More quality, more problems, more drama. The Group C finale left it late. Onward!
Italy v Republic Of Ireland
After a strong qualifying campaign full of tough, gutsy performances that saw them go 14 consecutive matches without a loss, I had high hopes for the Republic Of Ireland, but Group C showed just how far they have to go as they transition to a new generation of players. Italy proved no exception for Ireland, beating them handily 2-0 on strikes from Antonio Cassano..
… and a late wonder goal from Mario Balotelli….
2-0 to Mario. The super one.
Before and between the Italian goals, Ireland struggled to make an impression; even if they kept it tighter at the back (both goals came from set pieces), Ireland posed only a minor threat (*wink*) to the Italians, allowing Andrea Pirlo to stamp his authority on the match with his dominance in the attack. It’s a funny old game; while Pirlo might be a typically Serie A attacking midfielder, which means he doesn’t do too much on defense and his tackling is left wanting, Italy are structured to allow him to make plays by having forwards who play a high line and keep pressure on the back four. This allows Pirlo and Marchissio to get into space between the midfield and the defense when Italy win the ball back, which is always. In many ways, football is a game about space, about conceding and suddenly retaking space after your opponent has dragged himself out of position.
All-tournament: Andrea Pirlo
In this way, Italy play like boxers, guarding themselves while waiting for the right opening to throw their own knockout blow, usually when the opposition have committed just too much. Let me say; it works. If the first two matches saw Italy tire and let down their own guard, allowing their opponents to score after falling behind, this match saw Italy deliver their own late goal to seal a place in the knockout rounds. Italy look good, ready to make some noise in the Euro 2012. Ireland? Time to rethink the plan.
Spain v Croatia
Spain left it late to seal a 1-0 win and take the Group. In my Group C preview, I noted that Ireland had a chance if they could hold it down against Spain; they didn’t, losing 4-0, a total which meant that Spain could win the Group if… wait. What? UEFA’s tie-breaker system doesn’t prioritize goal differential? That’s right; heading into the 88th minute, Italy were looking to win the Group as Spain and Croatia battled to 0-0 because of their goals scored in a mini-league between the eligible teams, which means no Ireland goals counted which, what? Not a fan of the system, for sure. Andres Iniesta and Jesus Navas made it irrelevant in the 88th, on a beautiful move that finally broke down Croatia’s offside trap. Fabregas chipped to Iniesta, who played in Navas (behind the ball, onside) and he tapped in the win.
I might be able to score from there. might.
Spain win! Yes, but… yikes. They left it very late. Torres struggled in isolation up top; his game is best suited to making solo runs and punishing defenses that have pushed forward. No one does that against Spain; the team hold the ball like no team in history, win it back with lightning quickness and opposing sides are forced to put everyone behind the ball. Every once in a while, teams will counter and threaten Spain (see Italy), and Croatia did this to great effect, with Luka Modric putting an inch perfect ball to the far post, only to have this happen:
If that had gone in, Spain were about to be knocked out of the Tournament. That is worrying; with no coherent attack at this point, no focal point that can play in the sweeping, attacking style of the Spanish midfield, Spain walked a true tightrope in this match. That close to going home, but it is, as they say, a game of inches.
Croatia, well, it sucks that they are gone. They played attractive, smart, tactically astute football for the entire Tournament; you get the feeling they would have qualified in Group A or D. That’s the draw and those are the breaks. Still, you have to be impressed with Manduzukic and Modric, with the quality of the team and the manager Slavan Bilic, who has managed his last match for the team (he’s off to club football). Croatia stayed in it until very late, but didn’t have the one magic touch they needed to win the match. These are the breaks.