A for Abidance

So, we are all set to embrace the mother of all tournaments, the World Cup 2014, to be held in its spiritual home, Brazil. Goalden Times is bringing you group wise preview, analysis and prediction. Starting off with Group A is Riddhi Roy Chaudhuri.

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Brazil

The Holy Grail returns to Brazil for the first time since 1950. Generally anything less than a final appearance in World Cup is considered a failure for the Selecao by the football crazy nation. One can understand how much expectation from the national team will be there this time as World Cup is held in Brazil itself. After the embarrassing second half capitulation against the Dutch in quarter-final in 2010, manager Dunga had to face the axe. Mano Menezes replaced him and he tried to make a radical change to the national team setup. Menezes envisaged a free-flowing football with more technical, skillful and particularly young players. He brought in the likes of Neymar, Lucas Moura, Alexandre Pato and tried to build the team around them. However, Menezes never succeeded to fully achieve what he tried. The team showed glimpses of brilliance in going forward but they lacked the killer instinct. Another hindrance for Menezes was the lack of competitive games. Friendlies never provided a true measure of the progress made under him. Then came the Copa America in 2011 where Menezes and his team bowed out in the quarters.

In November 2012, Menezes left with mutual consent and Luiz Felipe Scolari returned after 10 years of winning the World Cup. Felipao set out to mend the things and preferred substance over style. Initially things did not work properly and in his first five games, Brazil failed to secure any win. However in the Confederation Cup 2013, Brazil found their rhythm and went on to win the tournament. Throughout the tournament, Brazil was ruthless and clinical which was highlighted by the 3-0 demolition of world champion Spain. Thereby Felipao succeeded in installing a proper system for the team that can perform well at the World Cup.

As Scolari has mentioned before, his roster for the World Cup consists of majority of the players who won the Confederation Cup for him. This time around Brazil will be based on solid defence and a functional midfield. Thiago Silva, Dante and David Luiz will be at the helm of the central defence while Dani Alves and Marcelo will be providing width as full-backs. The Luiz Gustavo-Paulinho combination has worked wonders for Scolari and they will form the midfield lynch pin. However, after a fantastic season at Manchester City, Fernandinho has forced himself into Scolari’s plan and do not be surprised if you see his name in the first XI. Neymar will be the talisman for Brazill going forward supported by Oscar, Fred and Hulk. Ironically, this time the centre-forward is the position where Brazil is devoid of quality names. Scolari will try to overcome it by setting up his strategy to get goals from all across the team.

Brazil has always been the box office nation at the World Cup and as the host nation, expectation to win the tournament on them will be sky high. If things work out properly, progress to knockout stage should not be a big problem. But there awaits the bigger test for Scolari and his Selecao. Whether a sixth World Cup glory or an anti-climax in the form of early elimination from the tournament awaits them – time can only tell that.

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Cameroon will be participating for the seventh time in the World Cup in Brazil. Cameroon is still remembered for their exploits in the 1990 World Cup held in Italy.  They never reached the same height and have been a story of more misses than hits in the following editions of the showpiece tournament. Brazil 2014 will present them a chance to change that but it will be a tough job to say the least.

Cameroon’s performance in the last few international tournaments have been below par. Their endeavour in both the World Cup 2010 and African Cup of Nations in 2010 fell below expectations. Failure to qualify for the 2013 African Cup of Nations saw sacking of manager Denis Lavagne. Jean-Paul Akono was in charge temporarily and later he was replaced by the German Volkar Finke. Qualification campaign for 2014 World Cup was comparatively easy sailing for Cameroon. They topped Group I in the second round ahead of Libya, Congo and Togo. Cameroon  rode their luck in the match away to Togo where they were awarded a 3-0 victory inspite of losing the match 2-0 as Togo fielded an ineligible player. In the play-off round they met Tunisia. A resounding 4-1 victory at home after a stalemate in first leg ensured their qualification. Although their performance was nothing spectacular but effective nonetheless and also helped by the fact that they didn’t have to face tougher opponents.

Finke is known as one of the architects of the present free-flowing style that has swept across the entire footballing strata in Germany. He is best remembered for his 16-year spell at SC Freiburg. However with Cameroon, Finke has a different task at his disposal. A pragmatic approach rather than style is probably what Finke will try to look into for Cameroon. The national team is not particularly blessed with plethora of creative talents. They boast good defenders like Joel Matip, Nicolas Nkoulou, Aurélien Chedjou, Benoit Assou-Ekotto who are known faces in the top European leagues. Similarly Alexandre Song, Jean II Makoun, Stephane Mbia can provide a combative midfield. But lack of proper creative outlets may come to affect them. Samuel Eto’o, the skipper, in spite of being in and out of the team, still remains the potent source of goal but his performance with Chelsea has shown he has past his prime.

It won’t be correct to write off the ‘Indomitable Lions’ for this World Cup. In Group A, Brazil is probably too strong opposition for them but against Mexico and Croatia, they will get their chances. However to achieve anything significant, Cameroon players have to overcome their cynical nature that has hurt them in the previous tournaments. Finke needs to get the best out of his players otherwise another group stage exit might be in store for them.

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After their stunning World Cup debut in 1998, Croatia has never enjoyed same fortune in the next tournaments. Their last appearance in World Cup was in 2006 when they went out in the group stage.In Euro 2012, they again went out of the group stage after being paired with heavyweights and eventual finalists Spain and Italy. This was followed by resignation of Slaven Bilic, the longest standing Croatian manager till date. With Davor Suker coming in as the new Croatian Federation(HNS) president, they chose former defender Igor Stimac as the new manager. His first task was to gain qualification for World Cup 2014.

Croatia was placed in Group A with Belgium, Serbia, Scotland, Wales and Macedonia. Croatia started their journey in 2014 World Cup qualifiers with a narrow 1-0 win against Macedonia. Croatia was undefeated in the first six games of the campaign and won five of them to top the table at that stage. But the next four games saw a slump in form and they could only manage a point. As a result, Croatia finished second behind Belgium and had to face a play-off against Iceland. Under pressure coach Stimac was removed and charges were given to former captain from their golden generation and then U-21 national team manager Niko Kovac. Kovac guided Croatia successfully against Iceland in the second round of the qualifiers thus securing a berth in the summer showdown.

Under Kovac, Croatia are yet to find their footing. To be fair, he has not been able to spend sufficient time with his team to stamp his mark. He managed to navigate the immediate job of qualifying for the World Cup overcoming Iceland although they had to fight hard. Croatia could not break stubborn Iceland in the first leg despite having a man advantage for most of the first half. This Croatian team doesn’t have an abundance of talent to pick from. Without doubt, they boast one of the most in-form and talented midfielder of the present time in Luka Modric. He will be ably supported by Ivan Rakitic who is enjoying a fine season with Sevilla. In Mateo Kovacic, they have a potential superstar who will be valuable to Kovac’s plan. Midfield can be the source of inspiration for Croatia but Kovachave to design a strategy that can harness the best out his talented midfeld. Southampton’s Dejan Lovren will be the leader at the back alongside Vedran Corluka. Ever-present and captain Dario Srna will take up his position as the right-back. It is the forward line where Croatia lacks real quality and they will be further affected by absence of Mario Mandzukic in the opening game against Brazil due to a one-game ban. In his absence, either of Eduardo Silva or Nikica Jelavic will step in but how much threat they can be remains a doubt.  Ivan Perisic and veteran IvicaOlic will be playing supporting roles as wide forwards. Beyond the first XI, lack of suitable quality will be another bit of concern for the manager.  So all in all, it is the midfield where lies the key to success for Croatia.

The pint sized Balkan nation with a population of four million will be at the centre of global audience come 12th June. They will lock horn with the host and favourites Brazil.  Niko Kovac has made it clear that his team won’t be there in Brazil just as tourists. He stated: “You only get a shot at the World Cup every four years, so we want to leave behind a lasting impression.”  Qualifying for the knockout stage remains the primary agenda for Kovac and his team. They need to back themselves and produce their best to get results especially against the likes of Mexico and Cameroon. Following their absence in 2010 World Cup, the Vatreni will look to arouse the spirit of 1998 to make this World Cup special.

