Continuing with our Don Best group previews in the run-up to Euro 2012, we present our forecast for Group C, featuring World Cup and Euro holders Spain.
Indeed, in past years, a first-round quartet including Spain and Italy would been considered in any “Group of Death” labeling. But entering Poland and the Ukraine next week, that label might not apply to this grouping, especially with Italy in something of a transition phase, and group outsiders Croatia and Ireland considered longshots at best.
Following is our Group C preview, with group win prices included in parentheses.
Spain (8/15): There are some definite concerns in the camp of La Furia Roja as it enters Euro 2012, looking to become the first international side to win three major tourneys on the trot. Legitimate questions are fueled mostly by a disconcerting injury situation that appears to have claimed key Barcelona striker David Villa, who scored plenty of big goals at both Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010, but is rehabbing a leg injury he suffered this past season and will not be featured at Euro 2012.
There are also rumors of the old split resurfacing between the Real Madrid and Barcelona factions within the squad, although recent Spain sides have played through the historical, and often overhyped, acrimony.
These factors, however, have sounded the alarm bells, especially regarding Villa, who when healthy is the most-predatory component on the Spanish squad. His absence was also felt by Barca, which was denied Liga and Champions Leagues titles in the just-completed term partly because it could not compensate for Villa’s absence as a prime scoring threat.
Moreover, longtime defensive ace and team spiritual leader Carlos Puyol of Barcelona is sidelined after recent knee surgery. This tourney figured as Puyol’s international swansong, and his absence could have a detrimental impact on the Spanish rearguard which featured an impressive central defensive pairing with Puyol and Barca teammate Gerard Pique. Expect manager Vicente del Bosque to utilize Athletic Bilbao’s versatile Javi Martinez as a center-back after good results this past term with the Basque side, though replicating the Puyol chemistry with pique might prove difficult.
Villa’s absence as the target man in del Bosque’s 4-3-3 might open up opportunities for another Bilbao force, Fernando Llorente, excellent in the air, or one-time ace Fernando Torres, who regained form late this season with Chelsea and has been recalled to the side by del Bosque. Man City’s David Silva will likely play a more pivotal role on the frontline in Villa’s absence. The midfield axis of Barca’s Xavi and Andres Iniesta also showed signs of slowing down this past season.
We’ll find out soon enough if Spain has slipped task when it faces Italy in the group opener on June 10 at Gdansk. Group forecast: Winners.
Italy (16/5): Italy and Spain have run into each other on a couple of memorable occasions in recent memory, specifically a quarterfinal clash at Foxborough in World Cup 1994 when a late Roberto Baggio goal gave the Azzuri a 2-1 win that was clouded in controversy when Mauro Tassotti’s stray elbow that found Luis Enrique face in the box should have resulted in Spain being a warded a penalty kick and a chance at forcing an overtime period. Spain waited 14 years for revenge but finally got it in the Eruo 2008 quarterfinals, winning on a Cesc Fabregas strike in a penalty shootout after Iker Casillas had stonewalled the Italians in the soccer version of Russian Roulette.
Italy have been dismissed before and risen to the occasion when least expected World Cup 1982, when it won, and Euro 2000, when it almost won, come immediately to mind, but we’re hard-pressed to find many on the continent who expect Italy to make a serious challenge in June. World Cup 2010 was a disaster, failing to qualify for knockout round play, and the Azzuri were not challenged when winning a very tame-looking qualifying Group C, helped also by Serbia forfeiture of a match in October of 2010 due to crowd disturbances.
No matter, manager Cesare Prandelli could be cooking up a surprise with a more attack-minded Italy squad than those of the catenaccio bent that we are used to seeing. Prandelli’s Italy more mimics the Barcelona model with constant off-the-ball movement, but it looked more busy than effective in Group C and recent friendly action.
It has been said that this is a barren generation of Italian strikers, although Prandelli might have a surprise up his sleeve if Man City’s mercurial Mario Balotelli gets his head on straight. Still, there are mostly new faces across the pitch from more familiar Italy sides of the past decade. Names such as attacking fullbacks Andrea Barzagli (Juvenrus) and Christian Maggio (Napoli), and attacking midfielder Claudio Marchisio (also Juve) will be featured.
In the end, however, Italy probably goes only as far as Juve’s vet GK Gigi Buffon, off a spectacular Serie A campaign, can take the side. Group forecast: Second place, advancing to knockout stage.
Croatia (7/1): The Croats have long been comfortable with the outsider role, having caused trouble as an underdog in past tourneys and advancing as far as the semifinals at World Cup 1998, putting a scare into eventual winner France with a side paced by iconic Davor Suker and Robert Prosinecki and current manager Slaven Bilic. But the current Croatia displays little of the flair once exhibited by the Suker-influenced sides, instead more of a pragmatic squad in the mold of onetime no-nonsense central defender Bilic.
This lack of flair is a reason why most Croats are not expecting much in Poalnd and the Ukraine, and are satisfied simply by qualification for Euro 2012 which came via a knockout playoff vs. Turkey.
Croatia plays on the counter, with most of the attacks spawning from creative Tottenham midfielder Luka Modric, supported on the flanks by occasional bombing runs by a Spurs teammate, fullback Vedran Corluka, and Bayern Munich winger Danijel Prandic. Bilic prefers a 4-4-2 alignment featuring Wolfsburg’s Mario Mandzukic and Bayern Munich’s Ivica Olic up front, but could also switch to a lone target man alignment in which Everton’s Nikica Jelavic is a featured as the lone striker.
Maximum points from the opening match vs. Ireland are probably necessary for Croatia to keep any hopes of advancing to the knockout stage. Group forecast: Out in first round.
Ireland (14/1): After being cruelly denied a spot in World Cup 2010 thanks in large part to a controversial Thierry Henry hand-ball that was missed in a knockout qualifier vs. France, the Irish and veteran Italian manager Giovanni Trapattoni regrouped to qualify for Euro 2012. The Irish, a close second behind Russia in Group B, advanced after a comfy two-legged playoff win over Estonia.
“Trap” will likely be featuring a similar lineup to the one he used for most of the qualifying phase, heavy on second-tier performers based mostly in the EPL. although longtime target man Robbie Keane currently draws his club paychecks from the MLS and the Los Angeles Galaxy.
A functional, veteran backline featuring Sunderland’s John O’Shea and Aston Villa’s Richard Dunne has partnered through several qualifiers and past tourneys and is well-coordinated with another longtime staple of Irish squads, Aston Villa GK Shay Given.
A main concern for Trappatoni will be to find a proper strike partner for Keane in his preferred 4-4-2 alignment, with West Brom’s Shane Long likely to get the call due to better domestic form than Wolves’ Kevin Doyle. Look for Birmingham City’s Keith Fahey, Ireland’s most-creative midfield performer, to play a featured role.
As is the case with Croatia, Ireland probably needs to secure three points from that first match vs. the Croats in Poznan to retain any serious hopes of qualifying into the knockout stage. Group forecast: Out in first round.