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


 

Il Trap and the Irish Question

The Irish are finally through to a big tournament. But the faithful are not really convinced. Eoghan McMonagle explains why. You may reach him on @eoghanmcmonagle

Il Trap

So Ireland (in FIFA speak, the Republic of Ireland) have qualified for a major international football tournament for the first time since the 2002 World Cup and the European Championships for the first time since 1988. Happy days are here! We are not a nation so blessed with footballing success that we can take qualification for granted or not appreciate it when it does happen. Appreciate it we do and happy we are; but some of us could be happier. The cause of this dissatisfaction is twofold: the first surrounds the tactics of the manager, the legendary Giovanni Trapattoni, and the second is the lack of opportunity being afforded to young footballers to break into the Irish squad. Both of these issues have been ignored to a certain extent as qualification was secured but they need to be addressed if the Irish are to compete, both in the immediate term, in this summer’s championship and in the future.

To those outside Ireland and indeed, to many followers of the team within the country, it may seem churlish in the extreme, to question Il Trap. He is, after all, one of the most successful football managers of all time with numerous title wins in Italy, Germany, Portugal and Austria as well as in every major European club trophy. His record at Juventus in particular was phenomenal with six Serie A titles, a European Cup, a UEFA Cup and a Cup Winners Cup (among other trophies) in two spells between 1976 and 1994. That is impressive, to say the very least. He has brought success to the Irish national team – we were only denied qualification for the 2010 World Cup by France in a play-off (including “that” incident with Thierry Henry) and have now reached the finals of the European Championships in Poland/Ukraine. So why question his methods or doubt his tactics? From my point of view, it is only because I believe this Ireland team actually has more to offer than Trapattoni has so far gotten out of them.

A case in point came in the aforementioned 2010 World Cup play-off tie against France. The first leg at Croke Park was won by France, courtesy of a Nicolas Anelka goal but the abiding memory I have of that game is the insipid Irish performance – the team was stifled by Trapattoni’s ultra-conservative tactics and fear of losing. They showed a complete lack of ambition which ultimately let France take the win. The second leg in the Stade de France was completely different – the Irish team played with intensity, passion and no little skill and their efforts on the night probably merited a victory.

The story in Ireland at the time was that it was the players themselves who had decided to abandon the conservative tactics of the manager and really go out to try and win the game. It is obviously impossible to say for certain if this was the case but even if it was not and Il Trap himself had engineered the display, it is all the more frustrating that they did not go out and play like that in the first leg; for had they done so it may have rendered Henry’s intervention irrelevant. Given France’s subsequent display at the World Cup, where they went out in the first round having failed to win a game, highlighted the great chance that Ireland let slip.

However, play-off games are always difficult to make definitive judgements on – the increased pressure and high stakes make it difficult to play anything even approaching expansive football, and Ireland’s record in play-offs even before Trapattoni’s reign was not good (defeats to Holland, Belgium and Turkey with a solitary win over Iran). So Trapattoni and Ireland had the chance to improve during the qualification campaign for Euro 2012. Those chances appeared to be good. Ireland had a pretty favourable qualification group containing Russia, Slovakia, Armenia, Macedonia and Andorra. Certainly against the lower seeded teams in the group, the chance to play to win, rather than just avoid defeat, was there. The criticism of Il Trap is that rarely, if ever, during qualification, did Ireland play anything approaching the good football that they can. Let me clarify something – I am under no illusions that Ireland have the capacity to play football like Spain but neither are we so limited that we should be content with narrow, controversial wins over teams like Armenia (FIFA ranked 44 against 19th ranked Irish) at home.

Luck, rather than any particular good play on Ireland’s part secured the win that night and luck had another huge impact when we secured a point in Russia. Only heroic performances from centre-back Richard Dunne and goalkeeper Shay Given, as well as some profligate Russian finishing prevented a heavy defeat. While every team needs a certain amount of good fortune from time to time, it cannot ever be the only thing to be relied upon. Certainly Il Trap has brought luck to the Irish side but this can’t go on forever – eventually we will have to rely on what we can do ourselves as a team. This will be brought into sharp focus by our group at the Euro 2012 championships this summer.

Ireland will have to face the World and European Champions Spain, Italy and Croatia. This would be a tough group for any team but it will be particularly difficult for Ireland if they continue to play as they have been playing under Trapattoni so far. Ireland, as they are now, do not hold onto the ball well enough and do not create enough chances to trouble any of these three teams. Though Ireland will be difficult to beat, as they are well organised and work hard, but this is not enough at the top level of international football. For example, it is certain that Spain will have over 60% of the possession against Ireland no matter how the boys in green play, but if we do not hold on to the ball and try and construct some chances and put the Spanish under pressure, then this could be as high as 75% – if that is the case, Ireland could be destroyed.

One theory is that Ireland doesn’t have the players to play possession-based football – it certainly appears at times that Il Trap believes this. I do not. While our current midfield of Keith Andrews, Glenn Whelan, Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady lacks a world class player in the manner of Roy Keane, they are all experienced international footballers who are capable of passing a football – they just need to be encouraged to do so. It is not enough to continually hit long balls towards Kevin Doyle – certainly this is a tactic that can be used on occasions but it cannot be our only plan. It is too one-dimensional and too easy for top-class international defences to cope with. Our own defenders should also be encouraged to try and pick out a decent pass rather than just hitting hopeful 50 yard punts which 9 times out of 10 will only gift possession back to the opposition. Against teams with the quality that Croatia, Italy and especially Spain possess, this can and will prove fatal to Ireland’s chances.

The players Trapattoni actually picks for the European Championships will also be important but ultimately I fear it will be disappointing. I mean this in the sense that it now appears highly unlikely that Seamus Coleman, James McClean or James McCarthy will make the final squad, let alone the team. These are all young players who play regularly for their clubs in the English Premier League. Coleman was nominated for FA Young Player of the Year during the 2010/11 season and McClean has been one of the finds of the current season in England.

James McClean & Seamus Coleman are finds of the season
Trapattoni has regularly said that these players are “too young” – he is clearly unfamiliar with the maxim, “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough”. Selecting the likes of Coleman, McClean and McCarthy for the Euro 2012 squad would not be a foolish gamble like Sven Goran Eriksson taking a 17-year-old Theo Walcott to the 2006 World Cup – rather it would be an intelligent and progressive move which would add a new, and much needed, dimension to the Irish set-up. All three are extremely talented and given Ireland do not have anything like the resources of larger nations in terms of players, their exclusion is incomprehensible. A charitable interpretation of Il Trap’s behaviour in this regard is that he is showing loyalty to the players who got Ireland to the finals. Another view would suggest that he is acting in a stubborn and slightly arrogant fashion and will not be seen to “back down” by selecting these young players in the face of growing calls from certain sections of the fans and the media. It is likely to be a combination of both – but ultimately his decision could hamper Ireland’s chances of achieving anything this summer in Poland and the Ukraine.