When the Euro 2012 draw was held last December, Group B was tagged as the “Group of Death,” seeing as it had Germany, Portugal, the Netherlands and Denmark. But upon further inspection, Group C was tagged as “the other Group of Death” with Spain, Italy, Croatia and Ireland making for a formidable quartet in its own right.
The Spanish dynasty
At the outset, that didn’t stop Spain from being heavily tabbed to progress. The reigning world and European champions are aiming to become the first national team to win three major tournaments in a row, and remain stacked with talent. But the arrival of Euro 2012 sees some questions surrounding La Furia Roja. All-time leading scorer David Villa was unable to recover from the broken leg he sustained during the FIFA World Club Championship last December. Central defender and captain Carles Puyol has also been ruled out due to injury, and all of a sudden, Spain doesn’t look quite as imposing as it once did.
“The question is: How hungry is Spain still?,” said former German national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who won the European title as a player in 1996. “[Opponents] will lock them in so they can’t play, will try to make them frustrated. They will be very physical. And it depends how much that Spanish team still wants to go through that grind.”
But while the loss of Villa in particular is a heavy blow, Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque still has an ungodly number of quality players to choose from. The attacking trio of Andres Iniesta, Xavi and David Silva is plenty capable of picking apart an opposition defense. At the back, Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos still have the quality to get Spain through some tricky moments. And Fernando Torres, scorer of the game winner in the Euro 2008 final, looks to be showing some semblance of his old form after a mostly frustrating season with Chelsea.
“I’m a big admirer of that Spain team,” Klinsmann said. “If they win this title, then they deserve statues built after this, because it would be an amazing achievement mentally, an unbelievable achievement.”
Italy playing under cloud of scandal – again
With Spain still looking impressive, the rest of the teams in the group appear to be playing for second place. At first glance, Italy is the favorite to emerge, but as difficult as the run-up to the tournament has been for Spain, it pales in comparison to that of the Azzurri. Six years after the Calciopoli scandal threatened to undermine its 2006 World Cup preparations, Italian soccer has been engulfed in more allegations of match fixing. Defender Domenico Criscito was served with a notice of investigation at the team’s training base and removed from the side. So far that is the extent of the impact on the national team, but the fear that more players could be implicated – suspicion has already fallen on goalkeeper and captain Gianluigi Buffon – remains. Manager Cesare Prandelli even went so far as to offer to withdraw from the tournament if the authorities decided it was necessary, although this sounds more like clever public relations than a serious offer.
But the distraction does have the potential to scuttle the hard work of Prandelli, who took over for Marcello Lippi in the wake of the team’s disastrous showing in the 2010 World Cup. Then again, Italy has dealt with such obstacles well in the past, claiming the 2006 World Cup despite the specter of the Calciopoli scandal hanging over it.
“[Italy] ended up shutting everybody off totally, and just ended up sticking together with their own group and it seemed to help them,” said former Liverpool and Scotland midfielder Steve Nicol. “They’re such a good team anyway that they don’t need anyone else giving them [motivation].”
The revamped attack that saw the reemergence of Antonio Cassano – now recovered from a heart ailment – combined with Mario Balotelli shows considerable promise. Perhaps more critically, deep-lying playmaker Andrea Pirlo is fresh off a splendid bounce-back season with Serie A champions Juventus, and looks fit for the tournament.
“Even at this stage of his career, Pirlo is still a magnificent playmaker,” said ESPN broadcaster Ian Darke. “With him in there, he gives that team shape. He’s the heartbeat.”
Granted, there is a steep drop-off after Cassano and Balotelli, and it will be imperative that the duo maintain form, and in the case of Balotelli keep his on-field discipline; never a sure thing given his combustible nature.
Croatia is the ultimate wild card
Given the upheaval in the Italian camp, Croatia could be the team that benefits the most. After failing to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, Slaven Bilic’s side certainly has the creativity to trouble opponents, with Luka Modric acting as midfield orchestrator and Darijo Srna providing another attacking conduit. Bilic also appears to have a glut of capable forwards. Ivica Olic and Mario Mandzukic have been penciled in as the starters, but Eduardo and Everton’s Nikica Jelavic are available to step in if needed.
“Jelavic is one of those instinctive finishers who could be a name that nobody is talking about ahead of the tournament, but could be a bit of a sensation,” Darke said. “To see the way this guy finished, if they create the chances he should put them in.”
The defense, on the other hand, is highly suspect, making Croatia the ultimate wild card.
“They’ve always had great technique,” said Nicol of Croatia. “The only thing they used to do was they used to kill themselves with their temperament. But as far as playing football is concerned, you really don’t want to play them. You’re never quite sure what you’re going to get. You’re capable of beating them 3-0, but you’re also capable getting beat 3-0 by them.”
Ireland as underdog
That leaves Ireland to play the role of ultimate underdog. On paper, Ireland possesses few, if any, truly world-class players, although Robbie Keane, Aiden McGeady, Richard Dunne and emerging Sunderland midfielder James McClean are talented. For that reason, it seems a stretch to think that Ireland will progress.
“Ireland are going to struggle, no question about it,” said former U.S. international Kasey Keller. “For them to get out of the first round is a huge accomplishment, especially with that group. But stranger things have happened in the past, especially in the Euros. Denmark winning in ’92 when they didn’t even qualify, but Yugoslavia got knocked out for political reasons. Greece winning it out of nowhere in 2004. It’s possible, but highly improbable. That team, you have to figure it was a big feat to qualify.”
But Ireland does have a world-class manager in Giovanni Trapattoni. The Italian has turned Ireland into a highly organized outfit that is stingy in the back and opportunistic in attack. He’s even managed to get results against his homeland, recording two draws in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup as well as a 2-0 win last year. That is consistent with Ireland’s history of making life difficult for heavily favored opponents. Out of the four major tournaments for which Ireland has qualified, it has progressed past the group stage three times.
“Ireland won’t be easy to beat for any of the teams in that group, even Spain and Italy,” Darke said. “They’ll make them work very hard for it.”
It’s imperative, however, that the Irish get something out of their opener against Croatia on June 10. With its second match against Spain, the hope is that there will still be something to play for when Trapattoni & Co. square off against Italy in the group finale.
As for favorites Spain and Italy, they would probably prefer not to be playing against each other in the opening match, but in the end it likely won’t matter. Look for those two countries to be the ones to progress to the quarterfinals.