Group C may not be the tournament’s group of death; however, with two contenders and one legitimate dark horse, the group is wide open and perfectly poised for an upset.
If Spain end up winning the European Championship, they will have been the only nation to win three major consecutive tournaments. Surely, with the inclusion of 19 of the 23 players who represented their country in South Africa, one would have to be rather scrutinizing to find a reason to bet against the de facto tournament favorites. After all, the Spanish squad is so deep that all its reserves would be readily handed starting spots on most of FIFA’s top ten national teams. Yet, assuming that the Spanish are without weakness, is silly. One only has to consider the fact that the majority of Spain’s starters have just concluded a very long and arduous season for their respective clubs. Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets, and Xabi Alonso alone have more than one hundred and fifty games between them. Xavi, especially, showed signs of fatigue during his last games for Barcelona, and the same can be said about his teammate Iniesta, who’s become increasingly prone to muscle related injuries. Xavi has also brought up another issue that could prove costly to the reigning champions. In a recent interview, the Barcelona man voiced his frustration with the way the Real Madrid players celebrated their league win at the Nou Camp, suggesting that the enormous schism that has developed between Barcelona and Real Madrid players has yet to be repaired. This rift will probably go unnoticed, but any early hiccups could result in some finger pointing. Of course, only a major crisis will prevent the Spanish from leading their group. The likes of David Silva, Santi Cazorla, and Jesus Navas should have a field day dissecting the Irish and Croatian defenses, and while the Italians will be a harder nut to crack, they hardly pose a serious attacking threat.
The last time the Italians found themselves embroiled in match-fixing scandal, they won the World Cup. Six years later, allegations and inquests are once again at the center of Italian soccer, even prompting the prime minister to propose suspending the domestic league. For Cesare Prandelli, the current nightmarish scenario couldn’t possibly have come at a more importune time. Tasked with rejuvenating an aging squad, and developing a more attacking philosophy when he replaced Marchello Lippi, Prandelli has had to find ways to protect his players from the scandal’s fallout. His first move was to remove Domenico Criscito from the Azzurri, given his involvement in the case. In doing so, Prandelli has given himself a defensive headache, which has been compounded by the injury to Andrea Barzagli. Additionally, Criscito has not taken kindly to having been made into a scapegoat, and the left-back has been quick to criticize his manager for his rash decision, and hypocrisy, since other players under investigation have been allowed to remain a part of the squad. Controversy aside, the Euro could still prove a very difficult tournament for Prandelli. Although the Italian manager has promised an offensive team, the names on the roster tend to be quite defensive. In the midfield, only Alessandro Diamanti and Claudio Marchisio might be called offensive-minded players. Names like Daniele De Rossi, Thiago Motta, and Antonio Nocerino provide defensive security, but neither of the three will strike fear in the hearts of defenders. That means that Andrea Pirlo will once again be carrying the creative load, which might be asking too much of the thirty-three year old, considering lack of rest between games. Up-front, Prandelli has a great deal of talent at his disposal, but bad boys Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano are just as likely to get sent off as they are to light up the field. One of the key players, however, might be Sebastian Giovinco. The diminutive player will be wearing the number ten jersey on his back, and after threatening to burst into the international scene for a number of years, he will need to play like one if Italy are to make any noise in the tournament.
One is never sure what kinds of performances the Croats will deliver. There’s no question that the small nation has a history of producing fantastic players who make their names on the international stage. Players like Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki, and Zvonimir Boban are some of the more recognizable names that not only propelled Croatia to the knockout stages of European and World Cups, but also left a mark playing for clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, and AC Milan. Today’s Croatia doesn’t quite have the star power of the nineties, however, it does have the talent to pull an upset in a group where Spain and Italy are clear favorites. Similarly to many other teams in the tournament, Croatia is top heavy, featuring strikers that have established themselves in both the Premier League and the Bundesliga. Nikica Jelavic has settled well since moving to Everton in January, and should get to start alongside Eduardo, up front. Eduardo is not the same player he was before he broke his ankle playing for Arsenal, but his move to Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk has revitalized the Brazilian-born Croat, who has proved that he can still score consistently. Luka Modric will be Croatia’s talisman, although his ability to move forward will be stifled by Slaven Bilic’s reliance on the 4-4-2, which could prove costly, particularly since Tottenham’s playmaker isn’t a very strong defender. The back four is Bilic’s biggest weakness. Vedran Corluka is an accomplished defender, but he’ll be anchoring the middle of a very slow defense instead of patrolling his preferred right side. The technically gifted Darjio Srna could slot in on the right; yet, Bilic likes lining up the captain as a winger. Croatia could clinch the second spot in the group, but only if Bilic finds a way to clog up the middle of the field.
It’s hard to imagine the Irish making it out of the group. On paper, most of the players on the squad don’t have nearly enough quality to compete successfully; nevertheless, the game isn’t played on paper. We have the Greeks to remind us of that. Giovanni Trapattoni is aware that Ireland’s only chance of success will depend on a strong cohesive unity that stresses tactical discipline and defense. Thus, Trapattoni has built a central core that is rich in Premier League experience and has the grit to disrupt opposing possession. Close to the twilights of their careers, John O’Shea and Richard Dunne should form a tenacious tandem, especially in the aerial game. Unfortunately, though, their group opponents will look to move the ball quickly on the ground, which should expose their lack of quickness. In the midfield, Keith Andrews and Darron Gibson will offer similar steel, and should be able to make life difficult for less physical opponents, but their lack of flair will hinder Ireland’s transition into the attack, which is an area that has enough problems as it is. Robbie Keane has had a less than stellar start to the MLS season with the LA Galaxy, where the quality of defenders pales in comparison to the likes of Sergio Ramos and Giorgio Chiellini. Still, Keane is probably the best Ireland has to offer. Shane Long is coming off a very good season with West Brom, and could inject some pace to the Irish game, but it’s hard to predict whether he’ll be able to displace Kevin Doyle, who seems to have won over Trapattoni. Arguably the most talented Irish player is Spartak’s Aiden McGeady. Even if the Irish don’t pull off good results, McGeady should impress enough to earn a move to a better league.