Euro 2012 Preview: Group C, the Group of Debt

Group C has taken on the moniker of the Group of Debt due to its members being affected by the economic downturn and effects of harsh austerity measures on their populations.  With the economy in turmoil, it is no wonder that so many in these countries have turned their attention to football as an escape from political rallies, riots, and the harsh realities of everyday life.  With added pressure of having the hopes of their downtrodden nations, these teams will be eager to achieve glory in Poland/Ukraine.


Croatia:

Croatia comes into Euro 2012 as heavy underdogs.  They will be playing in a difficult group in their manager Slaven Bilic’s final tournament with the squad before leaving to join Lokomotiv Moscow.  Bilic’s decade of stewardship has seen qualification for three consecutive European Championships, and they will be fortunate to repeat their 5th place performance from 2008.  Bilic views the underdog label as something that can galvanize his squad and looks forward to the challenge of playing the defending World Cup and Euro champions, Spain. 


Bilic’s squad boasts a number of experienced veterans to go along with attacking creativity and efficiency.  Captain Darijo Srna is likely to feature in a right midfield role rather than his traditional right back role with Shakhtar Donetsk.  Srna is equally capable at both positions, with the ability to move up the flank in counter attacking opportunities and composed enough to direct attacks in the opposing half.  Srna claims that the squad will be able to play up to their opponent’s high standards, but the squad has not played a top ranked team in the past 12 months.

Croatia will likely field a 4-4-2 for the matches against Italy and Spain, but is also capable of sending out a 4-5-1, employing Everton’s Nikica Jelavic up front as the lone striker.  The 4-5-1 formation allows the Croatian midfield to play a more expansive passing game while Jelavic’s deft finishing makes him a threat anywhere in the opposing half. In a 4-4-2, Jelavic will be paired either with Bayern’s Ivica Olic or Eduardo. 


The midfield is led by creative genius Luka Modric, whose expansive passing and vision has created problems for top European defenders for several years now.  Modric is joined in the midfield by his Tottenham teammate Niko Kranjcar to go along with winger Mario Mandzukic.  Defense must be considered the weakest area of the team, with long-serving top choice defender Josip Simunic lacking the pace to keep up with speedy Italian and Spanish attackers.  Domagoj Vida is a young defender capable of playing in either the right or center back role, and could garner attention from top clubs with good performances in the tournament.

Croatia’s opening match against Ireland could very well be the squad’s only opportunity for a victory at Euro 2012, but if the squad is capable of playing up their underdog moniker could cause problems for Italy and Spain.  Qualification for the knockout stages is an unreasonable expectation, but the Croatians will certainly not back down from the challenge.

Squad:
Goalkeepers: Stipe Pletikosa (FC Rostov), Ivan Kelava (Dinamo Zagreb), Danijel Subasic (AS Monaco)
Defenders: Jurica Bulijat (Maccabi Haifa), Vedran Corluka (Tottenham Hotspur), Danijel Pranjic (Bayern Munchen), Gordon Schidenfeld (Eintracht Frankfurt), Josip Simunic (Dinamo Zagreb), Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Ivan Strinic (Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk), Domagoj Vida (Dinamo Zagreb)
Midfielders: Milan Badelj (Dinamo Zagreb), Tomislav Dujmovic (Dinamo Moskva), Ivo Ilicevic (Hamburger SV), Niko Kranjcar (Tottenham Hotspur), Luka Modric (Tottenham Hotspur), Ivan Perisic (Borussia Dortmund), Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla), Ognjen Vukojevic (Dynamo Kyiv)
Forwards: Eduardo (Shakhtar Donetsk), Nikica Jelavic (Everton), Mario Mandzukic (Wolfsburg), Ivica Olic (Wolfsburg)

Italy:

Italy has undergone a transformation under the leadership of manager Cesare Prandelli.  Rather than stick to the traditional Italian tactic of a rigid defensive back line, Prandelli has introduced a possession oriented style in the same vein as Group C members Spain.  The new style of play has works thus far, with Italy finishing at the top of their qualifying group undefeated, and enjoying more possession in the qualifying campaign than any other squad but the Spaniards. 

Prandelli’s preferred 4-3-2-1 formation, gives them the defensive security necessary with Thiago Motta and Daniele Di Rossi playing in holding roles that allow the legendary Andrea Pirlo to play his inventive string pulling role.  Claudio Marchisio can also be employed in a holding role, while Antonio Nocerino offers a dangerous playmaking skill set that can be paired with Pirlo.


