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Ireland Euro 2012: Can the Greens upset the odds in Group C?

6 June 2012 by

A wily old manager. A controversially defensive style of play. A questionable exclusion. And a group that seems almost impossible to escape from. Ireland and England have never had so much in common.

But there is one key difference. Whilst England are looking down, and substantially revising their expectations, Ireland are looking up with a wave of new found optimism sweeping through the Republic. Trapattoni has his men organised, fit, fresh and ready to go. The Italian’s decision to name his starting XI for all three group matches last week was an intriguing one. It is the man’s wild card, in the sense that it might deter other nations, making them over think tactically when facing Ireland. Conversely, the “Trap” could spring a surprise and chance his starting line up, thus rendering the oppositions tactics all but useless. The Spanish, Italians and Croats may anticipate this, but what if Trapattoni sticks to the original line up? It complicates things and has turned the managerial mind games into a game of cat and mouse, whoever blinks first and falters loses out.

A 0-0 draw with Hungary on Monday might not have been the perfect result, but the simple fact of the matter is this. Ireland have played two friends, and claimed two clean sheets. If they can replicate such defensive achievements in the coming weeks, they may well upset the odds. A wise man once said that if you don’t concede you can’t lose. And with Keane and Doyle upfront, Ireland may well be able to nick victories at the expense of some of Europe’s best. It might not be attractive, it may not be a style of football worthy of the World Champions, but who cares? At the end of the day, if Ireland are successful than memories of unattractive football will be forgotten in at most two years, and memories of glory will live in the hearts and minds of the Irish faithful for all eternity.

However, can this style of football work amongst an extremely strong group. Logic states that the Irish will eventually be broken down by the best attackers in World football. But with a huge amount of heart and soul, sprinkled with chinks in their rivals armor; why not?

Croatia

World ranking: 8th

Odds to win: 50/1

Ireland’s first game on Sunday night could prove the most important, even if Croatia are their “easiest” opposition (which isn’t saying too much bearing in mind the relative strength of Spain and Italy). As the Republic have two extremely difficult fixtures following this match, they will surely need to win if they are too qualify?

Manager:

Slaven Bilic. The man has done a superb job of picking his side up from the darkness, achieving qualification to Euro 2008 at the expense of England. Just like Trapattoni he has united the squad with a familiar style of play, contrasting to the Italian however in terms of his age, Bilic is a young and relatively fresh face on the scene. With the managerial merry go round turning again, this man’s name may well be linked to many Premier League positions.

Key player:

Luka Modric, unquestionably. The Croat’s form has been one of the highlights of Tottenham Hotspur’s twisty turny season, and Europe’s top suitors will be looking at his form in this tournament. A creative player, capable of finding the key to any lock, who could undo Ireland’s hard work defensively. However, he has the weight of a nation on his shoulders, as Croatia’s loyal following will be expecting a lot more after there success last season.

Style of play:

Very attacking indeed, which is partly due to a weak defense. The games of late against England prove this, the 3 lions have had 3-2 defeats and 5-1 wins against Bilic’s side. They tend to pour forward with pace, a potentially risky strategy, but should it bring about success will also give the men in blue three points. Ireland will need to be at their defensive best to gain anything, but their previous shows that they are fully capable at claiming clean sheets against such nations.

Weakness:

Defense: Croatia’s attacking flair is liable to leaving them open at the back, particularly following the retirements of the Kovac brother’s and Dejan Lovren’s injury. Spur’s fans will know Vedran Corluka well, a good defender but one that can be prone to error under pressure. If Ireland are willing to take the risk, they could unlock the door and reap the rewards against this maligned defensive unit.

