Euro 2012: GROUP C PREVIEW
Your international footballing history fact of the day: no team has ever won a European Championship, a World Cup and another European Championship consecutively. In fact, no team has won back to back European Championships, never mind a World Cup in between. The only team to have come close to that feat was Germany; in 1972, Germany won the Euros, followed by a win in the 1974 World Cup, only to lose on penalties in the final of the 1976 Euros to Czechoslovakia (ouch).
But history may be in the cards for 2012; Spain stand poised to become the first European team ever to win three consecutive major international trophies. Hard to bet against them; once again, they look the favorites to win it all. I have my suspicions; having relied heavily on the goal scoring touch of the great (and now injured) David Villa and carrying a front line missing Villa’s clinical edge, Spain have some questions to answer. Questions like “where will the goals come from?” You know, important questions. And of course, there are fifteen other teams in the tournament looking to knock them out, and three members of their Group who would be thrilled to take points off of the defending champions. There is no easy path to the trophy, but still, Group C is likely to be a case of Spain and the also rans, a battle for second place among three interesting teams with a lot of history.
Personally speaking, Croatia are one of my favorite teams to watch, primarily because of their rock-and-roll manger Slaven Bilić. Bilić is the kind of man who seems to both love football and to not care at all about what the world thinks of him, his methods, his approach to living*. Despite not having a world beating side, his teams play attractive, attacking football, driven by their playmaking Mr. Everything Luka Modrić. Modrić plays simple, elegant must-see football, both for his home club of Tottenham Hotspur and with Croatia, and his fluent passing game creates openings for attack from players as diverse as Bayern Munich’s Ivica Olić (who is fearless and direct in attack) to the surprise of the professional season, Everton striker Nikica Jelavić (who has a brilliant eye for beautiful, timely goals). Add in a roster of veterans like Dario Srna ans Josip Šimunić and you should have a real contender. All of that said, Croatia have been underachieving of late, needing a qualifying playoff win against Turkey to make it to the tournament, while pre-tournament friendlies against Sweden (a 3-1 loss) and Norway (a 1-1 draw) have not provided any answers. Still, you can’t help but feel Bilić will keep the team loose and in the thick of Group C.
Croatia’s Manager Slaven Bilić enjoys some down time
Uh oh. The Italian national team is once again in… wait for it… crisis as a new generation of players look to make their mark on the Azzuri. Let’s flash back to 2006, when Italy was ensconced in a betting and match fixing scandal that ripped through their professional league. That controversy galvanized an uncertain Italian side and drove them to a gritty World Cup title. Well, here we are again; authorities have been making inquiries and arrests in yet another match fixing scandal in Italy**, the team have been shaky in recent months and all signs point to problems. Despite dominating in qualifying, it has been a bumpy road to the Euros for the perennial powerhouse, with three consecutive losses to Uruguay, The USA (hooray!) and a 3-0 pounding last week at the hands of Russia. The team that once boasted of its Catennaccio (which literally means “door-bolt”) is now young, hungry, full of inexperience and leaking goals. But don’t be fooled; Italy’s roster is deep with talent and besides, who cares about experimental friendlies? Basta! With
antiquated veteran playmaker Andrea Pirlo pulling the strings, bulldog midfielder Daniele De Rossi providing the bite and talented attackers like Antonio Cassano and Mario Ballotelli (about whom more in a moment), there is plenty of fight left in the Italian side. Look for them to be competitive in every match, fighting for a place in the knock out rounds. Can they triumph over scandal again? This one will be very interesting…
The Catenaccio System: Italy Lock The Door To Win
Republic Of Ireland
Full disclosure: I will be supporting The Republic of Ireland during Euro 2012. With that out of the way, this is a team that has put together some nifty results in recent months; the team are on a fourteen match unbeaten streak (without a loss in 15 of their last 16) and are looking sharp heading into the tournament. They also hold a recent win over Italy (2-0 last June) and drew with fellow Euro teams Russia, Czech Republic and, interestingly, Croatia in the past few months. What does it mean for the tournament? Well, I’m hoping that Ireland can ride their luck (see what I did there?) and get some results, but I don’t have a great feeling. What worries me is that, while the defense has been solid, Ireland have not exactly been banging in the goals; looking at their results, there are a lot of 0-0 draws that might have gone either way. Plus, a strike force of Shane Long, Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle aren’t exactly the types to put fear in the hearts of opposing defenses. In order to advance, Ireland are going to need to win one, draw one and keep the score down against Spain. It’s not exactly mission impossible, but if they can continue to stay in matches and nick results, they have a shot at surprising. But without goals? No chance.
