Editor’s Note: This is the third in soccer correspondent Seung Y. Lee’s four-part preview of the Euros. Today he previews Group C: Spain, Italy, Ireland and Croatia. Click here for Seung’s previews of Group A and Group B.
Italy, Ireland, and Croatia all have something to get off their chests coming into the Euros. Italy wants to erase the bad memories of falling out of the group stages in the 2010 World Cup despite playing in the easiest group in the entire tournament. Ireland wants revenge for missing out on South Africa, as their hopes were handed away to the French. Croatia wants to forget its unforgettable 2008 Euro quarterfinal loss to Turkey — a game Croatians thought they had won in the 119th minute, only to concede the tying goal in the 120th minute and lose in penalties.
Spain, meanwhile, doesn’t have anything to worry about in the group stage. Winners of the 2008 Euros and the 2010 World Cup, Spain hasn’t had this much hardware since conquering the Inca Empire in 1532. But with key injuries to Carlos Puyol and David Villa, Spain will have to try much harder than before to continue its dominance in world football.
Best Game: Spain vs Croatia, June 18th
This should be a heck of a battle in the midfield. While Spain sports the best midfield corps in the world, Croatia has the tools to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in this David vs. Goliath duel. Luka Modric, Croatia’s playmaking jewel, is as good a midfielder as Spain’s Xavi Hernandez or Andres Iniesta on a good day.
Since possession football emphasizes patience and ball rotation, both squads will probably spend all 90 minutes hovering around the opponent’s penalty box for that one dagger pass to slice the defense open. This game will likely end 0-0 or 1-0.
Odds are against Spain to win the 2012 Euros. No team in history has ever won three consecutive Euros and World Cups. France from 1998 to 2002 and West Germany from 1972 to 1976 all fell short in accomplishing the Triple Crown of international football.
Despite what the statistics (and their terribly small sample size) say, Spain is still the popular favorite to win the Euros. Most of the Spanish starting 11 are considered the best in the world at their respective positions. No European team, including title contenders Germany and Netherlands, has the well-rounded mix of experience and starpower of Spain.
Spain’s Best Player: Xaviniesta
Whether playing for Barcelona or for the Spanish national team, Xavi and Iniesta are inseparable and nearly indistinguishable from each other. (Both players stand at 5’7”.) The players have developed telepathy after playing together for a decade, knowing where their other half is at all times. This Catalonian connection is the most crucial puzzle in understanding the simultaneous dynasties in Barcelona and in Spain over the past four years.
When examined closely, Xavi and Iniesta do have some significant differences. Xavi is the midfield general, the heart that keeps the ball — the blood of the game, — flowing in all directions. His repertoire is ridiculously simple but nonetheless mesmerizing.
While Xavi is limited to playing only the attacking midfielder role, Iniesta is the versatile Renaissance footballer, the brain that connects all the dots on the field together. While Xavi receives the acclaim for his distribution of the ball, it is Iniesta that steps up in the most important times for both club and country.
With the brain and heart working in perfect harmony, how can Spain possibly lose?
Keep an Eye On: Fernando Llorente
With striker David Villa out of the tournament with a broken tibia and Fernando Torres still unable to awake from his two-year slump, Llorente will likely get the lone striker position for Spain. One of the most underrated forwards in all of football, Llorente has been a prolific scorer for his hometown team, Athletic Bilbao.
Despite being 6’5″, Llorente is exceptional at controlling and dribbling the ball for a man his size. Playing in an offense that emphasizes quick passing and retention of the ball, Llorente also provides an aerial threat in corner kicks and set pieces, a trait Spain has sorely lacked the past few years.
Odds of Survival: 100 percent. If Spain is eliminated in the group stages, then the apocalypse is truly upon us.
Italian football is at a crossroads right now. Since winning the World Cup in 2006, the Italians have slid down a precipitous slope that forecasts a gloomy future. Most of the heroes from 2006 have retired, but no young stars of equivalent talent have filled in their big shoes. With the talent pool in Italy drying up fast and another match-fixing scandal ravaging the peninsula in recent weeks, one has to wonder if Italian football is done for now.
Italy will have to fight with an up-and-coming Croatian squad and a dark horse Irish team for second place. While second place is a real likelihood for Italy, there’s an even higher probability that the Azzurri will crash out early like they did in the 2008 Euros and the 2010 World Cup.
Italy’s Best Player: Andrea Pirlo
Andrea Pirlo is the world’s greatest one-trick pony. At the age of 33, Pirlo is slow, short, and a huge defensive liability in the middle of the pitch. But when the ball is at his feet, there is no one in the world — even Xaviniesta — that can distribute the ball like Pirlo. Short or long, high or low, Pirlo will always deliver the ball to his target with perfect accuracy on any given day.
