Monday night will see the final games of Group C played out in Gdansk and Poznan, and as it stands no one’s survival in the tournament is guaranteed, Italy, Spain and Croatia can still grab the two qualifying spots. With the head to head rule putting itself ahead of the standard goal difference there has been some confusion of how situations would resolve themselves, and I’ll be honest in saying I was surprised to see Russia below Greece despite having a superior goal difference. Thankfully the BBC have come to the rescue and have attempted to explain the head to heads as simple as possible for Group C:
Spain (v Croatia)
Win – Secures qualification and top spot.
Draw – Secures qualification as overall goal difference better than Croatia’s.
Lose – Out if Italy beat Republic of Ireland.
Croatia (v Spain)
Win – Secures qualification and top spot.
Draw – A 2-2 (or higher-scoring) draw will see them through. If it is 0-0, they are out. If they claim a 1-1 draw, Croatia will only be eliminated if Italy better or equal their 3-1 win over the Republic of Ireland.
Lose – Out if Italy beat Republic of Ireland.
Italy (v Republic of Ireland)
Win – Secures qualification if Spain or Croatia win or is a scoreless draw. If that game is a 1-1 draw, then Italy need to better or equal Croatia’s 3-1 win over Ireland. If they equal it, Italy will go through because they are ranked higher than Croatia by Uefa. However, if Spain and Croatia draw 2-2 or more then Italy are out.
Draw – Out.
Lose – Out.
Republic of Ireland (v Italy)
Still pretty confusing right? All in all it is a simple as this if Croatia win they are through, if they draw or lose their fate is no longer in their hands, it would be up to Ireland to get something against Italy, if they don’t and Italy get all three points, a draw would be enough against Spain but then the results would be compared, so whoever got the bigger result against Ireland or if the draw against Spain has more goals than Italy’s 1-1 then Croatia will go through regardless.
Now that confusing situation has been partly explained, and I apologise if I’ve only confused you more, we must now consider whether Croatia can actually define the odds and get some sort of result against Spain. Croatia have looked good in their two games so far, there is a lot of promise, they were professional and took their chances against Ireland and against Italy they spent most of the second half far the superior team. This is promising stuff, until you consider Spain’s performances in comparison. They were well matched by Italy and that game really could have gone either way, however Spain were still able to produce spells of magic with apparent ease, and Iniesta caused his opponents all sorts of problems and if he can replicate that sort of performance the Croatian side will be in all sorts of trouble. It was against Ireland that Spain reached the levels we are so used to seeing now, the pundits in the ITV studio were overtly critical about the goals from Ireland’s perspective analysing poor defending, and sure maybe there were a couple of cheap goals, Torres’ first for sure, but I disagree and believe the thumping 4-0 win highlights Spain’s critical edge and they proved why they are still many peoples favourites, despite Germany’s good performances so far.
In terms of key match ups across the field there are many battles that may just decide the tide of the game. In terms of up front for Croatia on form due Jelavic and Mandzukic will find it difficult to gain any sort of advantage of Pique and Ramos, who have looked solid thus far. Mandzukic will be hoping to gain aerial advantage over the two centre backs, especially as Spain are missing powerful defender Carlos Puyol for the tournament, the striker has scored 3 goals in two games and will be key to any Croatia efforts to displace the world champions. The second key battle will be the wings and both Croatia and Spain have been seen to utilise the attacking full back role so far in the tournament. For Croatia we can probably expect to see Strinic and Srna at full backs, with Rakitic and Dortmund winger Perisic playing ahead of them in the midfield. In the centre of the park I find myself repeating myself, but Modric really will have to be at his best if he is to find space against Busquets and Alonso, who close down opponents quickly and with determination. Vukojevic will have to defend to the best of his ability, Bilic will probably instruct him to sit in front of the back four for the majority of the game, to challenge the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Silva, who can all find themselves attacking through the middle.
For Spain del Bosque will probably stick with Arbeloa and Jordi Alba at wing backs with in form Silva and Iniesta technically lining up on the wings, however with the free flowing nature of Spain’s midfield anyone could end up playing out wide. These match ups might ultimately decide the chances Croatia have within the game, as Croatia will want to play wide, as the best of the football they have showcased so far in the tournament has come out wide and there goals have mainly come from wide balls into Mandzukic, therefore if Spain are able to contain this threat Croatia might struggle to create chances. Similarly Spain’s full backs have been attacking dangerously so far in the campaign, in the match against Ireland the Irish full backs were caught drifting in to follow the midfielders, who can roam anywhere, which left a lot of room for Arbeloa and Alba to overlap and exploit this space, this is another thing that Croatia will have to be careful of, they can’t chase players as the movement of the Spain side will create massive holes and leave Pletikosa exposed. One definite problem for Croatia is their back four, Corluka and Schildenfeld will undoubtedly struggle against the class and speed Spain play with, and their age and lack of pace will be highlighted by the Spain attack. Fernando Torres may end up being the difference in the game, if he struggles in front of goal like he did against Italy Croatia will be hopeful of a result, however against Ireland we saw the Torres that Liverpool fans were so fond of, alert, agile and most of all clinical in front of goal, if he is able to replicate this in the closing game for Spain Croatia will struggle to contain him.
So can the underdogs beat the favourites? I believe there is an outside chance of Croatia stunning the world champions and grabbing the three points, really you just need to look at Greece beating Russia to see that this tournament is full of surprises. I don’t believe Croatia will have to be as smash and grab as Greece were against the Russians however, if they played as they did in the second half against the Italians, calm, collected and composed then they can do real damage with possession. There are two key points here, one Croatia can not afford to start as slowly as they did against Italy, Spain will punish them a lot more acutely than Italy did, and if they put in another first half performance like that they might find themselves 2 or 3 down at the break. Secondly they must not let the pressure get to them. A lot of teams appear almost wasteful in terms of possession in the face of Spain’s beautifully crafted passing game, however if Croatia are able to break out of this spell and play a bit of keep ball themselves without losing it carelessly as many others seem to do then they will have a chance against Spain. One final point is wastefulness in front of goal, Croatia will have to make sure they take advantage of every set piece they receive and will have to test Casillas from free kicks and corners, as well as making sure they continue their clinical finishing they showed against Ireland in the opener. Ultimately however I do think the Italy and Ireland game will be crucial, and I would not be surprised if Ireland broke their slump and were able to claim something against Italy, as Trapattoni will be desperate to register at least one impressive performance for the Irish fans that have been so supportive despite the bad results, and finishing above the Italians will be a big motivation for the side.
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