Despair for Croatia as Spain and Italy advance – Group C analysis


It’s safe to say the Italian players and nation went into the final round of fixtures in the group stages knowing their fate could potentially end up in the hands of the two teams in the other game, Spain and Croatia. A 2-2 draw would have been enough to send both teams through, thus knocking Italy out regardless of their result versus Ireland, who were already out of contention after their second group game.

However, sportingly, Spain vs Croatia took no notice of this ruling and both went for the victory. Croatia started the game a striker down, with Nikica Jelavic making way for Domagoj Vida, who played at right back, pushing captain Darijo Srna to the right of midfield, giving Croatia an extra man in that department, aiming to disrupt Spain’s passing play.

Elsewhere, Spain remained unchanged from their 4-0 thrashing of Ireland, with Fernando Torres leading the line after putting two past Shay Given.

Mario Mandzukic down after a strong challenge from Sergio Ramos

Croatia proved to be a totally different kettle of fish to Ireland, as expected. The game started with Spain having the greater possession, as standard, but only this time, as the half drew on, they seemed to look slow with the ball, with Croatia smothering most passing sequences Xavi and co. could muster up.

Initially, El Niño looked like he was carrying on his form from the last game into this one, as he showed a great turn of pace to get past two defenders and fired it at the keeper from an audacious angle to win a corner, but, this seemed to be the best moment of the game for him. Numerous through balls were directed at the Chelsea man but the good majority of them were intercepted by centre back Gordon Schildenfeld who had a great match, as did everyone in the back four for Croatia.

Spain looked comfortable camping within their opponents half, even Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique got forward for shots at goal, but, they were merely playing in to Croatia’s hands as lone striker, Mario Mandzukic picked up the ball and was able to run past Ramos and Pique and nearly won his side a penalty, when the addition assistants missed Ramos going in for a hard tackle with studs showing. The decision really could have went either way, but luckily for the Spanish, only a corner kick was given.

The second half continued with more of the same, however, the first team to attack was Croatia. Luka Modric led the counter attacks and Croatia should have took the lead after the number 10s lobbed cross found an unmarked Ivan Rakitic, who simply ran around the Spanish defence who were caught ball watching, especially Alvaro Arbeloa who was non existant for most of the game, but luckily his header was saved by Iker Casillas, but he had a second chance straight after when Arbeloa’s botched clearance provided Rakitic with a second header which was clear by Xabi Alonso.

Once again, I was impressed with Croatia’s duo of Modric and Rakitic but Danijel Pranjic also caught my eye. The Bayern Munich man was everywhere tonight, adding to defence and attack along with his midfield team mates.

Through all of Spain’s possession, it was Croatia who constantly looked more dangerous during the moments they had the ball around Casillas’ box and Del Bosque identified he needed a change or two. First he brought on Sevilla winger Jesus Navas for Fernando Torres, who had faded out of this game completely, and then Cesc Fabregas for a below par David Silva.

Jesus Navas makes sure it hits the back of the net

This turned out to be key to the result as Cesc Fabregas’ lobbed pass to Iniesta put him one on one with Stipe Pletikosa, and he played it safe, passing it to an on running, onside Jesus Navas who smashed it into the roof of the net and Spain into the quarter finals.

In the game itself you can’t help but feel Croatia deserved to go through after an overall good display of defensive organisation, reducing the world champions to limited opportunities, but that is the cruel world of major international competition.

In the other game of the night it was Italy vs Ireland.

Both Ireland and Italy entered Stadion Miejski in Poznan knowing that a defeat would see them return home as failures. Ireland were looking to redeem themselves and restore some pride after heavy defeats at the hands of Croatia and Spain, Italy on the other hand, needed all three points in order to qualify for the next stage of the competition. Skippering Ireland was Damien Duff, making his 100th and possibly final cap for his country. Italy were captained by legend Gianluigi Buffon, who could have been forgiven for being confident, given his side’s opponents abject form up to that point in the competition.