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Oribe Peralta

Mexico has been the powerhouse nation in the CONCACAF group of North and Central America region over the years. They have not been spectacular but steady in the last five editions. Generally due to lack of competition, Mexico’s status has never been threatened in the region.

Courtesy of winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2011, Mexico got the chance to participate in last year’s Confederation Cup in Brazil. However, being paired with Brazil and Italy in the same group, they faced a difficult job to advance in the tournament. As expected, they lost both the games and were eliminated. Defeating Japan in the other group match was the only positive thing for them. Their next assignment was the Gold Cup 2013 hosted by USA. Things started to go downhill from this tournament. In the group stage, Mexico went down to minnows Panama and managed to qualify for quarter-final stage as runners-up. However, they again faced Panama in the semi-final and suffered the same fate. This was the first time Panama has defeated Mexico in Gold Cup and that too twice.

Mexico started their qualification journey for World Cup 2014 in the third round of CONCACAF qualifiers. They were clubbed with Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guyana. Under the guidance of Jose Manuel ‘Chepo’ de la Torre Menchacha, they breezed through the group by winning all the six matches. Next, came the fourth round, also known as the Hexagonal, consisting of six teams, the group champions and runners-ups, from third round. Mexico had to struggle from the beginning this time. They embarked on a poor run of seven games where they drew 5 games and winning just one. The lowest point came on 6th September, 2013 when Honduras defeated Mexico at their own Estadio Azteca. It was only the second defeat for the ‘EL Tri’ at their home, previous one was in 2001. Subsequently, Mexican Football Federation (FMF) sacked the under fire manager Chepo and gave the reins to Luis Fernando Tena Garduno. Tena, who guided Mexico U-23 to 2012 London Olympics gold medal, had a complex and difficult task in his hand. Mexico was lying fourth among the six teams. But Tena could not stem the rot and Mexico lost the following game against USA. FMF pressed the panic button and brought Victor Manuel Vucetich Rojas in charge for the last two games. Amongst this chaos, Mexico managed to hold on the fourth spot by winning their penultimate match and despite losing the final game, Panama’s loss to USA in the last round by conceding two goals in the injury time saved Mexico from suffering the ignominy of missing out the trip to World Cup finals. Again FMF changed the manager by bringing in interim manager Miguel Herrera – the fourth manager in less than a month – and Mexico defeated New Zealand in the intercontinental play-off on 9-3 aggregate to finally get their ticket as one of the last two nations.

After successfully negotiating the play-off hurdle, FMF decided to move forward with Miguel Herrera in charge of ‘El Tri’ for the Brazil showpiece tournament. The 46-year-old manager have his task cut out as he will be having very little time to shape up the Mexico squad. El Piojo has already mentioned that he will prefer to bring in players whom he has worked with beside the regular candidates. Generally deploying a 3-5-2 formation, veteran Rafael Marquez will be the leader at the back. Upfront Giovanidos Santos and Javier Hernandez will be vital for Mexico’s system. Jose Juan Vazquez and Juan Carlos Medina are Herrera’s choice in the midfield. Herrera will also be encouraged by the young guns like Oribe Peralta, Raul Jimenez, Carlos Pena who helped Mexico to win gold in 2012 London Olympics.

Miguel Herrera said a few days back that ’We are going to reach the final’. But it is easier said than done. Probably Herrera said the words to express his positive attitude which he wants his team to show on the field. But realistically it will be difficult for Mexico to move beyond the group stage overcoming Brazil, Croatia and Cameroon.

Predictions

Brazil remains the outright favourites to win the Group A. But it ends there as it is only prediction based on the Brazil’s pedigree.  Make no mistake Brazil will have to give their all to move to the next round. All the remaining three sides Mexico, Croatia and Cameroon have the capability to hurt Brazil on an odd occasion. For example, in recent games against Mexico, Brazil have found it tougher to get to overcome them(in last eight games between them, Mexico and Brazil have seen an equal share of spoils). Between Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon, it is very difficult to select the strongest candidate as they all have their fair share of strengths as well as weaknesses.  The two teams that will manage to advance to the next round will probably face one of the finalists from 2010 World Cup, either Spain or Netherlands, which itself will be a daunting task indeed.

Passing Shot

Brazil and Mexico have faced each other 38 times so far, one of the most common fixtures in the region.

Forgotten Trinkets – The Prisoners of War

In the third episode of this series, Subhodip Basu follows the fortunes of the war-ravaged Yugoslav national team through the late 80s and 90s

The Prisoners of War: Yugoslavia 1990-98

Yugoslavia, a consistent underperformer in major tournaments, gave glimpses of turning over a new leaf in the late 80s. First, its youth team won the FIFA World Youth Championship (now known as U-20 World Cup) in 1987. Then it had a moderately successful Italia ’90 followed by a virtual romp through the qualifying stage of Euro 1992. In the interim, Red Star Belgrade took the 1991 European Champions Cup. Then, sadly, came a very bloody civil war, leading to a ban by UEFA. The team disintegrated, but the players continued to glitter for their clubs across Europe. In this edition we look at the travails of the team that “never wanted to be”. Ironically, the protagonists in this story, perhaps would be least bothered by their lack of success as a team, as by the end of the millennium, war had driven the fissures too deep.

Youthful Surprise

Youth FIFA World Cup Champion 1987, Chile

The nucleus of this potentially great team germinated during the 1987 FIFA World Youth Championship in Chile. This, despite missing as many as five first teamers including captain Aleksander Đorđević due to suspension and injuries, and keeping Siniša Mihajlović, Vladimir Jugović and Alen Bokšić at home. They did have a blond playmaker called Robert Prosinečki, who was to become the player of the tournament, and he was ably supported by Igor Štimac, Robert Jarni, Zvonimir Boban, Davor Šuker and Predrag Mijatović. They started with a 4-2 win over hosts Chile, before brushing aside Australia and Togo 4-0 and 4-1, respectively. Trouble followed as Red Star Belgrade suddenly woke up to ask for Prosinečki for a UEFA Cup tie. The players protested vehemently and FIFA President João Havelange intervened. Prosinečki duly obliged by curling a free-kick to eliminate Brazil in the quarters. They went on to beat both East and West Germany in the semi-final and final, respectively. In the latter match, they missed both Prosinečki and Mijatović through suspension but an inspired Boban gave them a lead and they finally won in penalties, no mean task, against West Germany. They gave all indications of a team-in-waiting as they demolished all known shortcomings of their predecessors by eliminating bigger teams, sticking together (as in the Prosinečki case), making light of missing players and, most importantly, keeping their nerve.

Balkan, Balkan, Burning Bright

To be fair, good parts often do not make a good football team. The players rarely played together and even when they did, due to all the war and violence, they (especially the Croats and Bosnians) could be scarcely expected to be motivated for giving their best. However, each was a star in their respective clubs. Like all great teams there was quality in almost all positions (save in goal, where Tomislav Ivković, Ivica Kralj and Dražen Ladić could at best be termed ‘goodish’).

Yugoslavia Team in World Cup 1990

However, any glimpse of mediocrity ended right there. In the early 90s, they had a pair of Serbian full-backs in the free-scoring Mirsad Baljić on left and the less adventurous Dragoljub Brnović on right. Later in the decade, they were superceded by an even more talented Croat pair of Robert Jarni and Igor Štimac. Jarni was world class. The original kingpin at sweeper was the Bosnian Faruk Hadžibegić, and anyone who watched their 1990 quarter-final with Argentina would stand testimony to how elegantly he rendered both Diego Maradona and Claudio Caniggia ineffective. Moreover, skilful additions just kept emerging in Slaven Bilić, Miroslav Đukić, Zvonimir Soldo, Robert Kovač and (occasionally) Siniša Mihajlović. The last, being the most consistent dead-ball shooter in his time.

The original kingpin at sweeper was the Bosnian Faruk Hadžibegić, and anyone who watched their 1990 quarter-final with Argentina would stand testimony to how elegantly he rendered both Diego Maradona and Claudio Caniggia ineffective.

