Euro 2012: Group C Preview: Croatia, Rep. of Ireland, Italy, Spain

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Euro 2012: Group C Preview: Croatia, Rep. of Ireland, Italy, Spain

There is no getting away from the fact that, while Group B may attract all the attention, Group C is just as difficult and is easily another "Group of Death" for Euro 2012.

Featuring four teams from Europe's top 13, Group C promises to go right down to the wire and won't be easy to qualify from—even for Spain.

Group C: Rankings

Croatia (FIFA-8/UEFA-6)

Rep. of Ireland (FIFA-18/UEFA-13)

Italy (FIFA-12/UEFA-9)

Spain (FIFA-1/UEFA-1)

In any other year and in any other Group, Croatia (6) would be one of the favourites to progress. Slaven Bilic's side progressed through the playoff's after a disappointing 2-0 defeat to Greece in the penultimate game of Group F.

It was a bad defeat for a number of reasons. It was most specifically for the way Croatia played and for the way Greece held them off at arms length through a deep defensive display before capitalising on two late set-pieces.

Now, Slaven Bilic faces the same type of threat times three.

Spain will be ultra patient and will keep possession until the very right moments. Italy will defend deep and counter, while Ireland will play in a similar way to the Greeks.

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Leaving Croatia with it all to do if they are to progress.

 

Bilic likes to use a 4-1-3-1-1 type formation with Tottenham Hotspur's Luka Modric pulling all the strings at the base of midfield.

The problem with this is that while Modric always provides an excellent out ball, he is more than willing to take the ball under pressure, but he is not exactly the type of player who can drop into the back four when the going gets tough.

But if given time, he has the ability to unlock even the tightest of defences. When backed by the likes of Borussia Dortmund's Ivan Perasic, Bayern Munich's Danijel Pranjic and Wolfsburg's playmaker Mario Mandzukic, he has all the weapons he needs.

Usually playing on the counter, Croatia may find it hard to break down teams who do not constantly attack so getting out of Group C may prove too much for Bilic and company.

The Republic of Ireland (13) are in the Euros for the first time in 24 years and are led by the oldest manager in the competition—73-year-old Italian legend Giovani Trappatoni.

The Irish are belligerent, stubborn and conservative in the extreme. They do not take many risks during matches, just like the Greeks. The only team in the competition using a traditional 4-4-2, Trap has set the Irish up to be defensive and direct, and as a result they can be quite predictable.

They play with a flat back four who will not pass the half-way line and two deep midfielders who do not travel more than 15 meters from their centre-halves.

Ireland plays with a defensive bank of six backed up by two wingers who only attack when completely necessary. This often leaves the two-man strike team isolated, but each of the five forwards Ireland have brought to the Euros are at their best when holding the ball up and bringing others into the game.

 

It is this conservatism that is both Ireland's strongest point and their weakest. In tight games they will always be competitive but, if they go behind, they struggle to break teams who revert to defensive counter-attacking play. So each of their opponents is likely to start very quickly.

Also, in 24 years of major finals, the Irish have only managed to score more than one goal in a match just once—against Saudi Arabia.

However, they have good recent pedigree against Italy and Croatia. Ireland will probably use the Spain match to play their squad players so they will be underestimated at their opponents' peril.

Cesare Prandelli leads Italy (9) into Euro 2012 on the back of the latest and perhaps worst match-fixing scandal of all time.

The Italian manager has even said he would have no problem removing his team from the competition if political powers back home deemed it the best step for the country.

For every other team, the match-fixing scandal could prove to be a nightmare. Italy went into Espana '82 and Germany '06 under match-fixing clouds and won both World Cups.

This time around, Italy does not have the same calibre of players as yesteryear, and the scandal seems more sinister than before.

Italy almost qualified by default, despite being unbeaten, on top of the worst group in the European zone. Serbia was effectively eliminated when Italy was awarded three points for their corresponding match, being abandoned in October 2010.

Estonia, who finished second, was hammered by Ireland in the playoffs.

 

For his part, Prandelli recognises the lack of defensive talent offered to him, so he uses a narrow 4-1-2-1-2 formation that uses the full backs to provide all the width.

On their good days, the four men in midfield can be frightening. Pirlo, De Rossi, Nocerino and Marchisio are more than capable of playing at the very highest level.

However, a trial by fire in Game 1 against Spain means that Italy will start under immediate pressure to get something. If that goes badly, and with the current pressure they are under, it means they may implode by the time they take on Ireland eight days later.

European Champions 2008.

World Champions 2010.

European Champions 2012?

It would be fair to say that Spain (1) is now a super power, as far as football is concerned. Up until 2008, La Roja was always a bridesmaids and never a bride. Since then, the party just hasn't finished.

Their squad has more world-class players than any other. Vicente Del Bosque must be the envy of every manager in football, both past and present—perhaps with the exception of Mario Zagallo of Brazil 1970 fame.

Their strengths are obvious. It says something about the strength in depth of Spanish football at the moment, when Barcelona and Real Madrid, arguably the two greatest club sides on the planet, only contribute 12 players to the cause between them.

In David Silva, Juan Mata, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso, Spain possess seven of the best midfielders in the world. Xavi and Iniesta are certain to go down in history as two of the greatest players of all time.

How Del Bosque fits them into his team will be more than interesting.

