Each day this week we’re getting you ready for Euro 2012, the European soccer championships, hosted by Poland and Ukraine. On Monday we previewed Group A and on Tuesday Group B, today we break down Group C.
GROUP C (Croatia, Ireland, Italy and Spain)
When Italy and Spain, the last two World Cup champions, were drawn into Group C, it seemed assured what teams would advance into the knockout rounds. But this group is far more competitive than at first glance.
Nickname: Vatreni (Fiery Ones)
World Ranking: 8
Most of Croatia’s players aren’t household names, except maybe to houses in Croatia. The best known of the bunch is Luka Modric, a midfielder who plays for Tottenham Hotspur in London. He's skilled in the attack and can push forward to score goals and create chances. Also, he’s looking to maybe move away from Tottenham, so a solid performance in the Euros would make him more desirable to potential new clubs. Where Croatia may find trouble is with their back line, which has been shuffled because of injury.
Nickname: The Boys in Green
World Ranking: 18
Two years ago, controversy kept Ireland out of the World Cup. In a playoff with France, the Irish were ahead late until a clear handball by French star Thierry Henry led to a goal that gave the victory to his team. Once again Ireland finished second in its qualifying group, as it did for World Cup 2010, but this time, they prevailed in their playoff match, defeating Estonia. The Irish aren’t the most prolific of scoring teams, netting only 15 during qualifying. Instead, they’ll rely on their coach Giovanni Trapattoni’s defensive style, and hunker down like Italian teams do, hoping to beat the opposition 1-0.
Nickname: Azzurri (Blues)
World Ranking: 12
The 2006 World Cup champions come into this tournament shrouded in scandal. (What’s new!?!) Just as when they went to that World Cup in ’06 with accusations of match fixing hanging over them, six years later, their players face similar charges. In 2006, the team put the distraction aside and won the entire tournament, beating France in a final most memorable for Zinedine Zidane head-butting a guy. This tournament, the Italians will have the crazy guy, with their nutty striker Mario Balotelli likely to do something weird. In qualifying, Italy allowed only two goals in 9 matches played (Serbia forfeited giving Italy an automatic 3-0 win). The team didn’t concede a goal for 13 months, or 625 minutes of time on the field. However, in friendlies, they’ve looked shaky, including losing to the United States at home. And they’re trying to adopt a new style of play that’s built more on short passing and less on defense and counterattacking. In years past, their advancement past the group stage would be assured, but the Azzurri feel vulnerable this time around.
Nickname: La Furia Roja (The Red Fury)
World Ranking: 1
Four years ago, before Euro 2008 began, Spain was known as the biggest underachievers in world soccer. They were always talented, but almost always found a way to get knocked out of tournaments in disappointing fashion. Oh, how things have changed. Spain has become the toast of the international game, winning both the European and World championships. They do it with expert possession, masterful passing and total control over the tempo of the game. It doesn’t hurt the have world-class players all over the field, like midfielder Xavi, striker David Villa, defender Sergio Ramos and maybe the world’s best goalkeeper Iker Casillas.
Matches You Need to Watch
The first match will provide the most star power when Spain and Italy face off on June 10 at 12pm EST. Though, the most important game in determining which team will make it to the knockout rounds will be Italy vs. Croatia on June 14 at noon EST.
Spain will cruise to the top spot and Croatia will best an Italian team that’s distracted by scandal and trying to transition from a more defensive style to one that emulates Spain’s play.