Things kept getting better in midfield, where they could comfortably field up to two world class combinations at any time. As holding midfielders, they had Serbian Vladimir Jugović and Slovenian Srečko Katanec, stars for scudetto winning Juventus and Sampdoria, respectively. They were followed by younger Croats, Mario Stanić of Parma and Aljoša Asanović.  Attacking flair came from superstars Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinečki and above all Dragan “Piksi” Stojković. Piksi was unlucky to leave Red Star just before their golden run as well as miss the Marseille’s 1993 triumph due to injury (he also missed his international peak due to the UEFA ban). By 1998, Dejan Stanković was taking baby steps into stardom, and he is still setting and scoring stunning goals for Inter.

Most importantly, the Slavs were strong upfront where they have been often weak. Traditionally, their best attackers were either converted wingers like Dragan Džajić or inside forwards like Rajko Mitić. The 90s were an exception, which reinforces the belief that this team was a definite world beater. Their cornucopia of talent included brilliant “holes”, such as Montenegrin Dejan Savićević and Slovenian Zlatko Zahović, as well as penalty box monsters like Macedonian Darko Pančev and Serbian Predrag Mijatović. Last but not the least was the Croat pair of Davor Šuker and Alen Bokšić. All except Zahović, won at least one Champions League. Add the ageing but still clever Safet Sušić and a fast improving Bosnian, Hasan Salihamidžić on the wings and you have an attack that could succeed against all kinds of defence under all conditions.

Killing Fields

Clubs in former Yugoslavia, irrespective of their geography, had always been a symbol of anti-communist resistance. The Gravediggers of Partizan Belgrade, the Red Star ultras called Delije and Dynamo Zagreb’s Bad Blue Boys were all treated by Marshal Josip Tito as virtual underground movements. Clubs like Hajduk of Split embodied Dalmatia like Barcelona does for Catalonia. As perestroika began to sweep East Europe, these fan groups, emboldened by the events, began to turn more nationalistic. It was inevitable that they shall play a role in the war years.

Scenes from Zagreb, May 13, 1990

The first big incident took place in Zagreb, Croatia, when Red Star met Dynamo on May 13, 1990, the last league game of the Yugoslavian league. Thousands of the Delije and the Bad Blue Boys fought both each other and the local police. The game of course was abandoned after 10 minutes, but not before Zagreb’s best player, Boban, kicked a policeman who was trying to prevent Croatian hooligans from attacking Red Star fans. The policeman, a Bosnian Muslim, ironically said later that he understood Boban’s act. Boban, now a Croat war poster boy, boldly declared later, in a documentary film The Last Yugoslavian Football TeamI would die for Croatia.” Needless to remind the readers, he conveniently avoided doing so during the war, being mostly entrenched instead at the San Siro.

Boban vs riot police, Zagreb

At the same time, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević was attempting to organize the apparently uncontrolled hooliganism to more useful ends and in due course enlisted Željko Ražnatović, better known as Arkan. During a derby with Partizan in 1992, Arkan’s group dressed in full uniform, took up positions in the north stand and started holding up signals such as ‘20 miles to Vukovar‘ and ‘Welcome to Vukovar‘ (Vukovar being a Croatian town that had apparently fallen to the Serbian army). Both sets of supporters were now united in hatred of a common enemy – the Croats. From this point, the ultras assumed control of football and the criminal underworld in the war-torn state. Arkan, who would eventually be assassinated in 2000, ran everything from ticket sales to foreign travel and intimidation of match officials. His recruited ‘Tigers’ fought the patriotic war, first in Croatia and later, in Kosovo.

Fire Sale

The hope that football will flourish when peace is restored, was to be a false mirage. Now, the attack came from the west. From the mid-90s, almost all the international players from Yugoslavia, Croatia and Bosnia were playing abroad. In the 1996 Euro squad of Croatia, only keeper Ladić, defender Dario Šimić and half-back Asanovićwere from home clubs. Similarly for Yugoslavia in 1998, keeper Kralj and a still 19-year-old Stanković were the only players from domestic clubs in the regular eleven. Things only went steadily downhill from 1998.

Terrace attendance was no longer sufficient to fund clubs and television audience were glued to the more glamorous leagues where the best Balkans played. Hence, clubs in both Serbia and Croatia were short of funds, forcing them to sell off their best players thus rendering their domestic football with less skill and competitiveness. This vicious cycle, continues to affect all East European clubs even now, and the Balkan nations, due to war and violence were its biggest casualties. It’s worth reflecting on how this has affected East European national teams. Since 1990, in 12 major competitions (World Cup and Euro) they have managed zero wins, 1 final and four semi-finals. In a similar 12 events between 1966-88 it was 1 win, three finals and 7 semis.  The Slavs have been worst hit of all.

Serbian parliamentarian Zeljko Tomic, a committed Gravedigger, likes to relate the story of Mateja Kežman’s sale from Partizan to PSV Eindhoven. Partizan was supposed to receive new floodlights from Philips, the PSV owners. The lights, however, went missing en route, in all likelihood, being pocketed by an intermediary at the club’s expense.

Lost Legacy

There are countless talented teams which did not perform to their potential, but hardly anywhere did politics play such a cruel and uncontrollable role. Not just that, subsequent war and globalization of the football economy has virtually ruled out a revival. However, the stimulus to rate this team high is not based on emotions. Neither is it based on sheer talent, which admittedly they had in abundance.

They had a temperament to match, with most players being versatile enough to be successful for multiple clubs and multiple leagues. Majority were impact players for their clubs rather than being just a support player. Katanec, Jugović, Mihajlović, the Rossoneri trio of Savićević, Boban and Pančev were all very successful in Italy.  Bokšićand Stojković were part of Marseille’s superstar team while Real Madrid had Jarni, Mijatović and Šuker at various times. Let’s not forget a very old Stanković in Inter’s golden run almost a decade later. The combined transfer fee of their top 15 players in the 90s was in excess of €100m, a number almost similar to the top 15 of either Brazil, France or Germany who all won tournaments in that decade. Moreover, to hone this talent they could call on anyone amongst Bora Milutinović, Vujadin Boškov and Radomir Antić, three of the best in this decade.

World Cup 1998 : Croatia Team (l) and Yugoslavia Team (r)

Additionally, there was pride and team spirit in abundance, a key element in any successful team. With less than 50% of the original player pool, Croatia did make it to a World Cup semi-final with ageing and downhill players. The rest, playing for Yugoslavia, also had a decent run in 1998 World Cup and even in Euro 2000 with players who were even older! Yugoslavia once came back from three goals down in Euro 2000 while Croatia blanked old nemesis Germany by three goals in 1998. Years of responsibility in foreign clubs had made them hard-nosed professionals. They could be clever, even cynical when they needed to be (remember the Bilić dive to oust Laurent Blanc?). These players were made of sterner stuff!

Many political thinkers feel that both Brazil and Argentina were on the verge of civil war in the 60s and late 70s/ early 80s, respectively and football success worked as a great national glue as well as a legitimate diversion. If only Piksi had not missed the spot kick against Argentina, and the Slavs went on to make the finals in 1990 World Cup, perhaps a combined Balkan team would have lined up in 1992 Euro. Perhaps a football crazy population would have understood the power of unity and the futility of conflict. For now, we can only muse as we watch Luca Modrić wave delicate patterns at the Bernabéu.

Luca Modrić joins Real Madrid

Croatians Return Home with their Heads held High

Croatia 0 – 1 Spain(Navas 88)

Croatia’s brave display against La Roja still wasn’t sufficient to earn them a draw as they were wasteful in front of goal. After Spain’s dominant display against Ireland, one could not have foretold the below-par performance La Roja put up at the Gdansk Arena. Fans had to brook a poor display for most parts of the game before Jesus Navas put the Spaniards a goal up to allay fears. Aftermath of their group stage exit meant early exit for coach Slaven Bilic who had already declared that he would resign from the post at the end of the tournament. The result cemented Spain’s status as group C winners with Italy securing runner-up position via a 2-0 win over Ireland in the other group game.

