players in the world today who can accelerate like Franck Ribery - brutally.” The 25 year old from Boulogne is Europe's most exciting dribbler because he understands better than anyone the art of the change of pace. Ribery has the modern winger's complete repertoire of Playstation flicks and pirouettes, but what sets him apart is his intuitive understanding of when to apply his outrageous acceleration to cut past a defender, and when to hit the brakes and send the defender skidding off to the shops. He grew up admiring Chris Waddle for the way he always played to entertain, and his wickedness on the run can make you laugh out loud.
Ribery's first season at Bayern Munich has been a triumph of near-epic proportions. According to the Suddeutsche Zeitung, "In just one season, Ribery has changed the Bundesliga. His preference is for the left wing, but at Bayern he has also played on the right and as second striker, and the new authority in his game is reflected in a sharply increased scoring rate - bullet shots, clever chips, dribbles around the keeper.
Ribery is coolly confident in his own abilities – “pressure has no effect on me. I never feel it” - and his aim is to be seen as the successor to Zidane. At the World Cup he was France's youngest player, but now he says “I'm one of the leaders in the team.” He is free of the egotism that affects many supremely gifted footballers, crediting his working-class upbringing and the facial scars that at times made growing up difficult. “It was the way people looked at me,” he says, “but it made me stronger. Now they have a certain charm for me. People ask me if I'd have cosmetic surgery, but I say: not for €25 million. I would no longer be Ribery.”
Most talented French youngsters are hothoused at academies with elite clubs, but Ribery was kicked out of Lille's youth system for ignoring his academic work, and spent the formative years of his career shuttling around small clubs in France's unglamorous north. He says "I have no ambition to be the superstar. I only want to work hard, fulfil what is expected of me, enjoy my football, and entertain my team-mates and the crowd."
GROUP D - FERNANDO TORRES
Spain will probably make a terrible mess of the European Championships. But Fernando Torres is curiously un-Spanish in that he has already become more successful abroad than he ever was at home. Can El Nino change the course of Spanish destiny?
Why the hell not? Spain are strong throughout the side: Fabregas is a genius and Torres is the best centre-forward in the tournament. A beautifully balanced runner with explosive pace, he is equally capable of making goals for himself or finishing off team moves. His constant movement wears down his markers, and his intelligent positioning allows him to play on the shoulder of the last defender yet rarely get caught offside.
He has been a one-man army for Liverpool since the end of winter and has won plaudits for the many different types of goals he's scored, several via his signature move of shaping to shoot with the right foot before dragging the ball to the left of his wrong-footed marker and beating the keeper from close range.
He has answered those who accused him of lacking big-match temperament with classic strikes against Inter, Arsenal and Chelsea - teams whose defences are unlikely to be bettered by any of the opposition at Euro 2008. Spain's manager Luis Aragones and former striker Julio Salinas have compared him to Marco van Basten. Real Madrid legends Raul and Hugo Sanchez have each paid him the ultimate compliment by saying Torres reminds them of themselves.
Torres enjoyed a stellar career for Spain at underage level, winning U16 and U19 European Championships. His first taste of failure at international level came at Euro 2004, when he said it “never occurred to me” that Spain would fail to beat Portugal and go out in the first round. Like so many of his compatriots he is yet to show his very best form for the senior national team. Some question whether Spain's slow build-up plays to his strengths. Still, his presence up front will ensure that Spain's probable early exit is even more baffling than usual.