Spain's title defense begins here.
Vicente Del Bosque's Spain take top billing in Euro 2012's Group C along with fellow blue-blood Italy. Croatia and the Republic of Ireland round out the group as outsiders.
Do either have a chance to knock off Spain or Italy?
Read on for my picks for Group C, game by game.
Details: June 10, PGE Arena, Gdansk, Poland
It's the group's biggest match, and, fortunately for us, it comes immediately.
Spain boast the world's best midfield, but in Andrea Pirlo (pictured), Italy boast a world-class, game-changing midfielder of their own. The battle in the middle of the park will excite the tactical geeks, but most of the action will likely lie in Italy's area.
As ever, Spain will pass around, at, through and all over their opponents, holding the ball for several minutes per possession. Also as ever, Italy will bring an organized, resolute defense that every opposing team will find difficult to break down.
If the match plays out as expected—with Spain dominating possession and Italy defending and trying to counter—it could set up an intriguing battle of wills: Spanish tic-tac against Italian defending.
If so, the club season could provide a clue as to the outcome.
Several of Spain's big names suffered ignominious European exits this season when their teams faced supposedly inferior sides. Barcelona's vaunted passing game failed to break through Chelsea's all-out defensive posture, and Real Madrid's thrilling, high-scoring offense met its match in a technically and tactically strong Bayern Munich.
So, can Italy do something similar?
Gianluigi Buffon remains among the world's top keepers at age 34. But the question is whether the defense is good enough.
The loss to Russia on Friday suggests not, and the match-fixing scandal surrounding the team will surely serve as a distraction. But a similar scandal engulfed Italy six years ago, and that only seemed to galvanize the Azzurri.
Mike's pick: It's hard to call. Italy will play better defensively than they did against Russia, but it's hard to bet against Spain so early.
Spain 1-0 Italy
Details: June 10, Municipal Stadium, Poznan, Poland
Ireland might be the tournament's favorite "second" team. Few sides match the Irish players for passion, and fewer fans match the Irish support for good times.
Unfortunately for Giovanni Trapattoni's side, player passion and fan fervor only go so far.
A limited squad will concern Trap, as will veteran keeper Shay Given's race for fitness. Given (pictured) is a strength, as are crafty attackers like Damien Duff, Aiden McGeady, Robbie Keane and exciting youngster James McClean (pictured).
Croatia will counter with a strong midfield led by Tottenham's Luka Modric, but defense is a concern.
Mike's pick: Because this is both teams' first match, expect high energy but cautious tactics. With Spain and Italy up next, neither team will want to lose. But as the match progresses, it should open up some, since both know that points will be precious in this group.
I see both sides scoring in the second half after a tight opening period.
Ireland 1-1 Croatia
Details: Municipal Stadium, Poznan, Poland
If Italy do lose their first match, this one becomes crucial. Another loss would almost surely send Cesare Prandelli's team home, but a victory—coupled with an expected Spanish win over Ireland—would make the Azzurri the favorites to advance.
Don't expect Italy to suddenly turn into an all-out attacking force, though. Expect Prandelli's men to maintain their defensive discipline while relying on Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi (pictured) to win the midfield battle.
If they do, Italy should find a way to score—and to win. If not, it could be an early exit for a major world power.
Mike's pick: Italy's defense will stand as strong as ever, the midfield will purr and Mario Balotelli will score the opener late in the first half. They'll add another with a counter-attack late in the second half.
Italy 2-0 Croatia
Details: PGE Arena, Gdansk, Poland
Glamor against grit. Style and flair versus, well, Ireland.
No offense to Ireland, but the names on their team-sheet won't compare favorably to Spain's. Where the Spanish feature world-renowned names from Barcelona and Real Madrid, the Irish defenders ply their trade for clubs like Leicester City, Sunderland, Fulham and Hull City.
So will it be a case of beauty against the beast?
Mike's pick: Probably so. Don't discount the contributions of Ireland's defenders, especially Richard Dunne (pictured), the glamor boy of the unit as an Aston Villa player. But Spain simply have too much. It just might take a while to find the opening goal.
Spain 2-0 Ireland
Details: June 18, PGE Arena, Gdansk, Poland
This one will be tense, not that Spain will notice.
Spain will hope to have secured qualification to the knockout stages by this point, but Croatia will be fighting for their tournament life.
But for a team chasing a result, the worst possible opponent might be a slick-passing, possession-happy team. In other words, Spain.
Despite the stakes, expect to see this match play out like a normal Spain match. If they've already qualified, the defending champs may rest a few players, but the style will be the same.
And so will the result.
Mike's pick: Spain will dominate possession, and Fernando Torres will score the winner in the second half. Spain will finish the group stage with a 100 percent record.
Croatia 0-1 Spain
Details: Municipal Stadium, Poznan, Poland
This match could prove interesting.
Will Italy attack, knowing a win would guarantee qualification? Will the Irish attack with their crafty wing players, knowing a victory would probably secure qualification? (Ireland's fate would be tied to Croatia's, but both matches are set to kick off simultaneously.)
Will either team take the initiative? Or will both sit back, soak up pressure and attempt to counter?
This one is hard to predict, so let's go with what we know. The Italians will play strong, organized defense, and Andrea Pirlo will run the show in the middle of the park. Ireland, meanwhile, will likely try to attack the wings.
Or does Gio Trap have a trick up his sleeve for his countrymen?
Mike's pick: I think Trapattoni (pictured) will play it like he always has. The match will pan out tactically as expected, and the result will come down to which team's players execute better. I'm backing the Italians.
Italy 2, Ireland 1
In my final table, Spain would win Group C with a 100 percent record and nine points. They would play the second-place team from Group D in the quarterfinals.
Italy would finish second with six points. They would face the Group D winners in the quarters.
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So, readers, what are your picks?
Let me know in the comments or tweet me @MikeCummings37.