Olic injury: Whilst Lovren is a big loss, one could speculate that the biggest loss of all for Slaven Bilic was Ivica Olic, who withdrew from the tournament last week. Their most potent striker, the ex-Bayern Munich man is accostomed to leading the line for his side, whilst Ivica Jelavic will have to make a huge step up in order to compensate, although his Everton form suggests he is perfectly capable of doing so

Verdict:

Ireland need a win; and I think they will get it. On paper Croatia seem stronger, but there squad has been ravaged with injuries and seems fairly makeshift. Ireland on the other hand have more or less known their starting line up for the Euro’s since qualifying. They will come under pressure, but I feel the boys in green will be able to hold out and hit this Croatia side on the counter attack. It won’t be easy, but nor was their qualification to this stage.

Italy

World ranking: 12th

Odds to win: 14/1

Ireland’s game against them is likely to be an emotional affair with Giovanni Trapattoni coming up against his homeland for the first time, and the team that he used to manage, although his tenure in Italy was largely unsuccessful. Both teams will need to get something here, Italy are likely to have just lost to Spain and Ireland will have Spain coming up next, so this may well prove to be their last chance to gain points.

Manager:

Cesar Prandelli; the man charged with fixing Italy’s problems following the embarrassment that was the 2010 World Cup. The man has a history of managing in his homeland. The only blotch on his CV would be his sacking as Lecce manager, with the 5 years he spent Fiorentina yielding Champions League qualification. Prandelli has only been in the national job for 2 years, and this will prove to be his first experience of an international tournament, and as such this tournament may be nothing more than a learning curve for both the manager and the players.

Key player:

There are so many to choose from in this talented squad, but I have to go with Mario Balotelli. He may not be the best player in the team but due to injuries from Villereal’s Guiseppe Rossi and AC Milan’s Antonio Cassano, the enigmatic Manchester City striker will lead the line. This is very much a case of fall or fly for the young man. On the one hand, his relaxed attitude coupled with determination to win may help him overcome the pressure that over players suffer from. On the other hand, this is surely the perfect opportunity for Super Mario to make himself the center of attention, for all the wrong reasons.

Style of play:

 Mostly defensive due to Italy’s strength in this position. Chiellini, Bonnuci and Buffon all form the heart of an Italian defense that is incredibly difficult to break down. They play as one would expect from an Italian team, well organised and looking to steal a goal with their strength up front. From day one Pradelli has tried play with a 4-3-3 formation, but has only been able to do so on a handful of occasions. For this tournament he may well have to revert to a 4-3-1-2 formation with Balotelli and Cassano spearheading his attack. Even now though there are question marks, with injury inflicting untold damage on the defense, in terms of quantity as opposed to quality of players, Prandelli may have to play three at the back and flood the midfield.

Weaknesses:

On the pitch, one wonders whether putting the emphasis on defense is the right thing to do, and whether Italy’s more creative players will be willing to drop deeper.

Cassano and Balotelli up front must also be a worry. Cassano has done superbly to recover from a stroke to play in the tournament, but is often prone to a needless red card. Balotelli meanwhile could ruin the calm spirit amognst the Italian players and take away their unity.

Off the pitch, the match fixing scandal could prove to be a massive distraction. Cristico has already flown home, and the way the case is going there may well be more. The scandal casts a shadow over Italy’s tournament, and even their participation in it has come under question, from both the Prime Minister and the Manager himself. People may well point to the combination of scandal and success in 2006 as evidence for Italy to overcome such issues, but in 2006 the issues was resolved by the time the tournament started. Now, there are still lingering doubts over the scale of the fixing and Prandelli may yet lose more players as the tournament goes on.

Verdict:

Italy have been undone in the 2010 World Cup and the previous Championships by a slow start and a lack of unity. If they get off to a slow start here, then they will be going home early, no question. Making a prediction on this game involves an awful lot of guesswork, who knows how the match fixing scandal will have materialized and how Mario Balotelli’s inclusion will affect the team? On paper Italy should be beating Ireland, but as we know the boys in green have a hell of a lot of heart, and the similar styles of play could simply neutralize each other. I’m going for an ambitious draw here, Ireland have a better attitude amognst the squad, less injuries and more organisation whilst Italy have a better team. I suspect that, should Ireland beat Croatia, they will want it more than an Italian side looking ahead to 2014, and fearful of the scandal that could ruin Serie A in the long term.