The Italian squad is captained by their goalkeeper, national treasure Gianluigi Buffon.  Buffon is coming off a title winning Serie A campaign with Juventus and he brings along a trio of Juventus defenders (Barzagli, Bonucci, and Chiellini) that aim to keep the Italian keeper’s sure hands from being tested.  The formidable defense that conceded only two goals in their qualifying campaign features two newer additions to the squad with left back Balzaretti and right back Abate.  It will be up to these new additions to fill the gaps left by legends Fabio Cannavarro and Alessandro Nesta.


If there is a weak area of this Italian squad it would have to be their forwards.  With Antonio Cassano’s fitness coming into question, Prandelli may have to deploy all-action Super Mario Balotelli.  Balotelli has caused controversy already for Euro 2012 after saying he would walk off the pitch if he came under racist abuse from fans.  Despite his penchant for mischievous behavior, Balotelli is one of the most exciting young players at the tournament and will have his first chance to prove his worth to the Italian fans at major tournament next week.  The veteran Antonio Di Natale provides a more experienced option of front should the Italian side require his influence on a match.

Italy has a difficult first match against Spain, but after that should be able to handle both Ireland and Croatia to reach the knockout stages.  Once there, their solid back line and the safe hands of Buffon will be difficult for any opposition to break down.  I expect a run into the late stages of the tournament, provided the squad remains as disciplined and opportunistic as they were in qualifying.

Squad:
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Morgan De Sanctis (Napoli), Salvatore Sirigu (Paris Saint-Germain)
Defenders: Ignazio Abate (AC Milan), Federico Balzaretti (Palermo), Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Christian Maggio (Napoli), Angelo Ogbonna (Torino)
Midfielders: Daniele De Rossi (AS Roma), Alessandro Diamante (Bologna), Emanuele Giaccherini (Juventus), Claudio Marchisio (Juventus), Riccardo Montolivo (Fiorentina), Thiago Motta (Paris Saint-Germain), Antionio Nocerino (AC Milan), Andrea Pirlo (Juventus)
Forwards: Mario Balotelli (Manchester City), Fabio Borini (AS Roma), Antonio Cassano (AC Milan), Antonio Di Natale (Udinese), Sebastian Giovinco (Parma)

Republic of Ireland:

Former Italy manager Giovanni Trapattoni and the Ireland squad have recovered well after being cheated out of a World Cup 2010 birth after Thierry Henry’s notorious handball.  Their qualifying campaign concluded with a 5-1 win on aggregate over Estonia, making it their first qualification for a major tournament since the 2002 World Cup.  Trapattoni has endeared himself to the Irish fans by producing results with his rigid tactics, and his press conferences in broken English are simply delightful.

Trapattoni’s rigid 4-4-2 has been instituted since his first match as Ireland manager, and it is a familiar sight to any fans following Trap.  The inflexibility allows each player to know their expected role in the squad and their defensive tactics will be no surprise to opposition.  Ireland will look to keep a clean sheet in every match, demanding top performances from goalkeeper Shay Given and his defense. 


That defense will be without Wolves defender Kevin Foley, who was passed up in favor of the more versatile Paul McShane.  Richard Dunne and John O’Shea will be the two main centerbacks in Trapattoni’s formation, with Darren O’Dea at left back and Fulham’s Stephen Kelly on the right.  The defensive line will be well drilled and prepared for anything Spain and Italy can throw at them, but it will be a question of how long the Irish can withstand the assault from the football giants.

The Irish midfield is lacking a creative influence, with the central midfield roles being held by Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews.  Darron Gibson and James McClean were at the center of controversial declarations to play for Republic of Ireland, despite being born in Derry (Northern Ireland).  McClean, a winger, was given a spot in the squad after an impressive Premier League campaign for Sunderland. 


Captain Robbie Keane will lead from his role as striker, he has been an inspiration, scoring seven goals during Ireland’s qualifying efforts.  Kevin Doyle serves as the target man in the Irish attack, while the crafty Aiden McGeady will join in the attack from the left side.  Shane Long can provide pace in the attack, which is something Ireland lacks overall.

