In a way, this is almost as tight a group as Group B. Tight for the second spot that is. Spain, champions of everything, look like they’ve got the group done and dusted already, the Italians are in disarray once again, Croatia are one of my dark horses for the tournament and Ireland: my heart says yes, my head emphatically “NO!”.
The reigning World and European champions, no biggie. Spain have stood head and shoulders above the rest of Europe and indeed the world, for the past few years, but now they face a challenge of sorts.With Holland and Germany’s recent emergence, the Spanish finally have competition, and you get the feeling they’ll savour it. With players that finally have experience of winning something, breaking the barren trophy curse that led back to the 1968 Euro’s, in 2008, they’ll have confidence throughout their ranks.
Their ‘tika taka’ style of play has seen pirate copies all over the world, like the ones we see illegally taken from cinemas, except the quality is poorer and the outcome is never the same, the original wins every time. The combination of mostly Barcelona and Real Madrid stars, with a few players sprinkled from Valencia, Bilbao and the Premier League, sets a daunting gauntlet for opponents. Every player has European experience, most have league titles, heck their three goalkeepers could literally walk into ANY other national team. The depth is unbelievable.
A few issues come with the condition many of the squad are in, having reached semi’s, or indeed the final in Bilbao’s case, of major European competition, it has led to players like Xavi, Fernando Llorente and Xabi Alonso, piling on the games. Concerns over the degradation of such players is lessened so with the immense back-up quality the squad holds, but still key players like David Villa and Carles Puyol, have such an impression that their absence from the first XI will be felt. There’s also the problem of who, if indeed anyone, will start upfront. Will it be Llorente after his best season ever, Fernando Torres, in vain of trying to rediscover his former, goalscoring prowess, or even Cesc Fabregas, in a role he has played many times for Barca this season?
Despite all of this, they’re a top, top side, who the rest will find extremely hard to beat, they’ll reach the final for sure, but to become the first side to win three straight tournaments, they’ll have to really work for it.
Italy are in heaps of trouble right now. As a country, they aren’t in the healthiest of financial states, and this has creeped over into the nation’s sport: football. Serie A has been the subject of yet more bribe scandals, similar to the 2006 ‘Calciopoli’ troubles that ended with Juventus being demoted to Serie B. Although, the national side did go on to win the World Cup that summer…
However, 6 years on, and the team is nowhere near the quality of that line-up. With Mario Balotelli leading the line, that perhaps shows you how volatile the team is, something emphasised in the 3-0 friendly loss to Russia last week. There were even doubts if they’d turn up to Poland, with manager Cesare Prandelli, claiming it ‘wouldn’t be a bad thing’ if the Italians were the withdraw, due to the ongoing scandal. Baring this all in mind, escaping the group would be good for the Italians, especially after finishing bottom in a group at the last World Cup, below New Zealand! They do have further stars in Cassano, Chiellini, Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon still patrols the box, but you wonder whether they will be focused on the football or not, what with all the goings on back home.
Of course, I’m probably wrong, and they’ll surprise everyone and go all the way, just like 6 years ago, with Italy, you just never know.
Republic of Ireland
The Republic of Ireland have finally qualified for a major tournament, their first for 10 long years, and are placed in one of the toughest groups of the lot. With an ageing side, based on stars from the past, Shay Given, 36, Robbie Keane, 31, and Damien Duff, 33, it could be the last we see of the Irish for another decade or so. All of this culminates to show what a good job adopted Irishman, legendary Italian manager Giovanni Trappatoni has done, galvanising a squad and getting them to play to their strengths. At their own admission, this results in some dour football, with 0-0’s a-plenty in qualifying, but if it gets them to finals, I don’t see why fans should complain.
The style they play, has been the one that have stopped Spanish giants Barcelona from progressing in the Champions League, with Inter Milan and Chelsea employing the tactic in 2010 and this year respectively, to knock out the Catalans and promptly win the tournament. Now it’s a longshot, but if the Irish can keep the rest of the group’s potent attacks at bay, then they’ve got every chance of nicking the odd point, and even victory, providing they stick to the plans of the meticulous Trappatoni.
In all honesty, they shouldn’t have a chance, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t!
Croatia, are my dark horses. They have a rag-tag bunch of players, that possess a variety of qualities, great passing (Luka Modric), a solid frontman (Nikica Jelavic), pace (Eduardo) and a leading manager, and a leaving one at that, in Slaven Bilic.
Yes, the man who crushed England’s hopes of reaching Euro 2008, and putting Steve McLaren out a job in the process, is departing Croatia for the Russian Premier League after the tournament, leaving his troops wanting to go out with one last hurrah. They fell at the Quarters last time out, and will be wanting to reach that at the minimum, with the Semi’s a distinct possibility. The squad, like Russia, has slightly diminished since 08, as the Croatians had to qualify via the play-offs this time, after Greece topped the qualifying group, but in a one-off game, never rule them out, for all the quality they have in the first XI.
Another fine group that could end with anyone going through, although you’d think Spain pretty much have top spot sewn up, with a struggling Italian side, the resurgent Croatians and resilient Irish to battle it out for runners-up, and, most likely a shot at England or France, in the Quarters, which could entertain the idea of some real grudge matches (a France vs Ireland rematch anyone?).