Celebration Time
Celebration Time

Slaven Bilic lined his troops in a 4-2-3-1 formation, sacrificing Everton striker Nikica Jelavic in the process. Dinamo Zagreb fullback Domagoj Vida replaced Darijo Srna at right back position. Pranjic replaced Ivan Perisic to form a triad of Pranjic, Modric and Darijo Srna behind Mandzukic as the lone striker with Rakitic and Vukojevic in front of the defence. On the other hand, Vicente Del Bosque’s side paraded the same starting line-up and formation in their 4-0 defeat of England.

A 2-2 draw would have ensured qualification for both sides. Darijo Srna and Iker Casillas led their teams as captains in a dandy atmosphere in Gdansk. The game kicked-off and settled into Spain controlling possession and Croatia pressurising the Spaniards to hit on the break. The game was halted briefly in the 7th minute because of the presence of a flare on the pitch which befogged Casillas’ goal. On 12 minutes, an array of carefully knitted passes culminated in an opening for Iniesta whose shot was held by Pletikosa. Srna’s intentional foul on Alba on 19 minutes was accompanied by a stern warning from Wolfgang Stark. Croatia’s game plan was pretty clear; drop deep in large numbers to win the ball then hit Spain on the break. Fernando Torres’ attempt on goal from the right side of the box was blocked by Pletikosa. Ramos unleashed a shot from thirty yards a minute later which Pletikosa smothered. Pique’s ambitious effort from range whistled over the bar. Pranjic’s shot on 26 minutes wasn’t a problem for Casillas. Mandzukic blazed over seconds later from a Srna pass. Brilliant play from Mandzukic a minute later ended in penalty appeals which the referee waved. Mandzukic outwitted Pique and glided into the box only for Ramos to take him out with a strong tackle without winning the ball. Vedran Corluka picked up a booking for arguing with the referee. Silva’s volley on the edge of the box after some enterprising play was too tame to trouble Pletikosa. Spain continued to enjoy possession, showcasing lovely passing but they were reduced to half chances. It ended 0-0 at half time with news of Cassano putting the Italians ahead in Poznan.

It was a positive start from the Blazers after the restart who earned an early corner that was swung towards Corluka but he was penalised for a foul on Pique. Ivan Strinic was booked for a shove on Silva. Croatia had a great chance to take the lead in the 59th minute. Modric broke down the right and cut inside before crossing for an unmarked Rakitic who nodded at Casillas from six yards out. Del Bosque replaced the disappointing Fernando Torres with Jesus Navas. In a bold move, Bilic sent Jelavic and Perisic into the game to replace Pranjic and Vida. Spain continued to pass the ball around without really having a clear-cut chance as the Croatians defended expertly. On 79 minutes, Spain were presented with a great opportunity. Four on four on the Counter attack, Croatia’s backline was finally exposed but Busquets allowed Srna to win the ball with a perfectly timed sliding tackle. With 10 minutes to go, it became end to end action, the Croatians changing to a high defensive line in a bid to get a goal. Their strategy change allowed Spain to be finally released from the half cut chances they were reduced them to. Former Arsenal striker Eduardo was introduced into the game in place of Vukojevic. Croatia needed a goal but it was  Spain who got their goal through Navas two minutes from full time. A ball over the back four found Iniesta. The Barcelona midfielder evaded the offside trap to square the ball to Navas. Navas slotted the ball coolly into an empty net.

Dejected Luka Modric after the loss
Dejected Luka Modric after the loss

POST MATCH THOUGHTS

Croatia did brilliantly to keep Spain at bay for most part of the game and couldn’t have done much more than that other than take their chances. They could have claimed a draw had they not had to come all out in search of a goal. Slaven Bilic has the tough group stage draw to rue.

Croatia (4-2-3-1): Pletikosa; Strinis, Schildenfeld, Corluka, Vida (Jelavic 66); Rakitic, Vukojevic (Eduardo 81); Pranjic (Perisic 66), Modric, Srna; Mandzukic.

Spain (4-3-3): Casillas; Alba, Ramos, Pique, Arbeloa; Alonso, Busquets, Xavi (Negredo 89); Iniesta, Torres (Navas 61), Silva (Fabregas 73).

QUOTES

“I don’t see them as the really big favourites. There are quite a few teams that maybe have more pace and are hungry to win and maybe more aggressive on the pitch than Spain.” – Slaven Bilic on Spain’s chances of success in the tournament.

“We suffered.” -Spain coach Vicente del Bosque.

Winner Takes it All

Match Facts

Group D: England vs Ukraine

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

20:45 (local time); 14:45(EST); 00:15(Wednesday, 20 June)(IST)

Donbass Arena, Donetsk

Interestingly, Last Day Syndrome has been a characteristic of the group stages in the current edition of the European Championship. Each of the four groups would know its top two team at the end of the corresponding final ‘match day’.  In group D, fierce battle waits the four teams to decide who will go through to the quarter-final stage. In Donetsk, the Three Lions will face the host Ukraine knowing that a draw will be enough for them. On the other hand, Ukraine will require an outright win to proceed to the last eight stage. However, English coach Roy Hodgson is pragmatic enough to know that aiming for a draw against the Ukrainians will be a dangerous gamble to play with. Although they drew a blank against the French, Ukraine was quite enthralling against Sweden with their ‘Sheva’ in scintillating form. England too was listless against France with only showing some sort of form against the Swedes. As pre-match reports are emerging, the two teams are facing contrasting fortunes. In this match, Hodgson will be very happy to welcome back his number One hitman Wayne Rooney who returns after serving his suspension. But Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin may have to send out his team in this vital game without the talismanic Andriy Shevchenko who is down with a knee problem. With so much up for grabs, this tie can’t be devoid of drama. It will take a lot from set of players to decide their fate. Blokhin has called upon his boys to give their everything on the pitch till the last minute in quest for the desired result. Belief seems to go up in the English camp after the Sweden win, now it is to be seen how the express themselves during the match.  Bursting at the crucial moment has always been a thorn for England.

TEAMS AND STRATEGY: 

 

Looking for Inspiration
Looking for Inspiration

Although Rooney will be back in the reckoning for the match, it will be quite interesting to see how Hodgson will incorporate him in the team. It is always a bit risky to alter a winning combination especially in a tournament but at the same time, leaving Rooney on bench will be unfathomable given the lack of cutting edge in attack of the team so far. So Hodgson will have to leave out either of Andy Carroll or Danny Welbeck on the bench and in all probability he will go for Rooney-Welbeck combination as the pair already has a thriving understanding at Manchester United. Another vital decision will be whether to start with Walcott who was excellent last match or stick with James Milner as the right-sided midfielder. Although Milner was quite ordinary in the first two matches, it seems Hodgson will persist with him as Walcott’s lack of defensive awareness won’t be suitable for team’s tactics. Instead Hodgson will look continue to look at Walcott as an impact substitute and will bring him in later stages of the match according to situation. The central defence too need to be tighter as they were responsible for the two goals conceded last match and the midfield duo of Steven Gerrard and Scot Parker has to continue their hard work.

PROBABLE  XI : Joe Hart ; Glen Johnson , John Terry , Joleon Lescott , Ashley Cole ; Steven Gerrard , Scot Parker , James Milner , Ashley Young ; Wayne Rooney , Danny Welbeck

Oleg Blokhin said that he will wait till the last moment for Shevchenko who will be a vital cog in his plan to stifle the English force. If ultimately Sheva is not available, Blokhin will turn to either of Artem Milevskiy or Marko Devic .Rest of the Ukraine team will remain the same like the last two matches. Both Ukraine and England aren’t too expert in keeping possession and a more direct game will be on display. In konoplayanka and Yarmolenko, Ukraine have two speedy wingers who will bomb forward at every opportunity. Another vital role will be given to Andrey Voronin who was excellent in the first match against Sweden. He will work his socks off trying to link between the midfield and the striker. The Captain Anotoliy Tymoshchuk will be trying to curb Rooney’s playmaking effort in his role of defensive midfielder. If Ukraine can find their rhythm similar to their first match, they will prove to be quite an handful for the English team who are the favourite going into the match.

