Group C preview written by TSG Serie A expert (but does he know about Bunga Bunga parties?) Eric Giardini
In Group C, which consists of Spain, Italy, Croatia, and Ireland, we have the last two World Cup champions (Italy in 2006, Spain in 2010) and the defending European Champion (Spain 2008). So we can go ahead and place Spain and Italy in the quarterfinals, right? Well, perhaps not.
Brace yourself; there are a lot of interesting dynamics going on in this group. First let’s look at Spain. Unsurprisingly, the Real Madrid and Barcelona contingents are not getting along. This may prove to be a huge problem considering 12 of the 23 members of the squad play for either club (7 for Barcelona, 5 for Real Madrid), and these tensions were recently highlighted when Spanish manager Vicente Del Bosque spoke of issues between Barcelona’s Gerard Pique and Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos. He then quickly downplayed the issues and stated if they couldn’t get along they’ll be dropped and “they are young kids with their differences, but we have no problems.” If that wasn’t bad enough, this week Xavi brought up, for the third time this year, how Barcelona isn’t respected by Real Madrid. He specifically noted how when the capital club won La Liga this season, the Barcelona players all congratulated them and this was not the case when Barcelona won the title. I find these comments shocking coming just days before Spain is to kick off their title defense against the Italians. Along with potential internal strife, Spain will be without captain Carles Puyol and David Villa who are both out with injury.
It would not be an international tournament without a major Italian controversy. Well, this summer there are two we get to sit back and watch unfold. First, there is a match-fixing scandal investigation that led authorities to conduct a raid at the Italian National Team’s headquarters where the squad was in the midst of its pre-tournament preparation. One player, who was going to most likely be Italy’s starting left back, Domenico Criscito, was even dismissed from the squad for his alleged involvement. The situation is so bad that the Italian Prime Minister suggested Serie A take a “two to three year” hiatus to clean up. Gianluigi Buffon and Daniele De Rossi have both come on in recent days to say that this scandal is far worse than the one that Italy was embroiled in 2006. As you may recall, Italy was in the midst of a different match-fixing scandal in 2006 and the team rallied together to win the World Cup in Germany. Not to be outdone with match-fixing, another controversy has reared its ugly head in recent weeks and sadly it doesn’t affect just the Italians. A few high-profile stories have come out regarding the racism seen in Eastern Europe, in particular Poland and Ukraine. These stories include England players not having their families join them for fear of abuse and former England defender Sol Campbell urging fans not to make the trip or they may “come back in coffins.” Sticking closer to Group C, the Italian squad has threatened to walk off the field if either Mario Balotelli or Angelo Ogbonna, its two players of African descent, are subjected to taunts or abuse. I sincerely hope that we don’t see any of this during the tournament.
Ireland is making only its second Euro appearance with its only other trip to the Championships in 1988. This qualification comes on the back of disappointingly not making the 2010 World Cup so full credit should go to Giovanni Trapattoni for keeping the group together and successfully navigating through qualification. The major concern for the Irish is wondering where the goals will come from. If Robbie Keane isn’t scoring, their other forward options aren’t really striking fear in the hearts of the opposition’s defense. On the other end of the field, the Irish were given a boost with Shay Given being given the go ahead to start in goal. Overall, though, it could be a short stay in Poland for the Irish.
The “dark horse” of this group has to be the Croatians. Led by their part-time lawyer and part-time rocker manager Slavan Bilić, Croatia may be poised to crash the knockout stages at the expense of Spain or Italy. Last month, Bilić confirmed that he was leaving his post as national team manager and will take charge at Lokomotiv Moscow. In his tenure as manager with Croatia, he has lost just six matches in six years and his players will want to continue this trend and send Bilić out on a high note. Although Croatia loses Ivica Olić out through injury after tearing his hamstring in a friendly against Norway, there is good news in that Luka Modrić and Vedan Ćorluka should be fit and ready to play in Croatia’s opener against Ireland.
Player to Keep an Eye On
This may be seen as a giant homer pick (and I’ll admit that it is a bit), but the player whose team has the most riding on his play is Mario Balotelli. If you think Roberto Mancini has put a lot of faith in Mario, that’s nothing compared to the faith that Cesare Prandelli has put into Mario. He has repeatedly made public his feelings on Mario and recently stated he believes Mario “100%” when Balotelli made comments that he will not leave his teammates down a man by being sent off. This tournament is also, according to Prandelli, “an extraordinary occasion for him…It is a time for him to be written about for what he does on the pitch and not what he has done off of it.”
Nobody can deny that the talent is there and he has the ability to score goals, which could be an issue for a squad that doesn’t have players with much experience scoring at the international level. By seemingly backing Balotelli unconditionally, Prandelli opens himself up to criticism. What happens if Mario gets sent off? Or if he loses his cool from taunts from the crowd? Or misses a sitter? No one really knows how Mario will behave on this big of a stage, but if he does something to the detriment of the team Prandelli, along with Mario, will take a beating from the Italian media.
Most Interesting Matchup
While Spain vs. Italy will garner most of the attention when play kicks off on June 10, the other match between Croatia and Ireland may very well prove the most crucial in determining who advances. If either Croatia or Ireland can capture all 3 points in Poznań, they would put themselves in the driver’s seat to a quarterfinal date.
To those that think Spain will not advance from this group, stop. Just stop. There is no way Spain doesn’t win this group. They get their stiffest test out of the gates against Italy, but they will be overwhelming favorites in their remaining two matches. In the end, the Real Madrid/Barcelona rivalry will take a backseat for a month, as these players are professionals who should be able to put aside club differences. Who will join Spain? After talking myself into and out of this choice, I am going to go with Italy being the team that joins La Furia Roja in the quarterfinals. However, it won’t be easy. Croatia could very well sneak in if they get a positive result in its opening match with Ireland and Italy stumbles against Spain. Ireland, unfortunately for my Irish friends, will be bringing up the rear in Group C.
Spain is not only my choice to win Group C, but they will become the first team to repeat as European Champions. I think the experience from winning their last two big tournaments (not including the 2009 Confederations Cup) and having a squad full of players used to big matches and intense pressure will ultimately pay dividends. Also, they are just good. Really, really good.