While Group B is certainly the most fearsome looking group in this year’s Euros, Group C, involving holders Spain, Italy, Croatia and Ireland, could end up being the most closely contested. I will also say in advance it is almost impossible to call. That might seem a strange statement, given most people would see Spain and Italy as the natural teams to progress. I don’t, however, think it is going to be so straightforward.
On the face of it, reigning World and European champions Spain should be a shoo-in for the quarter-finals. After all, their record in their last 43 competitive internationals is: won 40, drawn 1, lost 2. Both those defeats came in South Africa, to the USA in 2009 and to Switzerland a year later during the World Cup, both times Spain becoming unstuck against defensive sides. Spain’s friendly results over the past two years have not been impressive but they will not have too much of a bearing on what happens in Poland. What will have a bearing however is the physical and mental fatigue of the Spanish players and who they face in their first match.
Spain do not like playing the Italians. The penalty shoot-out win over Italy in Vienna in Euro 2008 is widely credited with being the psychological barrier that had to be overcome for Spain to finally succeed in a major tournament after four decades of underachievement. But now, in hindsight, you look back at it and the long years without a win against Italy loom even more impressively. However fortifying that quarter-final victory might have been at the time, Spain are still without a win in open play against the Italians since the years of the Spanish Republic — if you are talking about competitive fixtures, you have to go back to the consolation round of the Antwerp Olympics in 1920 when la Roja scored a 2-0 victory over their Mediterranean rivals. That record probably does not figure too prominently in the minds of Vicente del Bosque’s players but the difficulty of playing Italy no doubt does.
Though Cesare Prandelli favours a more expansive game than previous managers of the Azzurri, I expect a return to pragmatism in the opening match. He has had any amount of defensive headaches with the expulsion of Domenico Criscito after being arrested over match-fixing allegations and Andrea Barzagli is out of the group matches. Barzagli’s absence robs Prandelli of a Juventus pairing in central defence — Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini, playing in front of Gianluigi Buffon, conceded only 20 goals in Serie A last season. Italy were also alarmingly lax at the back in the 3-0 defeat to Russia last Friday. In Gdansk on Sunday though there will be far less space given to Spain’s attackers.
Spain are not unused to playing against, and beating, such compact formations over the past two years but Italy are better equipped at hitting them on the counter than most other teams that have parked the bus. The opening match is one that Spain are unlikely to kill off at any stage — the danger will be forever live, even if they do take the lead. Personally, I think the only chance of a Spanish victory is if they stun the Italians with successive blows early on, much as they did in the early days of tiki-taka before teams adapted by shutting up shop — think of how they destroyed Ukraine so easily in World Cup 2006 and Russia at the Euros two years later. I don’t think that is going to happen. The two teams played an entertaining friendly in Naples last August, Italy being the better side and running out 2-1 winners. The match this time will be a more frustrating affair to watch — not as dour as the game in Vienna four years ago, but one where it will be a battle over who masters the tension the quickest.
If Spain take a point off the Italians, they’re in good stead to progress, probably to the semi-finals at least. If they lose, things become more complicated. Still, a defeat in the opening game against Switzerland two years was quickly compensated for. Spain also, on paper, would be expected to beat both Ireland and Croatia, but they will have their own fatigue to contend with. Spain’s players have played, on average 58 games per season since Euro 2008, well more than any other competing team’s squads other than England. Xavi has played an average of 66 game per season. Barcelona’s fatigue was apparent in that catastrophic week in April where two defeats and a draw cost them both their La Liga and Champions League titles. Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Valencia also had long, intensive seasons. Barça looked refreshed when they swept Athletic aside to win the Copa del Rey final but the fact that match was played two weeks before the start of the Euros does not help things either. If the second match against the Irish drags on scoreless, the morale of the Spanish team will be gradually pecked away. They could be left needing a win against Croatia in the final game and a favourable result in the Italy-Ireland game for them to go through.
Some people have suggested Spain will experience an implosion similar to France at the 2002 World Cup, mainly because both sides have entered a tournament as double World and European champions. Spain will not be abject like the French though — France had the disadvantage of not having played any competitive games other than the Confederations Cup for the previous two years. They were also far more reliant on an absent Zinedine Zidane than Spain are on any single player, even Xavi or Iniesta. If things do go sour for Spain, it will be more in the manner of past Spanish disappointments, where they get frustrated on match day three, similar to World Cup 1998 and Euro 2004, and what so nearly happened in Euro 2000, when they miraculously pulled off a 4-3 win over Yugoslavia at the death. I am not predicting an early exit for Spain in the first round but neither am I saying it would be entirely unexpected.
