Group C appears to have been assigned the ubiquitous tag of the ‘Group of Death,’ consisting of the tournament favourites and some real dark horses that the betting man, or woman, may wish to take a punt upon. Croatia, Italy, Spain and the Republic of Ireland make up a group that will have the neutral’s lips a-licking and supporters’ hearts beating at an unhealthy rate.
June 10th: Spain v Italy, Ireland v Croatia
June 14th: Italy v Croatia, Spain v Ireland
June 18th: Croatia v Spain, Italy v Ireland
8th in the world
Having impressed in the previous European Championships in 2008, Vatreni, or The Blazers to you and I, must be considered ones to watch in Poland and Ukraine; with a solid team ethic and some outstanding individuals providing the ability to beat anyone on their day. Many of the players not only have vast experience at International level, but have impressed across Europe for their respective clubs.
Croatia have a strong, reliable spine, with Stipe Pletikosa in goal and Josip Šimunić at centre-half, boasting almost 200 caps between them, behind a midfield that provides a range of options; from the drive of skipper Darijo Srna to the creativity of Niko Kranjčar, the versatility of Ivan Rakitić and Ivan Perišić’s eye for the spectacular. In attack, even since his broken leg, Eduardo remains a potent goal threat, whilst Ivica Olić will want to impress having missed a crucial penalty for Bayern Munich in the Champions League Final. They also possess an outside contender for the Golden Boot in Everton’s Nikica Jelavić, who set the Premier League alight after moving from Rangers in January.
With talent bursting at the seams, the Croats can be a joy to watch, playing some of the best football the continent has to offer, and there’s no reason why, with a bit of luck along the way, they can’t go the distance and compete with authority for the title.
At just 43 years of age, the Croatian boss is one of the youngest managers at Euro 2012, but don’t let that camouflage his credentials: what he perhaps lacks in experience he makes up for in tactical nous. Bilić has earned mass acclaims for implementing a young, talented generation of players into the national side, and making his team play with an endearing freedom that has often culminated in excellent results, not least when he masterminded home and away victories against England during the qualification process for Euro 2008. He is tipped for a long, prosperous career in management, although this tournament will be his last in charge of Croatia, before he takes the reins at Lokomotiv Moscow next season.
Whilst there are some potential match winners in this squad, none are more crucial than Luka Modric, who has developed into the heartbeat of the side they cannot live without. Modrić is his Croatia’s most important player; the range of passing he has in his locker is what makes them tick. He is intelligent and composed enough to play the simple pass when under pressure, and has the vision and technique to execute the more glamorous balls that instigate attacks. He is capable of driving forward from deep himself, with a stinging shot being another string to his well-stocked bow. He has consistently excelled at club level, so much so that a move away from Tottenham to a top European club looks inevitable. If Croatia are to progress from this challenging group, and attempt to gain any success in the knockout stages, they’ll need Modrić at his very best.
12th in the world
The four-time World Cup winners go into the tournament not as favourites, but, as ever, certainly a team to keep a watchful eye upon. The Azzurri are famous, or notorious depending on your attitude towards the game, for their disciplined, tactical approach; not likely to thrill you, more likely to frustrate for long periods and punish you when they do get a chance.
With a team oozing experience and know-how, they’ll undoubtedly be one of the toughest teams to beat. Gianluigi Buffon is still one of the finest keepers on the planet, with 113 caps under his belt, and he has a reliable defence in front of him that will be tasked with nullifying some of the most dangerous strikers on display in this tough group. Andrea Pirlo may be entering the twilight years of his career, but is still capable of pulling the strings, and the tenacity of Daniele De Rossi is invaluable.
Despite Antonio Di Natale’s fine record at club level, he hasn’t quite replicated his heroics on the International stage, and one has to wonder where the goals are going to come from. In a team that relies on caution, structure and sensibility, the maverick tendencies of Mario Balotelli may just be the spark they need to give them a real shot at winning the tournament. Write them off at your peril.
After bringing something of a revolutionary transformation to Fiorentina, it was Prandelli who was trusted to take the Italians forward after Marcelo Lippi stepped down following the World Cup campaign in 2010. His time in charge has to be considered a success, as Italy progressed through the qualification process undefeated, and his relaxed style has brought a positive attitude back to the nation. His CV may not be as plentiful as some of his counterparts at Euro 2012, but Prandelli has demonstrated his ability in getting the best out of his players. His leadership will be vital in Italy’s bid for a second European Championship title.
It could be argued that the fact that a centre-half is considered the Italians’ key man sums up their style, but on the other hand, it may just be indicative of Giorgio Chiellini’s quality. At 27, he is entering the peak of his career, and has plenty to offer his country from the back. His no-nonsense approach has earned him plaudits from all corners, as he is rapidly making a name for himself as one of Europe’s finest defenders. Aggressive, dominant in the air and an offensive threat at set-pieces, Italy’s vice-captain is a gargantuan presence whose importance simply cannot be understated. Having won the Serie A title with Juventus, Chiellini will want to add to a successful season with victory at Euro 2012, and has all the necessary tools to inspire his team to do that.
