Analysis

Predictable uncertainty in Group C

Despite all the tension and tiebreakers, the soccer status quo advanced

James Tyler

After all the conspiracy theories, flashbacks to Euro 2004 and genuine concern on the part of Italian fans all too used to disappointment since the Azzurri won the 2006 World Cup, none of it came to pass. Cynics had imagined the worst possible outcome for Cesare Prandelli's squad -- Spain and Croatia playing out a 2-all draw that would have eliminated Italy regardless of its score -- and relished the irony of the sitation.

Imagine that: a nation notorious for match-fixing and boardroom shenanigans suddenly buried under the weight of its own crimes. Defendant turned plaintiff. The playground bully ending up stuffed in the locker.

Of course, in the end, the most uncertain group concluded in the most predictable way: Spain first, Italy second, Ireland irrelevant and the Croats relegated to Best Loser at Euro 2012.

Croatia's crime was facing Spain in the pivotal third Group C game, a team that routinely chews up possession and spits out opponents that tire under its pass-heavy style. Manager Slaven Bilic responded accordingly by omitting striker Nikica Jelavic in favor of a five-man midfield designed to stifle and frustrate La Roja's predictable tiki-taka rhythm.

But what played out was more frustration than fun. Passes for passes' sake. Obfuscation instead of incisive play. The most gilt-edged chances fell to the Croats, who grew in confidence as the 0-0 score stretched deep into the second half. Ivan Rakitic thundered a wide-open back-post header right at Iker Casillas from close range with just under half an hour to play, a goal that would have sent the Spaniards home. More half-chances were wasted while Spain's coach Vicente Del Bosque removed Fernando Torres and bunkered down with even more midfielders.

Spain eventually won the game on a soccer alley-oop -- sub Cesc Fabregas scooped a pass over the top for Andres Iniesta, who calmly squared the ball for Jesus Navas to theatrically smash it home from six inches, while the Croat backline waited for an offside flag that never came. The outcome was typical of Spain in this tournament to date.

Excluding the romp over a in-it-for-the-air-miles Ireland side, La Roja has yet to hit full boil at this summer's Euros. For all the critics harassing his lack of strikers and over-reliance on the same squad-within-a-squad, Del Bosque's side is grinding out wins without the sense of fun that defined them in tournaments past. As if to thumb his nose at his biggest critics, the curmudgeonly Spanish coach is keeping his cards close to his chest and even deigned to introduce a striker once Torres was withdrawn: Alvaro Negredo got a five-minute jog following Navas' goal. See, everyone? Del Bosque uses strikers after all.

In Poznan, Italy showed impressive resolve to get its business handled. Ireland began brightly -- even keeping a clean sheet until the tail end of the first half -- but faded as Antonio Cassano's near-post header cleared the line and Mario Balotelli underscored his high-risk/high-reward persona with a sublime late volley to seal the Azzurri's berth in the quarterfinals.

Despite its struggles, Italy looks arguably more threatening than Group C's victors heading forward. Italy's manager, Cesare Prandelli, heeded the call for change and switched everything up, reverting to a four-man defense and giving Andrea Pirlo the deep-lying playmaker duties behind an energetic midfield trio -- Daniele De Rossi slotted with ease back into the heart of the field -- and a front two in which Cassano was lively for the third straight game.

This adaptability and willingness to innovate should stand the Azzurri in good stead. Where Spain seems brittle and Del Bosque resistant to change -- Fernando Llorente must be aggrieved at working hard to make this squad only to remain on its periphery -- the Italians have promise and will not shirk from the challenge of facing Group D's eventual winners.

As for Croatia and Bilic, their tournament ended far too soon. Mario Mandzukic labored against Spain but the quality of Luka Modric once again proved elemental in midfield and the likes of Rakitic and Danijel Pranjic acquitted themselves well in a losing effort. The Croat backline was at its weakest heading into Euro 2012 but conceded just twice against two formidable foes, giving whoever takes over from Bilic -- he begins as Lokomotiv Moscow manager immediately following this tournament -- a base from which to build ahead of the 2014 World Cup. That and the average age of its squad was 27. There's life in the Croats yet.

Ireland's fans in the stands surpassed its squad on the field for performance and emotion, but overall, Group C's uncertainty and labyrinthine tiebreaker scenarios yielded predictable results. Hiccups and tension aside, it's the first time at Euro 2012 that we've been able to take comfort in and depend upon the soccer status quo.


 

James Tyler is an assistant editor for ESPN.com’s soccer coverage.

 

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