I think Italy will do well at this tournament, despite injury worries and the return of betting scandals (though the shadow of such scandals only served to brace the side for victory in 1982 and 2006). Italy though also have to make do with two teams they don’t relish playing. Italy have yet to beat Croatia since the latter’s independence (the record is two draws and three wins for Croatia) and the Croatians do not tire of pointing this out. Their only previous meeting in a major tournament was at World Cup 2002 when Croatia, who had an otherwise poor tournament, came from behind to beat Giovanni Trapattoni’s men 2-1. Slaven Bilic’s team are likely to hit Italy on the break in this match; though the loss of Ivica Olic to injury is a severe blow, Nikica Jelavic is as dangerous a man in the box as any in this tournament, even if his international form has not been as stellar as for his club. Italy may have to settle for a draw in this game, a result that may not please either side. The final game against the Irish will be either a titanic battle to advance from the group or it will be a game where a draw might suit either team. If Ireland and Italy go into the match on four points each with the other two teams trailing on one, they might well decide a draw to be mutually beneficial. Ireland have a decent record against Italy under Trapattoni but not too much should be read into it either. Italy were hampered by an unjust early sending-off in the World Cup qualifier in Bari three years ago which finished 1-1 while the 2-0 win in Liège last year was a friendly in which Ireland were fairly heavily overwhelmed in the opening period. The World Cup qualifier at Croke Park in October 2009, which finished 2-2, is probably the best indicator of how the game might go, though don’t expect that many goals.
Trapattoni will not be too happy facing Croatia in the first game, as the fear of starting with a defeat will hamper attacking against Ireland’s most beatable opponents. Slaven Bilic has been making sounds about Ireland being the match Croatia aim to win and you can’t blame him for doing so. It will however force him to set aside his favoured counter-attacking game. Last August in Dublin Croatia outpassed Ireland (in a game, coincidentally, played on the same night as Italy v Spain) without seriously troubling their hosts. They are expected to swop their regular 4-4-2 for a 4-2-3-1 with Jelavic a lone man up front. Giovanni Trapattoni has belatedly acknowledged Ireland’s problems in dealing with a three-man midfield and has suggested he might drop Robbie Keane back to cover, something his critics have been long clamouring for. Keane’s positional sense is not the best, of course, but the simple geometry of three men against two means that an extra body needs to be in there to break things up.
Ireland’s difficulties against technical sides has led many to predict doom for them in this tournament but if Trap can make them more disruptive in the centre of the field results are within their grasp. The defence is solid with eleven clean sheets in fourteen games unbeaten, though Stephen Ward is not always so steady at left-back. Going forward, Ireland are one-dimensional, with pretty much everything serviced through the wings. When confidence is high though, the team does create more chances. What has become frustrating of late is Trapattoni’s insistence on sticking with Kevin Doyle up front when the Wexford man is clearly out of sorts. It has been striking how rejuvenated Ireland’s attack becomes when either of Jonathan Walters, Simon Cox or Shane Long is introduced. It’s encouraging to have that in reserve but you really have to question the wisdom of not starting either Walters or Long. Ireland have a tendency to surrender play for long passages and at the Euro chances will be much thinner on the ground (we could well be playing without the ball for the duration of the Spain game). If we end up playing with a lone man up front, an out-of-form Doyle is probably not the man to be entrusted with the job. As an Ireland fan I am being realistic about our chances. I don’t expect it to be a disaster but getting out of the group is going to be incredibly difficult. Four points from the three game is not beyond us and would be a creditable return from a tough group. I worry though that it might not be enough to progress, especially given Ireland’s difficulty scoring goals, Robbie Keane’s 53 notwithstanding.
I expect Italy to win the group, possibly with as few as five points. It will then be up to the other three sides to battle it out for second place — ridiculous as it sounds to be lumping Spain in among those three. The playing order is vital and, to be honest, suits the Italians and the Croatians best. If Spain maintain their morale, even after a defeat in the opening game, they should take second place. If doubt begins to set in, to accompany an already worrying dearth of hunger among the players, they will be on an early plane home. Croatia fancy their chances in their opening two games and will have a great opportunity of going through if they face Spain with four points already under their belt. Ireland’s best opportunities of picking up points look to be in their first and third games, meaning they will be going right down to the wire. Of all the groups, this is the one that could well finish with all four teams on four points, just as happened in World Cup 1994 when Ireland and Italy were also in the same group. Even then, I suspect there will be precious little to separate the four sides.
Posted by Oliver Farry