Will he turn up?
Will he turn up?

PROBABLE XI : Andriy Pyatov ; Yevhev Selin,Yevhen Khacheridi,Taras Mykhalyk, Oleh Husyev; Anatoliy Tymoshchuk , Serhiy Nazarenko,Yevhen Konoplyanka,Andriy Yarmolenko; Andrey Voronin , Andrey Shevchenko ( Marko Devic/Artem Mievskiy)

QUOTE :

 

England are among the favourites, so the pressure’s on them”

 Oleg Blokhin on his opponents

He’s a world-class player and I can see it in his eyes that he’s itching to get out there and perform. He could, hopefully, make the difference.”

Roy Hodgson on Rooney’s return

 

The Blues fail to conquer their blues

Italy 1 – 1 Croatia

39″ Andrea Pirlo (1-0), Mario Mandzukic 72″ (1-1)

Traditional giants Italy was left in danger of catching an early flight home as Croatia (who has never lost to Italy after gaining independence from Yugoslavia) held on for a gritty 1-1 draw in a Group-C encounter at Poznan. In the process, Croatian scorer of the day Mario Mandzukic equaled the national record for highest number of goals, hitherto held by Davor Suker. But before that, Italy looked all set for a comfortable victory after having being given the lead via a moment of brilliance by Andrea Pirlo

The match didn’t begin at the blistering pace as expected from the pre-match hype. After all, in only their last match, both the teams had played a super-attacking brand of soccer. And contrary to what many experts said, Mario Balotelli did find a place in the starting line up ahead of De Natale. Balotelli started off with a 3rd minute shot at the goal. On the other hand, Croatia hoping for a quick start saw Mandzukic concedes a free kick for a foul on Chiellini

Croatia’s most capped player and captain Srna made a few set piece attacks, one of which ended with a good Buffon save, and the subsequent counter-attack by Italy saw Cassano race into the Croatia box and nearly score, but for a timely tackle by Gordon Schildenfeld. Balotelli’s effort paid off when he earned a free kick in the 39th minute, and then there was that moment of magic as Pirlo’s free kick swerved over the defense into the goal. Italy 1-0 Croatia, and that’s how the first half ended

Pirlo: The Magic Moment

The second half began with a flurry of passes, attacks and shots on goal. Within the first 10 minutes, Thiego Motta received the first yellow card and was promptly substituted. De Natale, as expected, replaced Balotelli, and immediately the results showed, but for Croatia as Mandžukic equalized!! Strangely, after that, neither side seemed to push on for a result nor the game never rose to great heights after that, barring a thunderous volley by Kranjcar who replaced Super Mario deep into injury time which was well saved by Buffon

Mandzukic after the equaliser

The result leaves the group interestingly poised, with Spain carving out a victory vs Ireland, any of the three – Croatia, Italy and Spain can make the cut. But Italy will have to hope for a result in the Croatia vs Spain game and win vs. Ireland to progress. Or else, win really big vs the Irish and proceed on goal difference

Tactical Highlights

Cesare Prandelli stuck with the 3-5-2 and for the first 45 minutes it worked without too many hitches. Balotelli and Cassini ran hard and split the defense well -Balotteli earned the free kick that saw Italy take the lead. On the other hand, Bilic’s men lined up almost as a 4-1-3-2. It was expected Croatia would use the flanks to attack, and though in the first half they didn’t do so freely, in the second half with Modric, Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic pressed higher up the pitch. Srna gave Giaccherini a tough time on the right and it was Ivan Strinic’s cross from the left that led to the goal. Thus Croatia had the better of the exchanges in the second half


Line-Ups

Italy: Buffon, Chiellini, De Rossi, Bonucci, Giaccherini, Marchisio, Pirlo, Thiago Motta, Maggio, Cassano, Balotelli. Substitutes: De Sanctis, Sirigu, Ogbonna, Balzaretti, Abate, Di Natale, Barzagli, Borini, Montolivo, Giovinco, Diamanti, Nocerino.

Croatia: Pletikosa, Srna, Corluka, Schildenfeld, Strinic, Rakitic, Vukojevic, Modric, Perisic, Mandzukic, Jelavic. Substitutes: Kelava, Subasic, Simunic, Buljat, Pranjic, Badelj, Versaljko, Dujmovic, Kalinic, Kranjcar, Vida, Eduardo.

Referee: H. Webb (England).  Assitant Referees: M. Mullarkey (England), P. Kirkup (UK). Fourth Official: P. Kralovec (Czech Republic)

Quotes

“Of course you are a bit bitter because when a side plays football, creates a lot of goalscoring chances, they need to put a game to bed, to kill off the game”. – Prandelli denied being angry with the result

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“All I will say is that I’m very optimistic for the next match. I’m really satisfied we’ve four points from the two games. It could be even better but four points is optimal, realistic and now we have a real chance to go through” – Bilic declined to look ahead to the next game with Spain

Hitting the Irish Bar or Not

Match Facts

Group C:  Republic of Ireland vs Croatia

Sunday, 10 June 2012

20:45 (local time); 14:45(EST); 00:15(IST)

Municipal Stadium, Poznań

Though Group C is not marked as the Group of Death, it is surely going to be a tricky affair. A gritty Republic of Ireland team is going to face one of the dark horses of the Euro 2012, Croatia, whereas the other two teams are definite European heavyweights. This is first time since Republic of Ireland qualified for Euro since 1988 and also they are into a major tournament after 10 long years. This is a grand opportunity for Irish fighters to show the world their character after their heart breaking episode against France in 2010 WC qualifier play-off. Ireland is not known for their goal-scoring flurry, rather the fighting spirit and determination are the two factors they are relying on. After Italian mastermind Giovanni Trapattoni took over the charge since 2008, Irish team looks very much organized and as a result they are back in top flight.

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The Irish Duo

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Croatia on the other hand, are currently ranked 8th per the FIFA ranking and expected to thrill the tournament with their exciting gameplay. Their Euro qualifying campaign wasn’t smooth enough though. Finishing the group after Greece, Croatia won the play-offs against Turkey to confirm their booking for Euro. They have experienced lots of ups and downs under their long-standing manager Slaven Bilić’s era and are expected to overcome all the odds to present a tight show on the grand stage.

Form Guide

Ireland had a pretty good qualifying campaign with their limited resources. They are facing the Croats after a 14 game unbeaten streak and they don’t want to spoil it either. Historically they were never beaten in the opening games of any major competition. After Trapattoni took over, Irish were beaten only 8 times out of 46 games. In the qualifiers, their only defeat came against the mighty Russians.

Croatia surprisingly had a tough run in qualifiers. Despite being the top seeded team they finished behind Greece with an astonishing defeat against Georgia. Their performances in pre-Euro friendlies were not impressive enough. They lost to Sweden, drew with Norway and managed to win only against weaker Estonia. Still, the amount of firepower they have stored easily can turn up the table. Turkey had faced the wrath of a rejuvenated Croatia team when they were demolished 0-3 at Istanbul – just an example what they are capable of.

Republic of Ireland: DWDDW

Croatia: DWLDW

Teams and Formations

The Irish probably is going back to their tested and proven 4-4-2 formation after their lacklustre draw against much weaker Hungary team. Trapattoni tried a midfield packed 4-5-1 which didn’t look like working. So Robbie Keane at the upfront will be going to pair with Shane Long to provide a two-pronged attack where Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady will provide much needed width. Croatia will heavily rely upon returning Bayer Leverkusen defender Vedran Ćorluka to stop this well-formed attack. Irish supporters will be very much delighted to see their veteran defender John O’Shea back in starting line-up and their most capped (122) player of all time, Shay Given, declared fit to guard the net.  Ireland will be eying on their most successful goal scorer of all time Robbie Keane (53) who had scored 7 goals in the qualifiers. Croatia also needs to be very cautious during dead-ball situations as the Irish are proven to be very good in that. In the midfield, Croatia will show a sheer dominance as they have the string master named certain Luka Modrić. This ambidextrous swift medio can turn the heat for the Croats combining with captain Darijo Srna – who has a fantastic right foot to deliver lethal crosses. Croatia needs to be cautious on their left as attack minded Perisic is not very prone to fall back which can give extra spaces to ever intelligent Duff.  Factually, Croatia is pretty deadly in the air and scored 9 goals from header in the qualifiers. As they are missing their main striker Olich due to injury, Nikica Jelavić, who scored 9 goals in 12 matches for Everton already – likely to be given a chance over Eduardo, while Wolfsburg forward Mario Mandžukić start as withdrawn forward. Bilić also can pick very talented Niko Kranjčar. Richard Dunne will be the key man on the heart of Irish defense to stop this sharp attack led by Modric. Dunne needs to replicate his famous performance against Russia in Moscow in September 2011 where he single-handedly stopped a Russian team which totally dominated midfield and created wave after wave of attacks.