Republic of Ireland
18th in the world
Undoubtedly the underdogs, or potential whipping boys depending on your cynicism, the Irish will need to demonstrate plenty of spirit in order to progress from such a demanding group. Having been unjustly robbed of a place at the 2010 World Cup, the Boys in Green will want to make up for lost time with a sustained run at Euro 2012. Whilst there are no real stars likely to set the tournament alight, Ireland possess a solid squad made up of dependable mainstays.
Shay Given, who holds the all-time record for most caps caps, remains one of the most reliable keepers in the Premier League and will need to be on top form to keep out the onslaught of attacking talent that will be targeting the Irish goal. Richard Dunne, despite his tendency for own goals, is solid enough and has turned in several fine performances at International level and will be joined in defence by the equally-experienced John O’Shea, who has endured plenty of pressure games during his 11 years at Manchester United.
Further up the field, you can expect nothing less than 100% from the likes of Stephen Hunt, Glenn Whelan and Damien Duff, although one could question where the creativity is going to come from. Sunderland’s James McClean is the wildcard inclusion in the Ireland squad and may be the man who can provide something special. Robbie Keane remains the big goalscoring hope although he is well-aided by Shane Long and Kevin Doyle; both fine strikers on their day. It’s hard to see the Republic of Ireland progressing, but there’s a sense of unpredictability about them that enables them to beat just about anyone when they fancy it.
The veteran coach brings a wealth of experience to the table; boasting a plethora of achievements at both club level, where he is considered the most successful manager in the history of Serie A, and on the International stage, where he also managed his native country, and Ireland’s group rivals, Italy. Trapattoni will need to call on all of his previous knowledge of the game in order to steer his players through the rigours of Group C. Having only lost eight times in 42 games in charge, the influence of the Italian might just be difference Ireland need to cause an upset.
Ireland’s all-time greatest goalscorer Robbie Keane will carry the burden of his nation’s hopes this summer. With 53 International goals and vast Premier League experience, Keane is clearly capable but whether he gets sufficient service, particularly against teams that monopolise possession such as the ones in this group, is another issue. At 31 years of age, this may be his last chance to shine at a major tournament and will look to grab the opportunity with both hands. Lethal in the penalty box, and just as dangerous out of it, if Ireland are to enjoy any success at Euro 2012, there’s no doubt Keane will have something to do with it.
1st in the world
The reigning European and World Champions are hot favourites to take the crown this summer, with a wealth of talent to choose from in all areas of the pitch. All the heroes from the Euro 2008 triumph remain, with plenty of other promising youngsters pushing for a place in Spain’s all-star XI. The midfield in particular is packed, most likely consisting of a central trio of Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso and Xavi Hernández. La roja are undoubtedly the aesthete’s favourite, as their tiki-taka style has drawn mass plaudits and collective drooling from across the globe; they are still easily the best team to watch.
What makes the team so special is even on the rare occasions when they don’t have the ball, they hound mercilessly in an attempt to retain it. The defence is trustworthy: Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué are amongst some of the very best in their position, and behind them, captain, Iker Casillas, boasting 129 caps for his country, is still considered by many as the finest goalkeeper in the world.
Up front, in David Villa’s absence, it will be a question of which Fernando, Llorente or Torres, will lead the line; each perfectly capable on their day. Goals can come from anywhere in this side and as for the depth of the squad, it speaks volumes that the likes of David Silva, Cesc Fábregas, Juan Mata, Iker Muniain and Roberto Soldado are likely to be warming the bench for the majority of the tournament. Spain are undoubtedly the favourites, not only to progress from this group but to win the tournament overall, and it’s going to take a real force to prevent them from doing that.
Having masterminded the victorious campaign at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, there’s little if anything left for the 61-year-old to achieve, but he will be hungry for more success, and will certainly do everything in his power to propel Spain to a European Championship title of his own, after watching Luis Aragonés lead them to glory at Euro 2008. With such outrageously gifted players at his disposal, it’s difficult to know how much is owed to the manager, but Del Bosque has instilled a certain steel to the Spaniards’ game; giving them another dimension in addition to the pass-and-move style with which they have become synonymous. There is plenty of worthy competition to beat but having been there and done it before, you’d be brave to bet against Del Bosque inspiring Spain to the retention of their European crown.
When compiling a list of the top three or four players in world football, Barcelona talisman Andres Iniesta will be one of the names on just about everyone’s lips. Iniesta is a proven big game player, with countless inspirational performances for his club in the Champions League, and he was of course the man who won the World Cup for Spain in 2010 with his strike in extra time against the Netherlands. With an aforementioned midfield overflowing with world-class players, Iniesta is likely to find himself in a more advanced position on the flank, where he is as equally effective as he is in the middle. Whilst Xavi is the man who keeps the team ticking, it’s his partner in crime who is tasked with supplying the killer pass, and bridging the gap between midfield and attack. He’s elusive, almost impossible to stop when dribbling, unerringly accurate with his passing and, refreshingly, not one to exaggerate contact or feign injury: Andrés Iniesta is without doubt one of the best players on show at Euro 2012 and expect him to be at the hub of any glory Spain achieve this summer.
2. Ireland (we have to be optimistic!)