Euro 2012 has gotten off to a flying start, and Group C steps to the fore on Sunday with a pair of matches in Poland.
Of course, Group C means that tourney holders Spain will be featured as La Furia Roja embarks on becoming the first side to win three international tournaments in a row.
Remember, for our next update, we'll be providing a quick look at Monday’s Group D opening clashes, featuring England and France. First, however, we preview the Sunday Group C matchups, including that heavyweight Espana-Italia clash.
Spain vs. Italy (at Gdansk)
These two have a history of pitched battles in international competition, the most recent of which being Spain’s pulsating shootout win in the quarterfinals of Euro 2008, when Cesc Fabregas and GK Iker Casillas were the heroes. But they’re still mad in Spain regarding a World Cup 1994 quarterfinal at the old Foxborough Stadium, 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 awarded a penalty kick and a chance at forcing an overtime period.
European wagering outlets have posted a Spain win at 8//11, with the take-back on the Azzuri at a hefty 4/1. The draw is priced at 13/5 for this 12 noon (ET) kickoff on Sunday at Gdansk, with TV coverage in the states provided by big ESPN.
We have learned from the past to never discount Italy at one of these events; few foresaw the run to the World Cup crown in 1982, and fewer still expected the Azzuri to careen into the finals of Euro 2000, where only a last-second Sylvain Wiltord strike allowed France to force an overtime period, in which David Trezeguet subsequently scored the golden goal winner. And we still scratch our heads at what happened in World Cup 2006, when the Italians were not the best team in the field yet still, somehow, ended up with the title, with a little help from Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt along the way.
Mention of '06 also recalls similar circumstances to now, as Italy was in the midst of domestic scandal at the time. More match-fixing allegations have been leveled in Serie A over the past month, once again shaking Italian soccer to its core. Due to the controversy, manager Cesare Prandelli has also been forced to drop Zenit left-back Domenico Criscito, who was sure to have started.
Prandelli also has questions in his strike force, with unpredictable sorts such as Man City’s Mario Balotelli and AC Milan’s Antonio Cassano, even though Prandelli has sometimes opted for a “trequarista” of three forwards at times as he alternates 4-3-3 with 4-3-1-2 alignments.
Still, Italy’s best chance lies with veteran GK Gigi Buffon, the longtime Juve netminder who enjoyed one of his best-ever domestic campaigns as Juve claimed yet another scudetto.
Meanwhile, Spain enters Euro 2012 minus striker David Villa, who provided the cutting edge in both Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010, but whose leg injury helped bog down the Barcelona attack this past season and could do the same for La Seleccion. Manager Vicente Del Bosque has recalled Fernando Torres, in better form the past few months at Chelsea, to hopefully recreate some of his Euro 2008 magic. Also watch for Athletic Bilbao’s Fernando Llorente, a versatile target-man up front who provides the Spanish frontline with its best aerial threat since another Bilbao forward, Ismael Urzaiz, a decade ago.
There is a thought around Europe, however, that the Spain/Barcelona system has been figured out by opponents. The Barcelona-flavored Xavi-Iniesta midfield axis continues to retain possession in startling fashion, but a reluctance to attack from the flanks doomed Barca in the recent Liga and Champions League, and Villa’s absence is a concern for country as much as it was for his club. Another injury, this one to defensive ace and braveheart Carlos Puyol, has caused Del Bosque to juggle his backline.
Both goalies are superb and should contribute to a lower-scoring affair, although there isn’t much value posted on the ‘under’ 2½ goals at 4/7. The draw price, at 13/5, looks tempting.
Ireland vs. Croatia (at Poznan)
These are definitely the outsiders in Group C, and the loser can probably forget about making an improbable run to the knockout round. Indeed, if there’s a must-win match in the first cycle of opening round games, this is it.
European wagering outlets apparently have less faith in the Irish than they do the Croats, with Croatia posted at 11/10 on the win, and the take-back on Ireland at 11/4, while the draw priced temptingly at 9/4 for the 2:45 p.m. (ET) kickoff in Poznan. TV coverage in the states will again be provided big ESPN.
The Irish received good news this week when veteran Aston Villa keeper Shay Given passed a fitness test after recent knee problems threatened his availability for this event. Manager Givcanni Trapattoni, however, was said to be less than pleased with some recent efforts in exhibition games and was considering altering his familiar 4-4-2 lineup which features LA Galaxy forward Robbie Keane playing just behind Wolves’ Kevin Doyle up front.
Trap’s alternatives, however, might not be all that enticing, considering how Ireland only scored 15 goals in 10 qualifying-round matches. As usual, work-rate will be the Irish’s most-bankable asset.
Meanwhile, Croatia manager Slaven Bilic, a former decorated international defender who will be stepping down after this tournament to take over at Lokomotiv Moscow, received his own bit of troubling injury news this past week when key Bayern Munich striker Ivica Olic was ruled out of the tournament due to a thigh injury. Olic was always effective on the counter, a strategy Bilic used to his advantage in the playoff win over Guus Hiddink’s Turkey.
Now, however, instead of the usual 4-4-2 alignment, look for Bilic to employ more of a 4-5-1 look without Olic and with Everton’s Nikica Jelavic likely to man the target role up front.
The Croats prefer to soak up pressure and attack, as mentioned, on the counter where Spurs midfielder Luke Madric usually triggers the forward thrust. But the likelihood of a tactical stalemate vs. the Irish is very real, as Bilic’s counterpart Trappatoni prefers a similar style of play.
One goal likely wins this match, although there is little value in the total shaded to the ‘under’ at 1/2. Better value lies in the draw recommendation at 9/4.