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Modric: The spearhead

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Republic of Ireland (4-4-2): Given, O’Shea, Dunne, St Ledger, Ward, Duff, Whelan, Andrews, McGeady, Long, Keane

Manager: Giovanni Trapattoni

Croatia (4-4-1-1): Corluka, Schildenfeld, Simunic, Strinic, Srna, Modric, Rakitic, Pranjic, Mandzukic, Jelavic  (Niko Kranjčar)

Manager: Slaven Bilić

Referee: Björn Kuipers (Netherlands)

Quotes:

“They have someone like Luka Modric, who I know very, very well. I’ve been speaking to him over the last couple of days, having a bit of banter with him.”

Robbie Keane, Forward, Republic of Ireland

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“On Sunday we will fight for every ball and for every inch of the pitch. I don’t see how Ireland can trouble us. Their football is very simple and not difficult to analyse.”

Slaven Bilić, Manager, Croatia

Daring Dark Horses at Euro 2012

While all the superpowers of Europe prepare for the mega stage, there are some smaller nations which have the power to cause a huge upset. Debojyoti Chakraborty looks at the possible contenders who can shock the pundits at the UEFA Euro 2012

Speaking of Dark Horses, we try to analyse the teams which may not be entering the tournament as favourites but can propel their way through to the knock-out stages and beyond. These teams have a realistic chance of progressing as they are, in a way, helped by the draw at the Group stages. All they need is a bit of determination, good strategy…and some luck! So let us look at our own set of Underdogs.

Russia

Russia has a very good record at the Euros since winning it (then Soviet Union) in the inaugural edition of 1960. After going through a re-building phase since the inception of the country in the early ‘90s, Russia did well last time when they reached the semis and lost out to eventual winners Spain. This time also, the men under Dick Advocaat look set for a strong run in to the tournament.
Russia topped their Group during qualifying stages with ease. Though their opponents are relative minnows in Europe, Russia did put up a good show – especially in defence which let in only four goals, second only to Italy – and gained some valuable places in the UEFA rankings. That helped them get into the easiest Group in the finals. Russia have some good players who put their best foot forward while playing for their country. Hence, though Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko have struggled to break into the first team for their club teams in England, it will be no surprise if they turn the heat on in Euro 2012.

Arshavin - Planning for an adieu on a high

Advocaat is a shrewd tactician but there are quite a few challenges for him this time round. He is often criticised for favouring players from Zenit St. Petersburg, the club he coached previously. It will be interesting to see how he inducts the young and talented players like playmaker Alan Dzagoev and striker Pavel Pogrebnyak to the mix. Also, considering this could be the swansong for some key players such as defender Sergei Ignashevich, midfielders Konstantin Zyryanov and Igor Semshov, and possibly the dynamic duo of Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko,  Advocaat would surely like to motivate them for a final hurrah.
Russia is playing all its matches in Poland. Ukraine would have suited them more considering the large Russian contingent there. They start their campaign against Czech Republic and will look to set the tone for the tournament. Against Poland, the hosts, their second Group match will be the toughest one. Advocaat might have an eye on this match from the start of the campaign. By the time they take on Greece on the last match day, the Russians could find themselves in a position where they can dictate terms and choose their quarter-final opponents. And that could be it. With an opponent from the Group of Death their campaign looks all but over. But the Russians won’t let it go so easy and they can look for inspiration in the Greek side of 2004. They should also benefit from the fact that half of the side plays for the Russian champion Zenit St. Petersburg.

Portugal

Another Zenit player to feature in the Euro 2012 will be Portuguese defender Bruno Alves. His own country Portugal featured in the first ever Euro in 1960 but had to wait for a long 24 years for their next appearance where they reached the semis. They have done reasonably well since then with their best performance coming in the home turf as they reached the Final of Euro 2004 only to lose to Greece.

Will CR7 be able to do a ‘Maradona '86’?
Will CR7 be able to do a ‘Maradona '86’?

In the lead-up to Euro 2012, Portugal was stuttering with only one point from the first 2 matches of the qualifying competition, when Paulo Bento took over from Carlos Queiroz. Portugal scratched their way to the finals through a play-off against Bosnia and Herzegovina. They face an even uphill task being drawn in the Group of Death. But we have often seen teams which scratch their way into the tournament often go all the way beyond everyone’s expectations. And they have it all – ambition, determination and belief – as put in by their talismanic captain Cristiano Ronaldo. At 27, the best player of the tournament is in the form of his life and he enters the competition as the highest scorer for Portugal in the qualifying campaign with seven goals to his credit. Champions League semi-final berth to go with his personal glory of scoring for fun in La Liga; 2012 has been a memorable year for CR7 and he would like to cap it up with the Euro glory. He has some creative players hugging the touchlines in the forms of João Moutinho and Nani. If they can influence the game and take a lead, the Real Madrid pairing of Pepe and Fábio Coentrão can organise the back four, keep a proper shape and defend well.

 The Selecção das Quinas start their campaign against Germany and even a stalemate would suit them. The second match against Denmark would be their big match as they not only would like to win it, but win it big to have a good goal difference. They will take a close look at the other match in the Group on the same match day as Germany and Netherlands lock horns. A bit of luck, results going their way and Portugal will feel they have a solid chance of progressing to the knock-out stages when they take on the Dutch side in their last Group match. Some records are yet to be set after the Battle of Nuremberg in World Cup 2006 which saw only 18 men finish the match and total of 16 yellow cards. If Portugal can progress to the knock-out stages, they will face a much easier opponent in the form of Russia, Poland or Czech Republic. This is a definite winnable game and once you are into the semi-finals, anything can happen.

Croatia

Modric will look to emulate his club form for his country
Modric will look to emulate his club form for his country

Just like Portugal, Croatia also came through the pain and anxiety of play-offs and started the tournament as one of the well drilled teams. Croatia, as a part of Yugoslavia, had an impressive record at the Euro championships where they reached the Final of the tournaments twice in the first three editions. They have failed to emulate their form ever since and this time too they are entering the tournament as rank outsiders.
Croatia was widely tipped to top their Group in the qualifying campaigns where they were drawn against the likes of Greece, Israel, Latvia, Georgia and Malta. But they were beaten comprehensively by the Greek side at home and a shock defeat by Georgia led them to the qualification play-off. In that match though they regained their composure and thrashed a well drilled Turkey side to advance to the finals of Euro 2012. Under the supervision of coach Slaven Bilic, the Croats are well organized, tactically sound and they are expected to run their socks off for the whole 90 minutes. Amongst a group of strong and determined individuals, they have a lynchpin in Luca Modric, a rising star in Milan Badelj and a target man in Ivica Olic.

It is their impressing run of form which sees them in the eighth place in UEFA rankings, one above their Group opponent Italy. They have been drawn in a difficult Group but one has to remember in major tournaments none can be termed as a pushover team. Croatia start their campaign against Ireland and they have to win this game for a realistic chance of progressing. They will also keep a keen eye on another match on the same match day involving Spain and Italy. Spain is almost certain to progress but Croatia can target Italy for a possible berth in the quarter-finals. The draw also favours them as the Croats will next be against the Azzuri in what could decide the quarter-final berth. Once into the knock-outs, they are most likely to face England or France. Neither of them are quite threatening in their current forms. So, the big match is against the Italians on June 14 which could well seal Croatia’s fate.