Spain

World Ranking: 1st

Odds to win: 11/4 (Favorites) 

What can you say about Spain? They are simply the best team in the planet, and some might say the best international team of all time. Playing Spain is a different prospect to playing other World Champions through history. Like the famous Brazil side through the 70s and 80s, there is an heir of invincibility Spain with their sensational talent and distinct method of playing.

 

Manager:

Vicente Del Bosque, who has lead one of the most bizarre career paths possible. In 1999 he was named manager of Real Madrid, after being a key part of their coaching establishment for years. He lead the club to their most successful period, winning 2 European Cups in a 4 year period. Stunningly, Real Madrid allowed him to leave in 2003, despite years of hard service to the club and almost unparreled success. Going through Beskitas on the way, Del Bosque now finds himself in charge of the World’s best, claiming the World Cup in 2010. He is known for his calm and collected style of management, as well as his patience when coping with big name players.

Key player:

You could pick any of Spain’s starting XI as a key player to the side. However, Xavi holds the honor, a sensation midfielder who is an embodiment of Spain’s pass and move style of play. Like a fine wine the Barca man has improved with age, and is now the most experienced player in the squad, and probably the most mature. It will be his job to keep Spain rolling along when under pressure, both on and off the pitch.

 

Style of play:

Pass, pass, pass, pass. The matadors have an unmatched style in terms of their passing style, moving the ball slowly throughout the pitch and rushing to win it back on the rare occassions that they lose it. Typically they play with a 4-3-3 formation, with two wide men and three in the center of the midfield, but a key part of the system is the way in which the members of the team drift from place to place seamlessly. How teams deal with this is crucial, they have to make sure they are not sucked into sticking to attackers dropping deep, opening up space for others. Blink, and Spain will kill you going forward.

Weaknesses:

Hard to find, granted, but this is undoubtedly a weaker Spain team than the XI that claimed the World Cup two years ago, and perhaps even weaker than those who claimed the Championship in 2008.

Although they are capable of passing their way out of trouble, Pique and Ramos, who now has moved infield into a central position, can be prone to pushing too high up the field, which could allow Keane and Doyle to use the Irish long ball system to the full.

Question marks also lie other Fernando Torres, who continues to lead the line. Will we see the Torres who claimed the European Championships as top scorer in 2008? Or the often absent, sulky Torres who failed both to perform and stay fit in South Africa?

Verdict:

Without meaning to sound defeatist towards the other teams in this group, Ireland included, Spain will surely qualify top of the group. If Spain are too be beaten, then it will not be in the group stages, and it will not be inflicted be Ireland. Anything is possible of course, this is what makes the game beautiful, but Spain do have the most talented squad in the group, and as such should overcome Ireland, however hard they defend. They did slip up in their first game in 2010, against the Suisse, but if anything that unified the team and woke them up to claim the World Cup. Should Spain need to beat Ireland in the last game of the group to secure top spot, then so be it, they are just too strong and always seem to find a way out when under pressure, particularly in competitive circumstances.

Predicted table:

Position  Team  Points  GD  Wins  Draws  Defeats

1st                  Spain    9              +6    3           0              0

2nd                Italy      4              +1     1           1               1

3rd                 Ire.        4               0       1           1              1

4th                 Crotia  0               -5      0          0             0

Although tough to predict, 1st and 4th are pretty crystal clear for me, even though you can never know for certain in football. I have put a gap of just one goal between Ireland and Italy, purely because teh gap between them seems so small, given Italy’s off pitch issues and Ireland’s unity on it. In the end it will all come down the game between Ireland and Italy in my opinion which is so difficult to predict, but because they have more experience at major tournaments, I’ve stuck with Italy to scrape through.

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