But it was Ireland who carved the first chance in the game, straight from the kick-off a defensive mix up allowed Kevin Doyle to grab possession unopposed, but his indecisiveness in front of goal allowed Buffon an easy take. Daniele Di Rossi fired a warning powerfully past the post from an Antonio Di Natale cross as a riposte. As the Italians began to assert themselves into the game, their corner count was rising; yet Cesare Prandelli’s men were unable to convert.

Antonio Cassano opens the scoring

The game was turning into a midfield battle, with Turksh referee Cuneyt Cakir kept busy by little incidents. Federico Balzaretti was booked for a rugby tackle on John O’Shea as he was getting away. An excellent Seán St. Ledger block denied Di Natale a chance of testing Shay Given as the Italians began to look dangerous on the counter. O’Shea himself got booked along with teammate Keith Andrews.

Then came the best chance of the game up to that point, a through ball sent Di Natale in on goal, his touch took the Udinese player away from Given, but also away from goal and his effort from a narrow angle was easily blocked on the line by St. Ledger. Moments later, Antonio Cassano’s shot was spilled wide by Given – the Azzurri with momentum on their side.

It was only a matter of time before the deadlock was broken, and Ireland had run out of steam. From the resulting corner, a Cassano header was touched by Given, but the Lifford native couldn’t get enough behind it and despite captain Duff’s best efforts on the line the goal stood. Despite another Italian onslaught Richard Dunne and Seán St. Ledger stood firm and they went to the break one down.

The Irish started the second half much like the previous two games; full of jitters. Despite ‘The Fields of Athenry’ ringing around the home of Lech Poznan, they couldn’t get a sniff of the ball, and only vital blocks from the defensive stalwarts Dunne and St. Ledger from Cassano kept the Italian advantage to one. A brief respite arrived in a cross from McGeady that was bicycle kicked over by Doyle.

Keith Andrews had Ireland’s first real effort on goal on the hour mark with a powerful drive, but hit right at Buffon who smothered with relative ease. The game was being ruined by some whistle happy refereeing though. Alessandro Diamanti came on for the Italians in place of Cassano. Eventually the first Irish change came on 65 minutes, Shane Long on for Aiden McGeady, who by all accounts had a disastrous tournament (like the vast majority of his countrymen.)

Soon after Diamanti kept Shay Given alert which a shot that skipped in front of the Irish net minder before landing in his grateful arms. The Boys in Green were getting a bit more into the game though, seeing more of the ball, and the Italian half! Andrea Pirlo put a free kick over Given’s goal, warning that his side were still endeavouring to increase their lead.

Safe to say Duff didn’t want his 100th cap to end like this

Di Natale was taken off, replaced by Balotelli with a quarter of an hour left as Richard Dunne had a foul given away for a foul on Buffon. On the Irish side, Kevin Doyle was brought off for Jon Walters, moving striker Shane Long to the right side of the pitch, another head scratching decision by Giovanni Trapattoni. Keith Andrews had another vicious daisy cutter which was beaten away by the Italian captain before being hoofed to safety. The crowd seized on the moment as noise levels in Stadion Miejski rose; nerves showing on the Italian side, needing a win to progress. Seán St. Ledger was booked for dissent as the Turkish referee kept blowing his whistle at regular intervals, as if to check it was working.

With the clock ticking towards 90 Balotelli had a deflected effort easily collected by Shay Given, with news filtering though that Spain had taken the lead against Croatia. Meanwhile, as the Irish frustration boiled over, Keith Andrews received a second booking for an altercation with Pirlo and the referee, marking his exit with a thumping kick of some stadium paraphernalia.

Meanwhile, Balotelli sealed Italy’s birth into the next round with an emphatic volley from a corner, which also saw Ireland go into the history books as the equal worst ever team in the European Championships, one scored and nine conceded in three games. Athenry was again sung out like a hymn at a funeral, and eventually the two-week-long torture for was Irish fans was over. Under a chorus of Irish voices, the Italians celebrated upon hearing the result from Gdansk, through to the Quarter Finals as Ireland applauded a crowd that were left down bitterly.

By Ashley Brewer and Kevin Galvin.

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