Sweden

The last team in this feature is Sweden, who defeated Croatia 3-1 in a friendly in February. Sweden boss Erik Hamren will be very pleased with his efforts so far steering Sweden into the finals of a major tournament in his very first assignment. He will take heart from the fact that Sweden have progressed through the Group stages from a very similar setup in 1992 – the Group featured England, France and Denmark – which was their first appearance in the Euro stage, that too as a host.

Looking for Support

Sweden qualified for the finals behind Netherlands as the Group runner-up. But they put up a strong display at home in Stockholm to beat the formidable Dutch side. Hamren favours a defensive 4-2-3-1 formation and even if heavily criticized at home for this, he has delivered some good results in the run-up to the competition. Like any Scandinavian side, Sweden is well organized, tactically sound and their physical aspect of the game is a major strength. Their game will definitely revolve around the charismatic front man Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With some more potent weapon at disposal, Hamren might have considered adopting an attacking brand of football with the mantra: “Attack is the best form of defence”. But does not look like so!

Sweden are lucky to get their campaign rolling against Ukraine. This is one match where they would like to win handsomely. Following that is a match against England. The 3 Lions have been struggling for form and consistency; without much time for the newly appointed manager to stamp his authority and influential Wayne Rooney up front this is Sweden’s best chance to get one up against the disjointed English side. Even the last encounter against France is not a daunting one – the French are going through a transition phase and are nowhere close to their dominating best of the late ‘90s. So their recipe for success would be to thrash Ukraine and get at least 2 points from the remaining two matches. If Sweden can make it through to the quarter-finals, they could face the reigning European and World Champions Spain and that will be curtains for them.  So there is added motivation for the Swedes to top the Group and a few games going their way can make their dream come true. If that happens, Swedes would be up against the struggling Azzuri or another underdog in the form of Croatia. This is quite a decent opportunity for them to feature in the last four and then, as they say, anything can happen.

Conclusion

So we are done with our own dark horses. Some of them face a trickier tie compared to others. While a dominant opponent from Group B – Germany, Netherlands or Portugal – might just  be Russia’s hope for a last four berth, Portugal can spring in a surprise from the Group of Death and there is no reason why they cannot go all the way. Sweden seem to have the brightest chance of shining through as they are fitted against misfiring European giants whereas the Croats have to dig deep to salvage any pride out of this year’s competition.

UEFA Euro 2012 Preview: Group C

The Euro 2012 Group preview continues with Group C. This Group has two very strong contenders in Spain and Italy. Kinshuk Biswas discusses their chances and probable team line-ups along with those of Croatia and Republic of Ireland

Goalden Times continues its Group previews of Euro 2012 following Groups A and B, with Group C. This Group has two traditional superpowers of European football with two other teams who have done well in international tournaments whenever they have qualified for the finals. At first glance, it seems that the two big teams Spain and Italy will qualify easily at the expense of Croatia and Republic of Ireland. Although both the so-called weaker teams are no pushovers and have caused upsets before. Spain and Italy played out a goalless draw in the quarter-finals in 2008 before Spain went on to win in the penalty shoot-out. Incidentally this was the only match the Spanish team did not win outright in the last tournament.

  Spain

Resume: Champions 1964 and 2008. Runners up-1984. Quarter Finals-1996 and 2000

Road to the finals: Qualifying Group I Winner. P-8 W-8 D-0 L-0 GF-26 GA-6 GD-+20

Spain became only the third nation to be World and European champions simultaneously in 2010 after Germany (1972-1974) and France (1998-2000). This team is considered by many as one of the greatest ever. They will start as strong favourites to retain their crown as they qualified with an all win record. No team has successfully defended the Euro trophy and Spain may be the best bet to reverse this trend. In Vicente del Bosque they have a shrewd manager who has continued the good work of Luis Aragones. Del Bosque has successfully managed Real Madrid and knows how to handle a locker room full of superstars. Spain plays with a 4-3-3 formation which enables them to play their tiki-taka style evolved from the very successful Barcelona team. In Iker Casillas, their goalkeeper captain from Real Madrid they have one of the best in the world. Victor Valdes of Barcelona is an able replacement. In the centre of defence they have the pairing of Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid and Gerard Pique of Barcelona as first choice. The experienced Carlos Puyol of Barcelona and Carlos Marchena of Villareal are able replacements. In the right-back position, Alvaro Arbeloa of Real Madrid is likely to start. Sergio Ramos and Carlos Puyol have also played in the right-back positions when required. The left-back position is the only one in this team which is yet to have an automatic choice. Jordi Alba of Valencia has been used in recent times by Del-Bosque. Joan Capdevila of Benfica was recalled in the last friendly against Venezuela as cover. The team may play Puyol and Pique in the centre of defence and use Ramos on the right and Arbeloa on the left as well.

Their mid-field is possibly the strongest in the world – Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets of Barcelona with Xabi Alonso of Real Madrid as the first choice starters. There is ample cover in Cesc Fabregas of Barcelona and Javi Martinez of Athletic Bilbao. The manager is spoilt for choices in the forward line. Andres Iniesta and Pedro Rodriguez of Barcelona on the left and right are the likely starters. There are many options in these positions with David Silva of Manchester City and Juan Mata of Chelsea, both having great seasons for their clubs. The beauty is that all these players can play in the mid-field and the forward line which gives the manager great flexibility in his tactics. The centre-forward position is up for grabs as David Villa of Barcelona is unlikely to recover from a broken leg and Fernando Torres has been in poor goal-scoring form for his club Chelsea. Roberto Soldado of Valencia has made a strong claim by scoring a hat-trick in a friendly. Fernando Llorente of Athletic Bilbao is the other player vying for this position.

Spain looks a very strong team and should easily qualify from the group stages. The only problem for Spain is the lack of a goal-scoring striker in good form. The quality of the other attacking players has managed to overcome this problem admirably till now. However, the team which keeps so much of possession and control of the match are prone to be wasteful in front of goal and sometimes, it hurts them, like against Switzerland in the World Cup 2010 opening match and against England in a friendly recently. They will definitely qualify and should easily reach the later stages of the tournament. However, with the expectant fans who have become used to success, nothing less than the trophy will count. The first match against the resurgent Italian team will possibly be the toughest test in the group stages.

Head to Head

Team

Played Won Drawn Lost GF GA

GD

Italy 25 7 10 8 25 29 -4
Croatia 4 2 1 1 5 4 +1
Ireland 24 13 7 4 48 18 +30

  Italy

Resume: Champions 1968. Runners up-2000. Semi- Finals-1980 and 1988

Road to the finals: Qualifying Group I Winner. P-10 W-8 D-2 L-0 GF-20 GA-2 GD-+18

The Azzuri have traditionally not performed well in the Euro championships compared to their World Cup exploits. Their current manager, Cesare Prandelli had been appointed before World Cup 2010 as a successor to Marcello Lippi. The disastrous performance in the tournament meant that Prandelli inherited a team with very low morale and was subjected to widespread criticism from the media and fans. However, one must remember that after the ignominious exit at the 1966 World Cup, Italy managed to bounce back and win the Euro Championships in 1968. If the current Italian team manages to repeat that feat, it will not be a major surprise at least to us at Goalden Times. Qualification was relatively easy, helped by rioting opposition fans at Genoa who disrupted the match against Serbia after six minutes. Italy was awarded the match 3-0. Prandelli favours a 4-3-1-2 formation. In goal they have the team captain and one of the all time greats, Gianluigi Buffon of Juventus. Morgan De Sanctis of Napoli is an experienced substitute for Buffon. The centre of defence will be marshalled by the Juventus duo of Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli. Domenico Criscito of Zenit FC and Andrea Ranocchia of Inter are the substitute players in these positions. In the right-back position, Christian Maggio of Napoli is the first choice. Ignazio Abate of Milan and Mattia Cassani of Fiorentina are able replacements. The first choice left-back is Federico Balzaretti of Palermo. Angelo Ogbonna of Torino has been used in left-back along with Chiellini and Criscito. Ogbonna can play in the centre of defence as well.