The importance of Pirlo can’t be understated. His absence in the 2010 World Cup was near fatal to Italy’s defense of its title, which culminated in a humiliating first round exit. With Pirlo captaining the ship this time, Italy should be more at ease.
Keep an Eye On: Mario Balotelli
While I can write a whole column of Balotelli’s history of crazy antics, (actually, the Daily Cal’s got that covered already) I’m here to focus on Balotelli as a forward for the Italian national team. Without regular starting striker Giuseppe Rossi, Balotelli will likely start up top alongside 34-year-old Antonio di Natale. Unlike the cunning veteran, Balotelli is still raw and unproven, far from the “genius” he believes himself to be.
His inexperience on the international team is secondary to his short-fused temper on the field. If Balotelli loses his cool and receives a red card, it will be a crushing blow to the Italian squad. Opposing defenders will do their best to crawl under Balotelli’s skin.
Odds of Survival: 35 percent. If Pirlo and the defense bring their A game to Poland, the Azzuri might have a chance to advance.
In its first major international tournament in a decade, Ireland is the darling of Euro 2012. After missing South Africa because of Thierry Henry’s scandalous “Hand of Frogs,” Ireland received worldwide sympathy. The injustice was Ireland’s motivational fuel in its run to the 2012 Euros. Now with a veteran-heavy squad (the oldest team in the tournament), many are predicting the Irish to make a surprise run to the semifinals.
Veterans from the 2002 World Cup constitute the backbone of the Irish starting eleven. But the true strength of the Irish doesn’t come from its veteran starpower. Under the guidance of manager Giovanni Trapattoni, Ireland found success in playing team football and developing a locker room camaderie stronger than other any team in the Euros.
Teamwork, trust, motivation. Aren’t those the ingredients for a Cinderella story?
Ireland’s Best Player: Richard Dunne
Dunne is by far the most valuable player for Ireland. Dunne is a business-first defender that does all the dirty work for the Irish. Built like an ox, the defender is a mean tackling machine who plays football like it’s rugby. Every top football team needs an ironman to succeed, and Ireland has an excellent one in Dunne.
Keep an Eye On: Aiden McGeady
On a good day, McGeady is up there with Cristiano Ronaldo in terms of flashiness and an ability to snake past defenders. The crafty winger has a bag of tricks hidden under his boots, including one that is called “The McGeady Spin.” But he is as mercurial as he is dazzling. It’s really a crapshoot whether or not the good McGeady will show up for the tournament. It’s possible that Trapattoni will bench McGeady for the more stable and hardworking James McClean.
Odds of Survival: 25 percent. I love Robbie Keane, the jolly Irish fans, and the underdog factor of the Boys in Green. But I can only wish Ireland the best of luck.
Of the dozens of new European countries formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Croatia has been by far the most talented footballing nation. While Croatia has not recreated tournament success since its 1998 World Cup semifinal run, the squad best known for its white and red checkered shirts is by far the best team in the Balkans.
For a country with only 4.3 million people, Croatia has a bounty of talented players available off the bench. Its midfielders are severely underrated, and forwards like Nikica Jelavic and Mario Manduzkic will likely turn some heads. Since most of its players play in Eastern Europe, a region unfamiliar to most American football fans, Croatia can open some eyes for many fans following the Euros for the first time.
Croatia’s Best Player: Luka Modric
As a Tottenham supporter, I’ve watched many magical Modric moments over the past three years.
Modric’s game is very much similar to Xavi’s, as Modric is always looking for a way to create space for himself and his teammates. Modric is much more versatile than Xavi, but he thrives when playing the deep-lying playmaker role similar to Pirlo. Unlike Pirlo, Modric is quick and mobile enough to dribble past defenders when in trouble.
Considering that he is much younger than Xavi and Pirlo, respectively, Modric might be the best passing midfielder in the world right now.
Keep an Eye On: Darijo Srna
Darijo Srna is the best player that nobody knows about. A big reason why is that he has never played in a Western European country — only Croatia and Ukraine. Despite being wooed by Chelsea and Bayern Munich, Srna chose to stay with his current club, Shakhtar Donetsk, the club with which he will most likely retire.
Most likely utilized as a right winger in the Euros, Srna will wear down opposing wingbacks with his high work rate and seemingly endless stamina.
Odds of Survival: 40 percent. The deep midfield gives Croatia an edge over Italy in a group chock full of world-class midfielders.
Check back tomorrow for a preview of Group D: Ukraine, Sweden, France and England.
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