If they are able to produce a win against Croatia and the defense remains solid against Spain and Italy, Ireland will still have a lot of work to do to qualify for the quarter finals.  Three losses are the predicted results for the Irish squad, and any results they earn will be a credit to the management of Trapattoni and the determination and grit of the Irish players.

Squad:
Goalkeepers: Shay Given (Aston Villa), Kieran Westwood (Sunderland), David Forde (Millwall)
Defenders: John O’Shea (Sunderland), Richard Dunne (Aston Villa), Stephen Ward (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Sean St. Ledger (Leicester City), Darren O’Dea (Celtic), Stephen Kelly (Fulham), Paul McShane (Hull City)
Midfielders: Glenn Whelan (Stoke City), Keith Andrews (West Bromwich Albion), Aiden McGeady (Spartak Moskva), Darron Gibson (Everton), Paul Green (unattached), Damien Duff (Fulham), Stephen Hunt (Wolverhampton Wanderers), James McClean (Sunderland)
Forwards: Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), Kevin Doyle (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Shane Long (West Bromwich Albion), Jonathan Walters (Stoke City), Simon Cox (West Bromwich Albion)

Spain:

The reigning World Cup and Euro champions come into Euro 2012 as heavy favorites.  Eight consecutive wins in qualification earned the Spaniards their berth in Euro 2012, and they have conceded only a single goal thus far in 2012.  Vicente del Bosque’s squad is aiming to become the first squad to win three consecutive major tournaments, and they are hoping to perform with style and aplomb that has made the Spaniards the envy of the footballing world.


What is already considered to be a Golden Generation for Spain is led by their keeper Iker Casillas.  At the age of 31, Casillas is one of the most decorated players of this era.  Possessing lighting quick reflexes, on field leadership, and the respect of the entire footballing world, Casillas has rarely turned in a poor performance during his 12 years with the national squad.  It will be up to Casillas to lead the squad that will be missing its other defensive stalwart Carles Puyol.  Puyol will be capably replaced by his Barcelona teammate Gerard Pique, while Raul Albiol or Sergio Ramos will likely be next to him at the other center back position.  A combination of Jordi Alba, Sergio Ramos, and Alvaro Arbeloa will play in the full back roles.


The Spanish midfield has been the envy of the entire world over the last 4 years, led by passing machine Xavi.  Xavi’s inventive, expansive passing game will be joined by Barcelona teammates Cesc Fabregas and Andreas Iniesta.  David Silva’s creative genius will be on display throughout the tournament to join the efficient and effective Xabi Alonso in midfield.  Whether Del Bosque chooses to play a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 will make little difference to their tactics, Spain hopes to pass all of their opponents into submission.

The absence of striker David Villa means that the forward role is one of the few in question for the Spanish squad.  Fernando Torres has struggled to regain form for Chelsea, while his teammate Juan Mata has excelled in the Premier League.  If neither of them is able to perform, Barcelona’s Pedro offers another attacking option, but Del Bosque may prefer the precise finishing of Fernando Llorente or Alvaro Negredo.  
With so many attacking options, this is surely only a perceived weakness for the Spanish squad.

With so much talent and experience at their disposal, Spain is the tournament favorite for a reason.  Expect the Spaniards and their expert passing displays to easily progress through the group stages.  They could run into some trouble against squads that decide to park the bus, but with all their quality it would take a tremendous performance to oust the defending champions.

Squad:
Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), Victor Valdes (Barcelona), Pepe Reina (Liverpool)
Defenders: Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Jordi Alba (Valencia), Alvaro Arbeloa (Real Madrid), Raul Albiol (Real Madrid), Juanfran (Athletico Madrid), Javi Martinez (Athletic Club)
Midfielders: Xavi Hernandez (Barcelona), Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid), David Silva (Manchester City), Santi Cazorla (Malaga), Jesus Navas (Sevilla), Cesc Fabregas (Barcelona), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona)
Forwards: Fernando Llorente (Athletic Club), Juan Mata (Chelsea), Fernando Torres (Chelsea), Pedro Rodriguez (Barcelona), Alvaro Negredo (Sevilla)

Predictions:

While Croatia and Ireland have been eager to embrace their status as underdogs, it is unlikely that either will emerge from this group.  Italy and Spain simply have too much quality for the significantly less talented squads and the opening matchup between the European rivals should be a joy to watch.

Back tomorrow with the final installment, Group D.