Match Day 3 with Group C was my favorite of the Euro 2012 so far. Yes, Ireland lost (big time), but I thought both Croatia’s excellent display of clinical finishing and Vicente Del Bosque’s bat-shit crazy decision to play a 4-6-0 with Spain being punished with a well-deserved draw by a tough Italian side were outstanding matches to watch. I was in relative disbelief all day, which for me is a pure compliment to the sport; you just never know what will happen when the games start to mean something. Match reviews ahoy!
Spain v Italy
OK, I am quoting my Group previews too often, but seriously, I can’t help myself on this one. 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?”
It looks like Spanish manager Vicente Del Bosque agreed with me, having made the decision to start the match against Italy with no strikers– zero, none, nada. Instead, he played midfield playmaker Cesc Fabregas in an advanced position with Man City maestro David Silva in the hole behind him and had his midfield six… SIX!… in full, attacking flow. Xavi/Iniesta/Fabgregas/Silva/Busquets/Alonso played their typically fluent ball, with passages of brilliance (especially the Iniesta to Silva to Fabregas sequence that lead to Spain’s lone goal), but without a focal point for the attack, a player in the box who could pull away defenders and draw some attention, the Italians were happy to bunker down and counter in the classic Italian style. And it would have worked too if it weren’t for the meddling Spaniards and theindividual brilliance on display during Spain’s goal…
Touch and go: Fabregas scores
That said, the Italians showed they were not to be overlooked and they certainly deserved their draw on a sweet, flowing counterattack, the goal set into motion by a brilliant ball from Andrea Pirlo to Antonio Di Natale, who buried his first touch of the game with aplomb.
Simple, route one: Di Natale Scores
Again, words of wisdom…
“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.”
This was Italy all the way; tenacious, physical (De Rossi playing on the backline was outstanding) and patient. Of course, my man to watch, Mario Balotelli was his usual enigmatic self, earning a yellow card for, well, not much, earning a penalty that was not given by the ref (clearly a penalty… should have been given all day) and, strangely, breaking free of the Spanish defense and walking the ball in on Casillas, only to be caught from behind, a glorious chance wasted. Fernando Torres was much the same; clearly through on goal, he chose to take the ball wide on Buffon, who stayed on his feet and played the ball. Torres also missed a glorious chance at a winner, chipping the Italian keeper but putting the ball well over the bar. In the end, 1-1 seemed the just result (surprisingly) and the question must be asked of Spain– better with or without a striker? Not sure a third title can be claimed without a focal point for the Spanish attack. And Italy now look very good; their game against Croatia will be a stormer.
Croatia v Ireland
This match was an excellent reminder that, in the words of boxer Sugar Shane Mosely, “styles make fights.” Croatia march to the beat of Luka Modrić and the midfield maestro did not disappoint with Croatia bossing large portions of the game and getting three goals from their strikers on the heels of Irish mistakes. First, striker Mario Mandzukić jumped up from his knees to put a speculative header toward the corner of the goal, only to have Shay Given react slowly and let the ball leak in to put Croatia up 1-0. After Ireland equalized on a set-piece header from Sean St. Ledger, in-form striker Nikica Jelavić pounced on an errant clearance during a set piece, one timing a chip over Given and restoring Croatia’s lead before Mandzukić put the Irish away with another header that ricocheted off the post, onto a diving Shay Given’s face and in. 3-1 and goodnight.
Ireland actually played brightly in the final minutes with Croatia content to protect a two goal lead and absorb the pressure, but Keith Andrews stared down chance after chance and blinked, peppering the goal line boards with errant headers and shots wide of the target. This was not the Ireland that had gone undefeated for fourteen consecutive matches, tight at the back and confident on the counter; Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane were completely starved of the ball, with Croatia absolutely bossing it in midfield. It is no surprise, in retrospect, that Croatian manager Slavan Bilić knew exactly what to do; give the Irish a heavy dose of Mandzukić and Jelavić and make them pick their poison. It worked perfectly and with the help of some terrible Irish luck, Croatia took three points and shot to the top of the Group with Italy and Spain looming. It was a vital win for them, a dominant performance that should put Italy on notice that they are in for a real fight.
Your Mandzukić of the match.