It only took two matches in Group C to knock Ireland out of a chance to advance to the knockout phase, but the Irish could still have something to say about which teams advance from its quartet to the next phase of Euro 2012.
Group C concludes action Monday in Poland with three teams still alive for a shot at moving into the knockout rounds. Developments in the second cycle of matches last Thursday, however, could have long-reaching ramifications for the rest of the tournament.
In other words, Spain finally looks ready to defend its crown and become the first country in history to win three international tourneys in a row. More on La Seleccion’s Monday match against Croatia in just a moment. In the meantime, a quick review of the Group C table is in order before the Monday matches.
Spain and Croatia currently sit atop the Group C pile on four points, with a tiebreaker edge at the moment resting with the Spaniards based on goal differential. Italy sits third on two points, while Ireland sports the big donut at the rear.
The scenarios for advancement could get complicated. It gets easier if there is a winner in the Spain-Croatia match; the victor advances as group winner. Spain also advances with a draw, while the Croats a tiebreaker scenario with Italy in similar circumstances.
Both Spain and Croatia could advance, regardless of their result, if Ireland shocks Italy. For the Azzuri, it’s win or else against the Irish; a draw keeps Cesare Prandelli’s side out of the knockout round.
An Italy win might not even be enough to send it through, as in the event of a tie n five points with Spain and Croatia, goal difference would have to be implemented to determine which sides advance. That scenario already favors Spain over Croatia, so in the event all five land on five points, the tiebreakers would likely apply only to Croatia and Italy. The Azzuri advance with a win and a victor emerging in the Spain-Croatia match. The bottom line is that things could get very confusing if Spain and Croatia end up level.
What do we think will happen? Following are our previews for Monday’s action. As with the third and final cycle of all group play matches, kickoff times will be simultaneous at 2:45 p.m. (EDT) on Monday. Remember, previews continue next week as we advance into the knockout phase of the competition.
Spain vs. Croatia (Gdansk)
Big developments in Spain’s 4-0 win over Ireland last Thursday, within that result the likely road map for La Furia Roja to defend its title.
Meanwhile, Croatia continues as one of the surprise packages of this event, not to mention one of the most entertaining with a swashbuckling style that seems a bit out of character for a Slaven Bilic-coached side.
European oddsmakers, however, are not swayed by nice storylines or Cinderella tales. Their cold and hard appraisal of this clash in Gdansk rates Spain at 5/6 on the win, with Croatia a considerable underdog with its 7/1 win price on the take-back. The draw is posted at 13/8. TV coverage in the states will be via big ESPN.
The major development in Spain’s 4-0 rout over Ireland was the return of the “old” Fernando Torres, who scored a dazzling brace in vintage, Torres-like fashion the romp. The fact that the “good” Torres resurfaced could not have come at a better time for manager Vicente del Bosque, who now might have his answer to the absence of Barcelona striker David Villa.
Fitness, form and confidence mean everything to poachers such as Torres, who had been lacking in all three traits for much of the time since World Cup 2010. But if the swagger is really back, then del Bosque has solved his Villa dilemma.
Now del Bosque might have an abundance of riches in attack, with Barcelona’s Cesc Fabregas scoring for the second straight match. Against Ireland, Fabregas came off the bench, but he seems to have easily adapted to his center-forward role in this tourney. But there’s more with Spain, especially Man City’s David Silva continuing to make incisive cuts and runs into the teeth of the opposition and clearing space in the attacking third for España.
As is usually the case vs. Spain, the possession game can strangle the opposition, and for all of the creative work done by Croatia in its first two matches, we’re not sure the Croats will see enough of the ball to make a difference. That would include Euro revelation Mario Mandzukic, the Wolfsburg striker who has already scored three times at the Euros, but will be hard-pressed to receive proper service if his teammates can’t win possession.
Spain, at nearly even-money on the win, looks exceptionally good value to us.
Italy vs. Ireland (Poznan)
Italy has all to play for in Poznan, as the Azzuri need a win and preferably a multi-goal win, to advance to the knockout phase. A draw does the Italians no good.
Yet after watching Ireland scuffle in its first two matches, it is fair to wonder if the Irish can really do anything about it.
European oddsmakers are not convinced, with Italy a prohibitively-priced favorite at 1/4, and Ireland a balloon-like 10/1 on the take-back. The draw is listed at 5/1, with TV coverage in the states provided by ESPN2.
There are legitimate questions being raised in the Irish camp about how things could have gone so wrong at the Euros. Simply put, Ireland hasn’t been good enough, unable to sustain possession and leaving gaping maws on the defensive end, especially in the opponents’ attacking third.
New blood is badly needed for a side that still features a couple of warriors from as long back as World Cup 2002, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane, and a 36-year-old keeper in Aston Villa’s Shay Given. The side lacks pace and skill to compete at this level.
Which brings us to the question of manager Giovanni Trapattoni, at 73 by far the oldest gaffer in the Euros but also signed as the Irish coach through the next World Cup in 2014.
There are two schools of thought on Trap’s future in Ireland. First, simply getting the Irish through the qualifiers and into one of these events remains an accomplishment. As usual, anything Ireland does once making a major tourney is gravy. For that, Trap probably deserves to stay.
But embarrassing performances are never good for a coach’s continuing employment, and Ireland have been outclassed. Trap does not have abundant riches on hand but has not been able to life the Irish beyond the their talent levels, for this tourney at least. This Ireland side is also a far cry from Irish squads we have seen cause trouble in past big events (such as the '94 World Cup under Jack Charlton, and the 2002 World Cup for Mick McCarthy).
We suspect that if Ireland rediscovers its battling spirit on Monday, Trap probably has a chance to survive. But Italy figures to have something to say about he proceedings.
Though rightly upset at kicking away the three points vs. Croatia, Italy has displayed more verve under manager Cesare Prandelli than it has in recent years (including Marcelo Lippi’s fortunate World Cup winners in 2006). By employing a 3-5-2 alignment int his tourney, Prandelli’s Italy is flooding the midfield and aggressively seeking to create scoring opportunities. More entertaining than the bore stuff we usually get from the Azzuri.
The mercurial frontline combo of Milan’s Antonio Cassano (finally getting a chance internationally before it’s too late) and Man City’s Mario Balotelli has given signs of clicking at the Euros. The midfield and defense of Italy are still class, and GK non pareil Gigi Buffon will be motivated to keep a clean sheet after allowing Spain and Croatia to each score a goal.
Indeed, it's hard to see Ireland breaking through and causing much trouble for Buffon.
There is no value in any of the pricing on this match, although we have a very hard time envisioning Italy dropping any points. For value on Monday, Spain looks the best value in its match vs. the Croats.