The reigning kings, the disgraced, and the luck of the Irish – Group C

Day 3 of Euro 2012 will take us to Gdansk and Poznan, Poland, as the teams of Group C begin their campaigns to be named the best in Europe. The teams that will call this part of the world home for the next few games will be the Republic of Ireland, Croatia, Italy and defending champions Spain, the group that will most likely be dubbed over the coming weeks, the “Group of Debt” (cue economists chuckling mildly at the screen.)

Spain won the European Championship in 2008 for the first time since 1964

After winning all of their qualification games it is fair to assume Spain are the bookies favourites going into the tournament, having won it in 2008 when Switzerland/Austria hosted the spectacle, and then winning the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

However, they are missing a man who was instrumental in both successes in David Villa, who was top goal scorer in 2008 and joint top scorer in 2010 with Germany’s Thomas Muller and the Netherland’s Wesley Sneijder. Spain’s all time leading goal scorer, who was the top scorer in Group I with 7 goals, is still out of action after breaking his tibia in the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup against Qatari side, Al-Sadd, back in December.

Another injury casualty for La Roja is Villa’s Barca team mate, Carles Puyol, who picked up a knee injury in El Derbi Barceloní against Espanyol late in the season which required surgery.

Apart from the missing Barcelona men, it is essentially the same Spain side that won both of their last two major competitions (that’s excluding the Confederations Cup in 2009 where they came third place) and I feel they have more than enough to repeat the feat. The £50 million Chelsea man, Fernando Torres, will have to book his ideas up to get into the starting 11 after a poor season for a player of his quality in terms of goalscoring, and only narrowly got is name in to the 23-man Spain squad. However, his goal against South Korea, a friendly which Spain won comfortably 4-1, shows he is going in the right direction.

The key men for Spain will be in the midfield department for Spain. The likes of Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets are what make Spain tick, along with the more attacking midfielders like Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas, who has to recover from a hamstring injury but has still made the squad. Juan Mata and David Silva will also play a more important role in this Spain squad after impressive seasons in England with Chelsea and Man City respectively. Silva was also the joint second highest scorer in their group alongside the Czech Republic’s Michal Kadlec with 4 goals and scored the only goal in Spain’s recent friendly vs China.

I would expect to see the same type of football from Spain that has served them so well in recent years, it wouldn’t surprise me to see them in the final again. They have set the standard so high that it is the minimum expectation from their fans.

Spain’s opponents in the Group C opener in PGE Arena is Gdansk are Italy.

Italy winning the World Cup in 2006

The Italians are hoping to avoid an embarrassing early exit from a major international competition for the second time running, following a disastrous defence of their title as World champions in South Africa, where they finish dead last in their group, which consisted of Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand. A group they should have won without a sweat you may suggest? Fortunately, football doesn’t work that way.

Under manager Cesare Prandelli, who took over from Marcello Lippi following the said World Cup campaign, Italy enjoyed an unbeaten qualification campaign, winning 8 out of their 10 games, including a 3-0 win over Serbia which was awarded to them via forfeit after the game was abandoned after 6 minutes due to rioting Serbia fans.

The key men for Italy, in my opinion, will be the evergreen Pirlo and Udinese forward Antonio Di Natale. Pirlo will be the man charged with the job of dictating the play as he has done for most of his career. Antonio Di Natale will be expected to get the goals after scoring 23 goals in 36 Serie A games for Udinese last season. Despite only returning to football after heart surgery in April, where he went on to score, Antonio Cassano will be expected to chip in with a few goals and assists as he finished qualification as Group C’s top scorer with 6. Manchester City’s Mario Balotelli also has the chance to make amends with the Italian fans.

For the second time in the past decade, Italy has been at the centre of a betting scandal that has disgraced the name of Italian football. However, this time around it is none of the big names, but, Serie A clubs Atalanta, Novara and Siena are being investigated, along with teams from the lower leagues. However, there was one player in the Azzurri squad who has been axed after being accused of match fixing – Zenit St. Petersburg left back, Domenico Criscito. The 25 year strongly denies the allegations against him but the Italian Football Federation has decided to remove him from the squad. It is also rumoured that Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci is being investigated, however, there has been no arrest and he will travel to the Euros as normal.

The Azzurri’s run up to the competition hasn’t been their best. After qualifying the 4 time World champions have only won one of their four friendlies, the only victory reaching all the way back to November 2011, where they beat Poland 2-0 in Wroclaw. Defeats to Uruguay, USA and most recently, Russia will do no good for their confidence as they conclude their preparations before facing the current World and European champions, Spain. Along with their inability to convert chances, their defence will definitely be the biggest worry as a series of mistakes allowed Russia to get 3 goals, if they don’t sort this out they will giving away goals and could face another tournament at the foot of their group – unless that’s what Italian players have bet on anyway…

The other game later on sees the Republic of Ireland take on Croatia.