In the mid-field, Andrea Pirlo of Juventus will play as the regista. Claudio Marchisio of Juventus or Antonio Nocerino of AC Milan will play on the left and Daniele De Rossi or Thiago Motta of Paris Saint-Germain on the right. Alberto Aquilani of AC Milan and Riccardo Montolivo of Fiorentina will be vying to play in the hole behind the strikers. Prandelli has rotated players in this position by using all three and sometimes Montolivo as a substitute on the right. The unfortunate illness of Antonio Cassano of Milan has possibly robbed the team of its best forward. There are reports which suggest that he may be getting back to full fitness. Giampaolo Pazzini of Inter, Alessandro Matri of Juventus, Sebastian Giovinco of Parma and Fabio Borini of Roma have all been tried. Giovinco, who is in terrific form, is perhaps the favourite to start in the absence of Cassano. Mario Balotelli of Manchester City is the favourite to partner Cassano or Giovinco. Although Prandelli has mentioned in recent interviews that Balotelli’s off-field antics weigh heavily against his selection.

Italians are notoriously slow starters in major international tournaments. They come into their own in the knock-out rounds and latter stages of the tournaments. This time they have to be careful as the first match is against Spain and is going to be possibly their toughest test. Croatia is one of the few national teams to have a positive record against Italy and have beaten them in the finals of the World Cup in 2002. The Irish are no pushovers either and in their coach, Giovanni Trapattoni they have someone who possibly knows more about the Italian players and tactics than anybody. Ireland recently defeated Italy 2-0 under the guidance of Trapattoni in a neutral venue. Italians generally have a very good defence. The nucleus of the defence is from Juventus, who are still unbeaten in Serie A this season.  The problem is Italian teams tend to get defensive after taking the lead, which has hurt them in the past. All said, the Italians are the masters of gaining positive results and should qualify for the knock-out stages. They are a good bet to go all the way if they make it to the latter stages of the tournament.

Head to Head

Team

Played Won Drawn Lost GF GA

GD

Spain 25 8 10 7 29 25 +4
Croatia 5 1 1 3 7 7 0
Ireland 11 7 2 2 18 9 +9

 Croatia

Resume: Quarter- Finals-1996 and 2008

Road to the finals: Qualifying Group F Runners up. P-10 W-7 D-1 L-2 GF-18 GA-7 GD-+11

Playoff vs Turkey 3-0 aggregate (3-0,0-0)

Croatia is a relatively new team which was formed after the break-up of Yugoslavia. With Serbia, the Croatians have the best record after the break-up of the country. The Croatian team is managed by Slaven Bilić, one of the members of the golden generation of players which took the country to a third position in the World Cup in 1998. Bilić, who has been in charge since 2006, prefers using the 4-4-2 formation.  Stipe Pletikosa of Rostov FC is a very experienced goalkeeper. Danijel Subašić of Monaco is the second choice. The central defence has the experienced Josip Šimunić of Dinamo Zagreb and Gordon Schildenfeld of Eintracht Frankfurt. Vedran Ćorluka of Bayer Leverkusen is the first choice left-back. Danijel Pranjić of Bayern Munich is an able replacement and can play in the midfield as well. Domagoj Vida of Dinamo is likely to be the right-back. Vida has looked solid in his eight appearances for the national side. He has also allowed the national captain, Darijo Srna of Shakter Donetsk to play in the right wing where he has been a revelation in place of his normal right-back position. Ćorluka can also fill in at the right-back position, if required.

Bilić has a lot of choices in the midfield.  Ivan Rakitić of Sevilla and the highly rated Luka Modrić of Tottenham Hotspur will play on the left side. Both the players can play wide and in the left-central midfield position, if required.  Pranjić will be the substitute, if necessary.  The national captain Srna will start as right winger based on his recent exploits. Niko Kranjčar of Tottenham Hotspur and Ognjen Vukojević of Dynamo Kyiv will compete for the right-central mid-fielder position.  Mario Mandžukić of VfL Wolfsburg is the main striker. Ivica Olić of Bayern Munich, Eduardo of Shakter Donetsk and Nikica Jelavić of Everton will all be vying to start with him.

Croatia is a team which plays with a lot of pressing and counter-attacking style of play. They accede possession to the opponents and try to press them with the mid-fielders and forwards working very hard. The problem is this may not work with teams like Spain and Italy who are very comfortable in possession. Croatians are lucky that they are facing the Irish in the first match. If they manage to qualify from this group, it will be a huge success.

Head to Head

Team

Played Won Drawn Lost GF GA

GD

Spain 4 1 1 2 4 5 -1
Italy 5 3 1 1 7 7 0
Ireland 6 1 3 2 5 7 -2

  Republic of Ireland (Ireland)

Resume: Group Stage 1988.

Road to the finals: Qualifying Group B Runners up. P-10 W-6 D-3 L-1 GF-15 GA-7 GD-+8

Playoff vs Estonia 5-1 aggregate (4-0,1-1)

The Republic of Ireland or Ireland team was unlucky to miss out on qualification to the World Cup in 2010 eliminated by France in the play-off due to an impromptu game of handball by Thierry Henry which resulted in a goal. Ireland is managed by Giovanni Trapattoni (Il Trap), one of the most experienced and successful coaches in the game. Trapattoni has generally used the 4-4-1-1 formation for the Irish team. However recently he has been favouring the 4-4-2 formation. In goal, Ireland has one of the most experienced players of the English Premiership in Shay Given of Aston Villa.  Kieran Westwood of Sunderland is the second choice. Richard Dunne of Aston Villa was outstanding for the Irish in their Euro qualification match against Russia and is the first choice centre-back with Sean St-Ledger of Leicester City. Darren O’Dea of Leeds United and Shane Duffy of Everton are the main replacements. Stephen Ward of Wolverhampton Wanderers and Stephen Kelly of Fulham are both vying for the right-back position. John O’Shea of Sunderland is the first choice left-back. Kelly has played at left-back too.

The mid-field has a lot of experience with Keith Andrews of West Bromwich Albion and Glen Whelan of Stoke City in the central positions. Damien Duff of Fulham is the left winger and Aiden McGeady of Spartak Moscow is the first choice right winger. Stephen Hunt of Wolverhampton is an able substitute and can play in both wings. Seamus Coleman of Everton, the Irish Messi has been in good form and should push for a starting berth.  There are some good youngsters like James McCarthy of Wigan and James McClean of Sunderland in the reserves. The forward line is marshalled by the experienced Robbie Keane of Los Angeles Galaxy who plays in the hole behind the striker in case of a 4-4-1-1 formation. The lone striker is usually Kevin Doyle of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Doyle and Keane play as two strikers in the 4-4-2 formation. The team has the West Brom duo of Shane Long and Simon Cox in reserve. Jonathan Walters of Stoke City and Anthony Stokes of Celtic have also been used by Trapattoni.

The Irish will give a good and robust account of themselves in all matches. They have a disadvantage in that they lack quality players to really trouble the better teams. The problems with Trapattoni’s tactics and team selections are manifold. Their first match against Croatia will be crucial as it will set the tone for the tougher tests against Spain and Italy to follow.  It will be a very difficult task for them to qualify out of this group. However, one can never discount ‘the luck of the Irish’.

Head to Head

Team

Played Won Drawn Lost GF GA

GD

Spain 24 4 7 13 18 48 -30
Italy 11 2 2 7 9 18 -9
Croatia 6 2 3 2 7 5 +2

Final Verdict:

The final verdict has four categories of teams: 1) Sure-shot, which means that the team is the favourite to progress from the group. 2) Likely is the team that is not the total favourite but is the second favourite to qualify. 3) Dark Horse is a team which can reach the quarter-finals but has to overcome similar teams or favourites to do so. 4) Upset means that the team reaching the quarter-finals will be a major surprise. In groups there maybe more than a single team in each category.

Sure-shot: Spain

Likely:  Italy

Dark Horse: Croatia

Upset: Republic of Ireland