With Euro 2012 finally opening up and featuring some positive football action this week, we get to see if Group C can continue performing in that manner when action resumes on Thursday.
After the first cycle of matches, Croatia is the surprise leader of the quartet on three points after its 3-1 win over the Republic of Ireland. Italy and Spain, the last two World Cup winners, are level on one point after a 1-1 draw on Sunday, while the Irish have some work to do, pointless after their loss to the Croats.
Following are brief previews of Thursday’s Group C matches. Up next will be our look at Friday’s action in Group D.
Italy vs. Croatia (at Poznan)
Of all of the pleasant surprises that have emerged thus far in Poland and Ukraine, none have been more eye-opening that the Croats, who put on an unexpected display of free-wheeling football in their opening game against the Irish, a 3-1 Croatia win.
Nonetheless, European oddsmakers need more convincing, as the Croats are decided underdogs in Thursday’s clash vs. Italy at Poznan. A check of the prices notes an Azzuri win priced at 5/4, with the take-back on Croatia a tempting 12/5. More appealing still could be the draw price at 23/10 for the noon (ET) kickoff to be televised in the states on ESPN2.
This matchup presents a completely different scenario for Italy, whose manager Cesare Prandelli implemented some unorthodox lineup and alignment changes for the Sunday match vs. Spain. In a surprise move, Prandelli opted for only three defenders in a midfield-heavy 3-5-2 deployment that was designed to disrupt the Spanish pass-and-move game. The tactic worked to a certain degree, although Spain eventually controlled possession and fought back for a 1-1 draw.
But this more-aggressive counter to Spain’s prowess by Prandelli suggest that the old Italian “catenaccio” game, one that has bored generations of fans, seems to have been left in the garage for Euro 2012.
Still, Prandelli has issues offensively minus injured striker Giuseppe Rossi, Italy has been forced to experiment with less-attractive attack options. Man City’s mercurial Mario Balotelli struggled to make an impression against Spain, although Udinese vet Antonio Di Natale could prove he can still be a reliable weapon after netting the Azzuri’s only goal off the bench vs. Spain. Look for Di Natale alongside Antonio Cassano (who performed with some flair on Sunday) if Prandelli opts to keep his 3-5-2 looks for the Croats.
Slaven Bilic’s Croatia will also be facing something much different than the limited Irish resources it confronted in Sunday’s match. Ireland’s counter-attack strategy posed no real problems for the Croats, although maintaining possession against an accomplished Azzuri midfield boasting the likes of Thiago Motta, Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio will be a more-daunting task.
But Croatia has some elements to cause any defense some worry, with Spurs ace Luke Modric effectively pulling the strings in midfield and providing the supply line for the strike partnership of Wolfsburg’s Mario Mandzukic and Everton’s Nikica Jelavic, who accounted for all three goals vs. Ireland.
Mandzukic is emerging as a key player in this tournament. Tucked to right of Jelavic, he links up well with the Everton man but is also able to drop back into a winger role. As such, Mandzukic could provide the sort of width that might cause Italy’s narrow back three some issues, especially if Prandelli sticks to the alignment he utilized vs. Spain.
Our lack of faith in Italy’s scoring options makes us strongly consider the draw and Croat win prices in Poznan.
Spain vs. Ireland (at Gdansk)
As we expected, Spain was going to have some problems minus striker David Villa in this tournament.
What we didn’t realize was to what lengths Spanish manager Vicente del Bosque has been forced to resort in Villa’s absence.
Those issues probably aren’t going to bother Spain too much in this match vs. Ireland, although we also suspect that La Furia Roja cannot have an easy game in this tournament without its best striker on the pitch.
European oddsmakers seem unconcerned regarding whatever the Spanish plight, as La Seleccion is listed as a prohibitive 1/4 on the win on Thursday. The take-back on the Irish is posted at a whopping 12/1 – time for a bomber, anyone? – and even the draw price is an eye-opener at 5/1. Kickoff time will be 2:45 p.m. (ET) with TV coverage in the states provided by ESPN2.
How desperate has del Bosque become in Villa’s absence, you ask? While all of España wondered who would become the new target man, and projecting any from among Chelsea’s Fernando Torres, Athletic Bilbao’s Fernando Llorente, or even Sevilla poacher Alvaro Negredo, del Bosque instead opted for Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fabregas, curiously deployed as the new center-forward.
The former Arsenal man Fabregas indeed notched the leveler vs. Italy on a nifty feed from Man City’s David Silva, although we wonder if Fabregas really is del Bosque’s answer to the Villa dilemma. Torres, ineffective in a late stint as a sub, hardly appears to be the better alternative.
What remains to be seen is if Ireland’s EPL-flavored rearguard, one that was torn asunder by the free-flowing Croats, can possibly regroup for Spain. Looking a step slow at the back, Ireland lacks pace, but will take a cue from others who have been able to mass eight, nine or even ten behind the ball to counter Spain’s Xavi-Iniesta midfield, ball-control axis.
The Irish did create enough chances for themselves vs. Croatia and it would be no surprise if veteran gaffer Giovanni Trapattoni decides to go with Stoke’s bustling Jon Walters as an alternative to Wolves’ Kevin Doyle up front. Better service from Fulham’s Damien Duff and Spartak Moscow’s Aiden McGready from the flanks might give Walters or Doyle more opportunities.
We wonder if Ireland will decide to simply have a go at Spain, or else it likely spends the match on its heels, allowing Iniesta & Co, to dominate possession while the Irish wait to attack on the counter. Trying to force the action might be a suicidal resolve but it would at least make for better viewing than the slow death in which Ireland is condemned if it simply allows Spain to play its tiki-taka until an opportunity for Fabregas, Silva or Iniesta arise.
That’s not enough to get us interested in those hefty prices on the Irish.