Whenever Ireland qualify for a tournament I get the feeling they could surprise people and can overcome the odds and get past the group stages with a little rub of the green…

Ireland’s talisman striker and captain, Robbie Keane

After the controversial game versus France which meant Ireland wouldn’t be heading to South Africa in 2010, it was vital that the Irish qualified for the Euros to restore the national spirit, and that they have done after finishing 2nd in their qualification group and then easily beating Estonia 5-1 on aggregate over the two legs.

In contrast to Italy, Giovanni Trapattoni’s men have enjoyed a more successful run up to the Euros with a draw with the Czech Republic, followed by a 1-0 victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina thanks to a goal from Shane Long. In Ireland’s last dress rehearsal before the big show, they traveled to Budapest for a friendly with Hungary. The game was a hard-fought and surprisingly entertaining 0-0, which was almost not played due to the heavy rain. Ex-Derry City star James McClean had no part to play in the game, as he was given 90 minutes against Bosnia and Herzegovina, suggesting Trap wanted to give his players good run outs separately.

The friendlies were in no way taken lightly by Trapattoni and Tardelli, men who will be honoured by getting their names inscribed on gold plaques which will be studded into the red bricked ground in Montecatini in Italy (where his Ireland squad were based for a training camp,) wanted their lads from the Emerald Isle to arrive in Polish customs on the high only a victory can bring.

Ireland’s main injury concerns are Shay Given and John O’Shea, but the experienced pair are still made the 23 man squad. Sunderland’s Manchester born goalkeeper Keiron Westwood was brought in to cover for Given, while Paul McShane, who covered at right back against Bosnia has been brought into the squad in favour of Kevin Foley, a move which has caused controversy after Foley said he felt “betrayed” by this move.

Luckily for Ireland, their main strikers are all fully fit and raring to go. Captain and ever present Robbie Keane finished as their qualifying groups joint second highest goalscorer with 5 goals and is usually the man who turns up when it matters – For example, when he scored the goal against Germany in the 2002 World Cup which sent Ireland to the knock out stages. He is joined by Wolves striker and Ireland regular, Kevin Doyle, West Brom duo Shane Long and Simon Cox, and Stoke City’s Jonathan Walters, who enjoyed another good season for Stoke, goalscoring wise. Wingers Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff are also fit and James McClean has been called up to the squad after breaking into the Sunderland first time with some impressive appearances, I think this tournament can potentially be the making of this promising young winger.

People are already calling Spain and Italy the favourites to qualify for the knock out stages but I smell an upset or two and if I was a betting man, I’d happily put a few bob on Ireland upsetting a few Italians and Croatians.

Which brings me on to Ireland’s opening opponents, Croatia.

Croatia captain, Darijo Srna

Croatia were unlucky not to conclude their final preparations for Poland with a win over Norway thanks to a last minute equaliser from Tarik Elyounoussi after ex-Arsenal striker Eduardo put the Vatreni ahead on Saturday evening. The former Yugoslav state have reached the quarter finals of two of the three European championships that they have entered since 1996 and were probably unlucky to go further in 2008 when a 119th minute goal from Ivan Klasnic was painfully ruled out in the 122nd minute by Semih for Turkey. Turkey went on to win the penalty shootout 3-1 as Luka Modric, Ivan Rakatic, and Mladen Petric all missed for Croatia.

In qualifying they came in second place, 2 points behind Greece, in a group that was dominated by the two. Coming in second place meant that they had to participate in a play off game which just happened to be against Turkey. The Croats made no mistake in exacting revenge on them, beating them 3-0 on aggregate.

The main casualty for Croatia is the central defender, Dejan Lovren. Lovren, who plays for Lyon in Ligue 1 suffered an achilles tendon injury and was given two weeks to recover, and to pass a late fitness test to get into the squad but manager Slaven Bilic decided it was unnecessary due to the amount of pain he could see he was in. Another casualty is new VfL Wolfsburg striker Ivica Olic, who has had to be replaced by Blackburn Rovers’ Nikola Kalinic who was only recently left out after being on the 30 man preliminary list.

For most in England, only the names of the Tottenham duo Vedran Corluka and Luka Modric, ex Spurs midfielder Niko Kranjcar, former Arsenal striker, Eduardo, and Everton new boy, Nikica Jelavic will ring any bells. These players, along with Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder and Croatia captain, Darijo Srna make up the squads star men. The Spurs duo will still be buoyed by the fact that they will be in the Champions League next season, as will Kranjcar, who finished qualifiers as top scorer with 4 goals, alongside Israel’s Yossi Benayoun and Aleksandrs Cauna from Latvia. Jelavic will also want to get on the pitch as quickly as possible as he finished the season in terrific form for the Toffees since his January switch from Rangers, scoring 11 goals in 16 games in all competitions.

The fight for second place, in my opinion, will be between Ireland and Croatia, and whoever wins the opening game between the two gets the advantage. I think it will be very close between the two and it will come down to either the single win or goal difference.

Group Prediction:

1. Spain

2. Ireland

3. Croatia

4. Italy


One Comment on “The reigning kings, the disgraced, and the luck of the Irish – Group C”

  1. patto1992 says:

    I think this group will go down to goal difference as Spain will probably get 9 points and there isn’t much to separate the rest. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a couple of draws in this group

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