Euro 2012 Day 3: 5 Takeaways from Group C Round 1
At another European Championship, Group C might have been the Group of Death. Composed of defending champion Spain, heraldic Italy, crafty Croatia and spirited Ireland, Group C is as stacked as it gets.
Sunday’s matches were a study in contrasts. Favorites Spain and Italy bloodied themselves to a 1-1 draw, while the Croats pounced on Ireland early and never let up. After taking a 3-1 loss, the Irish face an uncertain future at Euro 2012 despite their impressive fan support.
On the other hand, Croatia demonstrated they’re a force to be contended with. Likely inspired by Slaven Bilic’s very punk rock skullcap, the Croats were irresistible, putting Ireland and their 30,000 fans to the sword with ease. With three points in hand, Group C is Croatia’s to lose.
After Round 1, here’s how things stand in the Group of Debt:
Enjoy these five takeaways from Day 3 at Euro 2012.
The Italians Prepared Well for Spain
By now, the Spanish system is no secret to anyone who follows international soccer. The impish midfield maestros are renown for their tiki-taka passing, stunning vision and penchant for paper cutting teams to death.
But if you knew that, and I knew that, chances are the Italians knew that going into Friday’s showdown between Group C heavyweights. Cesare Prandelli understood what he was in for, and planned accordingly, sending in a 3-5-2 formation to break up Spanish dominance in the midfield.
The move worked well early. Spain found themselves stifled in the final third throughout the first half, and only found a breakthrough after Italy had surged ahead 1-0.
Players like Thiago Motta, Claudio Marchisio and pseudo-sweeper Daniele Di Rossi made life difficult for the Spanish attack, and were only beaten once by a sublime scoring move.
Stuffing the midfield is a tactic that many have tried before, and something by now Spain has become accustomed to. Usually, teams concede the initiative to Spain before taking the pitch, allowing La Furia Roja to posses with impunity and daring them to score. Spain are so well drilled that they usually oblige such opposition, as referenced by their Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 titles.
Yet Prandelli’s take was more nuanced, playing only three men at the back instead of the traditional four, allowing his attack to feature two heads instead of one. Thus, Italy was able to possess and attack in force without being overwhelmed on the counter.
Despite the conceded goal, Italy’s formation worked well, but don’t expect to see it again unless they’re playing Spain. The Azzurri take a well-earned point, and move on to Croatia.
How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mario?
Mario Ballotelli was in full puzzlement mode Sunday, displaying astonishing bits of skill amid unfathomable decision-making.
Billed as Italy’s resident madman, the 21-year-old did not veer far off the characterization. Always seeming like pot about to boil, Ballotelli grew increasingly frustrated as the fouls began to pile up, and was shown a yellow card before halftime.
Subbed in the 56th minute (likely out of fear of a second yellow), the young striker never found his form, highlighted by a confounding solo run into the box in which he neither passed, nor shot before being dispossessed.
Immediately after Antonio Di Natale took the pitch in Balotelli’s place, he scored the Azzurri’s only goal.
Balotelli remains an enigma, and a question to be answered by manager Cesare Prandelli. Italy looked consistently dangerous up front with Balotelli, but only got their goal after the Manchester City man took a seat.
In actuality, Balotelli’s time on the pitch will be determined less by his skill on the ball, and more by skill at anger management. His yellow was a direct result of too many fouls, and too many charged appeals to Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai.
If Balotelli cannot control himself, Di Natale must take his place in the starting XI. Italy need Balo’s skill, but they cannot afford his madness.
Spain Take a Selection Gamble, Partly Pays off
If you’re Spain, how do you replace a world-class striker like David Villa? Well, apparently you don’t.
Unable to don the red due to injury, Villa wasn’t an option for Vicente Del Bosque’s Spaniards. Instead of replacing him with other experienced strikers like Fernando Torres or Fernando Llorente, Del Bosque opted for only midfielders up front, with Barca man Cesc Fabregas at center forward.
It was a gamble that only partly paid off for Spain. Ineffective for all of the first half and half of the second, the magic of Andres Iniesta, Xavi, David Silva and Fabregas himself finally nabbed a goal off a superb move.
In that sense, the lineup wasn’t a disaster, but even Del Bosque knew that a change needed to be made. Jesus Navas was about to check in even as Spain found their equalizer, and Torres entered 10 minutes later.
With a target to aim at, Spain seemed to actively create more chances, and looked a sight better than they had with only midfielders to work with. True, Torres remained his familiar inaccurate self, but his mere presence changed the way Italy had to defend, opening more space for Spain to work.
Had the game continued 10 minutes past the final whistle, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Spain nicked another goal.
Del Bosque might get away with his midfield-only attack against lesser teams in Euro 2012, but he shouldn’t expect to fool the other contenders. Spain were good enough on the day, but left plenty of room for improvement.
Say Hello to Croatia, the Dark Horse of Euro 2012
In a group containing footballing giants Spain and Italy, it would be easy to overlook the Croatian squad. Do so at your own peril.
After a 3-1 thrashing of suspect Ireland, Croatia find themselves atop Group C and realistically one win away from advancement. To do so, they’ll have to upend the Spaniards or Italians, but from what they showed Sunday night, Slaven Bilic’s men are up to the task.
Spearheaded by Mario Mandzukic’s brace, Croatia looked inventive in the build-up and opportunistic in their finishing. Nikica Jelavic has continued his inspired club form for his country, pouncing on a catastrophic clearance to net the go-ahead goal.
In defense, the center back pairing of Gordon Schildenfeld and Vedran Corluka worked well enough, ending most Irish opportunities through the middle. In the future, they will need to be tighter on set pieces, as Schildenfeld played Sean St Ledger onside for the early equalizer.
Luka Modric orchestrated the proceedings from midfield ably, making life hard for Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan. The diamond-style midfield has been little used at Euro 2012, yet Croatia proved it has its place.
A win over Italy would all but lock up a quarterfinal spot, but will be hard to come by. What is clear, however, is that Croatia posses the versatility to adapt. In a contentious group, that ability might prove the difference.
Due to Loose Defending, Ireland Are on the Ropes
If results in football were based solely on fan support, Ireland would clear Group C with ease. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.
Matches are decided by many factors, one of which is the ability to defend and clear the ball out of danger when warranted. The Boys in Green came up short in that respect, surrendering two goals as a direct result of failing to preform necessary clearances.
On the first goal, Croatia should have never got a second bite of the apple after their set piece effort went begging. The ball should have left the Irish penalty in a hurry, yet the Croats won it back and got a header on frame. Keith Andrews and Shay Given were on different pages, and the ball skittered past for a goal in just under three minutes.
Give Ireland credit for storming back to equalize, but again they give up a soft goal just before halftime to go down 2-1. Yes, Nikica Jelavic was in offside position on Luka Modric's initial strike, but once Stephen Ward deflected the ball, it was fair game for the Everton striker to finish off.
Another Croatian header to make it 3-1 ended all Irish thoughts of a comeback, and might have doomed them in Euro 2012. To escape Group C, Ireland will have to pull wins against the last two winners of the World Cup. It’s not impossible, just highly improbable.
Ireland are on the ropes, and without a stunning turnaround they’ll be making an early trip home, alongside their legions of fans.