by Richard Brook
On the face of it, Group C ought to be the most open and shut case of the first round of Euro 2012. Two of the sides are clear favourites to attain the top two spots, and with that the coveted places in the knock out stage. The other two sides are widely tipped as also-rans though, when you look at the wealth of knowledge and experience possessed by their respective coaches, you wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of a shock or two.
The bookmakers’ odds for the Group C teams to win the tournament reinforce the idea of a clear split in the group, of two teams that will progress and two that will not. Spain are the clear favourites for the tournament and are currently available around 5/2, though it is worth stating that by winning Euro 2012 Spain would be making history as the first team ever to win three successive international titles. Italy are the other side likely to make the cut, priced around 14/1. Croatia and Republic of Ireland are 55/1 and 66/1 respectively.
On paper then Group C looks like a routine warm up for Spain and Italy and it will be up to the opposing managers to make sure their troops are well drilled enough to stop them, and to give themselves half a chance.
Former Everton and West Ham United central defender, Slaven Bilic has been the national coach of Croatia since 2006. Croatia go into Euro 2012 in full knowledge that after the tournament Bilic will leave his post, despite the absence of any formal announcement. A root and branch overhaul of the Croatian Football Federation is planned by the Croatian government, which will see the current incumbents of the post of president and secretary – both supporters of the coach – depart. It is a poorly guarded secret that Bilic will go too. The effect this has on the squad’s focus and morale can only properly be judged at the tournament.
Bilic led Croatia to qualification thanks to a play-off victory over Turkey, and in doing so fulfilled the major ambition as regards Euro 2012. The coach has been blamed for the team’s failure to qualify for the last World Cup by fans and media alike, for being too friendly with the players. After both defeats suffered during the qualifying campaign, to Georgia and Greece, Bilic faced calls for an end to his reign. Bilic claims that had he lost one iota of respect from the players, he would have gone of his own accord.
Bilic disagrees with, arguably more realistic, assessments in Croatia, when he describes their chances of reaching the last eight as “a reality”, although he does note the standard of their opponents. The coach regards the opening fixture, being against Ireland as crucial. A win for either side would set them up with an outside chance, defeat or a draw would present a considerable uphill struggle. Croatia’s top-ten place, in the FIFA World Rankings, in spite of the nation’s size, and the standard of their domestic league is an immense source of pride for the outgoing manager.
The Croatian media pundits agree that their target should be third place in the group, and bemoan the slow pace of the side’s play that results in a lot of passive possession. In truth this style is, more or less, forced upon them due to lack of pace at the back. A more attacking style would leave them very exposed and it is because of this that Bilic prefers to play on the counter. Tottenham’s Luka Modric is responsible for dictating the Croatian attacks, with his vision and speed of thought. Bilic does not have too many alternatives in the side and if an opponent can shut down Modric than Croatia will effectively be neutralised. Despite lining up with a 4-4-2 formation, expect Bilic’s plan to be very defensive. Of the four midfielders both wingers will be defence-minded and a midfield enforcer, probably Dujmovic, will be employed. Up front, at least, Bilic has options: Mandzukic, Olic, Eduardo, formerly of Arsenal, and Everton’s Jelavic all offering something to the cause.
Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni has been described as a “legend of Italian soccer” by Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini, in the run up to Euro 2012. The centre half also states that the Italian’s would have preferred to avoided the Irish after the two hard fought draws between the nations during qualification for the 2010 World Cup, and a further Irish victory against the Azzurri.
Trapattoni is the first coach since Jack Charlton in 1988 to lead the Republic of Ireland to the European Championship finals, and can count himself unlucky not to have taken them to the last World Cup, in the wake of Thierry Henry’s infamous actions in the play-off for that tournament. In fact this summer’s championships will be Ireland’s first major tournament in a decade.
Ireland’s only defeat in Euro 2012 qualifying proved fatal to their aspirations of finishing first. They were pipped by Russia by one goal in the match and by two points in qualification. Trapattoni has the Irish playing an ideal mix of attractive football coupled with having made them a tough side to beat. Having finished second in the group, Ireland saw the job through in emphatic style winning the first leg of the play off, in Estonia, 4-0, and seeing it through with a one all draw on home soil.
The coach, the media and the Irish public share a belief that they can make it to the quarter finals, while acknowledging the size of the task. Trapattoni’s attitude of “mai dire mai” – never say never – is considerably more measured than some Irish quarters who confidently state that they will beat Italy. Trapattoni is proud of having fostered a team ethic where all 11 players attack in possession, and all 11 defend when without the ball. Meticulous in his preparations, the Ireland boss, has dissected DVD’s of his Group C opponents and is determined that if Ireland are beaten, it won’t be by a detail, such as a set-piece that they did not know about.