Ireland 2-0 Italy: A Sign Of Things To Come?
The defending European and World Champions need no introduction, but I have to say something, so let me put aside a few things. First, the midfield of Xabi Alonso, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Santio Cazorla, Juan Mata and Sergio Busquets is, quite literally, the epitome of vomit-inducing greatness. Most teams will not touch the ball against that group; small, simple, elegant passing, the ball pinging back and forth into space, will drive opposition players into tears of frustration and exhaustion. You cannot put that group into words. That collection of players is likely the best ever. Only 4-5 of them will start a game, though.
At the back, Iker Casillas is an all-universe goalie whose substitutes, Victor Valdes and Pepe Reina, are world class, each a guaranteed starter on almost any other team in the world. Defenders Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Alvaro Albiloa are outstanding in defense, converting defense into attack, and playing their part in ball possession. Who can stop Spain?
And yet… look toward the attacking end and you start to see some problems. Fernando Llorente, a classic center forward, plays a very specific type of game, one that demands aerial service and patience. Fernando Torres is coming off of the worst form of his life, his confidence seemingly destroyed by a string of injuries and a lengthy spell as a bit part player at Chelsea. Álvaro Negredo scores for Spain… when he gets on the field. And Pedro Rodriguez is a classic #2 man, mopping up with goals and assists when given the chance. What’s missing? David Villa. The Barcelona striker has been the model of consistency for Spain for the past four years, but a serious injury this season has ruled him out of the Euros. So, who will step up and replace Villa? Who among the strikers can claim the goals? With the rest of the team flying, will it matter?
The only chance opponents have against Spain is to press hard when you can, play organized lights out defense and counter attack with efficiency; if you concede the ball to them, sit back and try to defend, it’s game over and lights out. If you can squeak a goal and disrupt the Spanish strikers with tough, physical play, you may have a chance. You have to get them frustrated, press them, force a mistake and then you have to be clinical and punish it. Then? Maybe you have a chance. Maybe. Look for Spain to advance from Group C, but sit tight as they try to run the table and make history by repeating as Champions.
Spain: Once The Underachievers, Now The Dominant Force
Must See Match
While I am tempted to say that any encounter between powers Spain and Italy is must-see (and it is), I have to go with Croatia vs Italy on June 14th as the match I am looking forward to the most. It features two very different styles of play and a great midfield battle between Di Rossi/ Pirlo/ Marchisio against Modrić/ Srna/ Pranjić. Pulling for a draw in this one; if Ireland can hold it down against Spain and get a win and a draw from Italy and Croatia, I like their chances to advance.
Players To Watch
Spain is full of amazing players, Ireland grit and determination and Croatia attitude and dynamism, but there is only one player that is appointment viewing in my home and that is Italian genius Mario Balotelli. Words cannot express my appreciation for him, his joy for life and his utterly refreshing approach to the game. Football is full of cliches, players who make boring statements when they talk at all, media darlings who live in a bubble. It can create ultra talented kids who are arrogant, who become millionaires very young, who are told of their exceptionalism their entire lives. For me, Balotelli is a completely different individual, a mix of punk rock nihilism, talent and privilege that is unique in sport. If you can get past the media cliches, you begin to hint at the greatness of Balotelli. Let’s take a look at his greatest hits:
The Warm Up Bib
Magic In The Luxury Box
Why Always Me?
Press Conference Crasher
But in all honesty, the antics would be bullshit without the skills, and Balotelli is one of the best young footballers in the world. If he can keep his head about him, which he can’t, but if he can, he won’t, but if he can, he can be scary good. It’s the combination of talent and crazy that makes him one of my favorites. I’ll be watching every time he steps on the pitch.***
Balotelli: Real G’s Move In Silence Like Lasagne
It has to be Spain, and as much as I hope for the Republic of Ireland to pull off the shocker, I think Italy will pull themselves into the knock out stages, with Ireland and Croatia battling them closely for the second spot. Second place is really up for grabs here and I wouldn’t be surprised to see anyone take it, but I have to go with Italy’s talent in the end.
*Group C seems to be the home of free spirits this time around.
** Another sign that FIFA and UEFA are a joke. How can this keep happening?
***Balotelli has also made some provocative statements about confronting racist fans at the Euros, about which, more in another post coming soon.