Favouring a 4-2-3-1 in recent times, Del Bosque's team switches into a 4-3-3 when the perfect moment presents itself. However, the ex-Real Madrid boss usually goes with five of the chosen seven midfielders in his set-up. As a result, Spain can lack width.

This will become more pronounced if Sergio Ramos moves inside from right full to centre-half as expected after the late withdrawal of Carles Puyol. Atletico Madrid's Juanfran has been called up into the squad as Puyol's replacement, and now seems a certain starter at right full during all three group games.

Fernando Torres has also benefited from the late removal of David Villa from Del Bosque's plans. The superb Barcelona forward lost his battle to regain fitness after missing most of the last year through injury.

To further stamp his place in the team, and full of confidence at being the No.1 striker again, Torres scored his first goal in over a year for La Roja in the build up to the Euros.

In 2008, the Chelsea striker was told by Aragones that he was first choice and to go out and score—and his confidence soared. Now, in 2012, it seems like the same thing could be happening again.

Spain's weakness is similar to Barcelona's. They are prone to defensive lapses at the back and can get caught out of position after long bouts of possession.

Playing against three teams who will not come out willingly will be tough obstacles but, when all is said and done, Spain should have enough in the locker to overcome their group rivals— even if they do suffer an inferiority complex to Italian tactics.

They have only beaten Italy twice in 11 competitive matches since 1934—once in 2000 and again in the final of Euro 2008.

 

Conclusion

Like all the other groups in Euro 2012, Group C is impossibly hard to call.

Spain goes in as obvious favourites, but recent injuries to key players could prove to be their downfall. Add in the fact that every player in their expected starting six has played an average of 50 games this year, and they have not stopped playing for the last six years.

You begin to wonder if and when the wheels will come off for Spain.

As much as failing to get out of the group is a distinct reality, La Roja should have too much going forward for any of their goal-shy opponents and if Fernando Torres can return to previous form, they really could walk this grouping.

Finding a team for second place will be that much harder. I feel it comes down to the opening group fixture between Croatia and Ireland to see who will progress.

Both managers and teams know that this is really their final. In the opening game of the tournament, failure to take at least a point will mean an instant exit, considering the upcoming opponents.

Italy has a cloud over them. They start in the most difficult possible way, playing Spain and Croatia before facing Ireland and Trappatoni, who they have an inferiority complex against.

If the Gods are smiling on Ireland, they will have a massive traveling support and will win the hearts of Polish supporters, considering the close links between each country. Ireland could qualify and set up a tantalizing Quarter Final against either France or England.

Winners: Spain

Runner-up: Republic of Ireland

Group C Fixtures:

Match (05) June 10—Spain vs. Italy (PGE Arena, Gdansk—40,000)

Match (06) June 10—Republic of Ireland vs. Croatia (Municipal Stadium, Poznan—40,000)

Match (13) June 13—Italy vs. Croatia (Municipal Stadium, Poznan—40,000)

Match (14) June 13—Spain vs. Republic of Ireland (PGE Arena, Gdansk—40,000)

Match (21) June 18—Croatia vs. Spain (PGE Arena, Gdansk—40,000)

Match (22) June 18—Italy vs. Republic of Ireland (Municipal Stadium, Poznan—40,000)

Players to Watch

Croatia: Slaven Bilic's most important player is Luka Modric. The little wizard from Zadar is the epicentre of all that is good about Croatia's play.

But, the player to watch most is Ivan Perasic. The 23-year-old attacking midfielder signed for Borussia Dortmund in 2011 after leaving his home country at 17 years old to make it as a footballer.

He is comfortable anywhere in the attacking midfield set-up of a 4-2-3-1, and he can turn defence into attack with the drop of a shoulder.

 

Republic of Ireland: If there is any team at the Euros who are more than the sum of their parts, it is Ireland.

They have no real world beaters, but do have great professionals with world class attitudes.

Shay Given, Damien Duff, Richard Dunne and Robbie Keane do not know when to roll over. Trappatoni likes to be conservative but, if he ever has to take the manacles off, expect some blistering performances from Duff, Aiden McGeady and James McClean.

The Sunderland winger has been a revelation since breaking into Martin O'Neill's team. His appearance could be crucial not only for what he does on the pitch, but for whom he inspires from the bench.

Both Duff and McGeady are under threat from the 22-year-old and have responded by putting on their best performances in years in recent friendlies.

Italy: The star defenders of the past age are gone.

Italy can no longer rely on the likes of Baresi, Maldini, Costacurta, Bergomi or even Cannavaro. This Italian side is heavily reliant upon Pirlo and de Rossi—they are the real axis of this team.

They do all the work and leave the likes of Juventus' Claudio Marchisio to orchestrate their attacks.

He is a player who likes to come from deep and gets into the box as often as possible. As a result, he is a real threat on goal.

 

Spain: There is no doubt that Xavi Hernandez is the best midfielder the world has seen in decades. The little Barcelona maestro conducts proceedings for La Roja with ease, and he covers every inch of the pitch in his effortless style.

However, the one to watch will be Manchester City's David Silva.

A smooth operator in the front three of a 4-2-3-1 formation, the little midfielder is as creative a force as Xavi and Iniesta when on his game. His form for City has pushed him to the forefront after a few years on the sidelines.

Euro 2012 represents a real chance for the toughest player in the Spanish squad to shine.

 

Interesting Fact

Robbie Keane of the Los Angeles Galaxy and Christian Wilhemson of Al Hilal are the only two players who play football outside of Europe who will appear at Euro 2012.

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