Trapattoni’s tactics have come in for criticism, due to a perceived stubborn inflexibility, persisting as he does with a 4-4-2 system in all situations. The coach can boast a settled back four, which can breed that essential confidence, through the mutual understanding of each other’s game. Winger Aidan McGeady is one of the few Irish players genuinely capable of producing the unexpected, and together with Damien Duff on the opposite wing and Robbie Keane playing off a main striker, will be likely to provide the main thrust of Ireland’s attacks. The central midfielders are of a more combative nature, though favourite of Trapattoni, Glenn Whelan has the ability to pick a pass.
As for Italy themselves, they will be coached at the tournament by Cesare Prandelli, whose vision for Italian football is rated as something of an ongoing project by his compatriots, drawing comments that the side lack that killer instinct to really finish teams off. This trait could prove particularly costly for Prandelli’s men given that their opening fixture of the tournament is against the reigning World and European Champions. Prandelli states, not entirely convincingly, that this could be fortunate, as it will help his players understand what it means to be in the tournament. While it is true, especially as they failed to advance past the first round of the last World Cup, that Italy could have drawn easier opposition, they must surely be favourites for the second spot.
After all Prandelli’s charges qualified with a record featuring eight wins, two draws and no defeats, seeing them through ten points clear of Estonia. It should be considered, however, that one of the wins was by default, as the home match against Serbia was abandoned as a 3-0 victory after just six minutes, due to violent disturbances amongst the travelling supporters. The Azzurri also struggled to single-goal victories against Estonia, Slovenia and the Faroe Islands. In addition to these poor results, the side lost friendlies to Ireland, Uruguay and the USA.
The upcoming game with Ireland will have a special significance for Prandelli, who was himself coached by Trapattoni at Juventus. Prandelli clearly retains a high level of affection and respect for his former boss and in interviews has joked that he will not speak his name for fear of bringing bad luck on himself, and describing the Ireland coach as an “awkward customer”. While Prandelli himself states, in a somewhat open-ended manner, that he feels positive about the tournament, the Italian press take a less expectant view that Italy should get through the first round, and if they do the confidence levels could take them a long a way.
Prandelli’s team are not the typical defensive side, we have come to expect of the Italian national team. They retain a solid defensive spine but are more attack oriented and can be expected to play with a diamond midfield four, Andrea Pirlo acting as a deep-lying playmaker.
The major questions for Prandelli occur as, of the front two in qualifying, Rossi is out injured, and Cassano, while included does not have many minutes under his belt after coming back from a heart scare. Balotelli is a likely replacement upfront, but as ever his temperament will give cause for concern. More latterly, first choice left back Criscito, has withdrawn from the squad to clear his name having been implicated in the Italian match fixing scandal. How Prandelli answers these questions and how Balotelli handles the pressure could have a big say in Italy’s chances.
Vicente Del Bosque will once again be in charge of tournament favourites and defending champions Spain. Having won Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 the side qualified for Euro 2012 at a canter with a 100% record in their eight qualifying matches. The foundations of the squad from these past successes remains intact, however it is a terrible shame that the likes of Carlos Puyol and David Villa have had to withdraw through injury, especially as it could possibly have been the last major tournament for both of these great names of world football.
Spain are sometimes mislabelled as a side that struggles for goals. In reality, teams face Spain with a game plan to restrict opportunities. Spain have broken down such tactics enough times to win the last two major tournaments, so it would seem unlikely this will be a concern at the forefront of their minds. Football fans all over Europe will be looking forward to seeing the Spanish style of assured, possession football that pulls players out of position, teasing them to chase the ball, and when they take the bait, exploiting the space they have left open. The dual effect of this is to wear out the opposition from the endless pressing they must perform in defence, while Spain effortlessly retain possession.
Del Bosque acknowledges that history is against them, in that no team has won three tournaments in a row before, but ultimately, if a team is good enough, records are there to be broken. The coach modestly puts his 84% win ratio down to his managerial spell coinciding with such brilliant players, and explains his input as facilitating a good team spirit, adhering to a particular playing philosophy and maintaining the competitive edge between his players.
In ranking his favourites for the competition Del Bosque, not unexpectedly, pinpoints Spain’s rivals as Germany. He also rates Italy, France, Portugal and, as does Germany coach Joachim Low, comments that you cannot forget England.
Del Bosque will set Spain up as a flexible formation that varies between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 as is necessary, with the full backs encouraged to join the attack. The midfield will be expected to comprise of the familiar Busquets, Alonso and Xavi.
It will be interesting to see who fills Villa’s place as the central striker, Llorente and Torres look to be the front runners, the latter having ended a year long international goal drought in the friendly against South Korea just days before the tournament.
To sum up Group C must surely see Spain, and ought to see Italy, advance to the quarter finals. However both sides will need to afford due respect to Croatia and Ireland who both have some talented players within their squads, and both have experienced, well prepared and tactically shrewd coaches in charge. There would need to be a definitive result between Ireland and Croatia to see either of them stand a realistic chance of attaining second place, and it is extremely difficult to see this group not going to form.