Croatia kick off their European campaign against the Republic of Ireland on Sunday in Poznań, Poland, before facing Italy in the same city on the 14th of June, they then wrap up their group proceedings against giants Spain in Gdańsk on the 18th of June. They’ll be hoping to grab two wins, which would more or less guarantee their continuation at the tournament, but where can they hope to get these six points? Will they be able to reverse previous face-offs against Ireland and gain a crucial win against their old enemies, do they have enough to pile more pressure on Italian football by securing a victory against the once great footballing nation, or will they upset all the pundits, pull of the shock of the tournament, and upset world champions Spain?
Croatia vs. Republic of Ireland
The Irish team has been written off by many, as it is only their second appearance in the prestigious European tournament, however I believe this is unfair, and if Italy perform as they did in the last world cup it could be Ireland that grab the second qualifying from Group C. They have quality players throughout the park, with O’Shea and Dunne in defence, protecting Given, who has been given the all clear to face Croatia. In the middle of the park they boast the likes of Duff, McGeady and Sunderland’s James McClean, who put in some impressive performances for his club towards the end of the season. Up front they have a wealth of talent, with the ever reliable Robbie Keane captaining the team, who could be paired with either Kevin Doyle or Shane Long both of which have had decent seasons with Premiership rivals Wolves and West Brom respectively.
The fact that Croatia have only beaten Republic of Ireland once in six times of trying does weigh heavy in the air, and when Slaven Bilić went to scout out his opening opponents in their final warm up game against Hungary last week the Irish fans were keen to tell him ‘you’ll never beat the Irish.’ They may have drawn that game 0-0 and spent most of the game on the backfoot but the Republic of Ireland squad will go into the competition with confidence as they haven’t lost in 14 matches. I think the game may come down to the battle in the middle of the park as that’s where I think both teams are strongest, and comparing the teams I think Croatia do have the stronger side, and that creative spark that I have mentioned in previous posts might just be too much for Ireland to handle, however I do think they will make it hard for Croatia and both teams believe they have a chance to qualify from the group, and the coaches will be key to express to their sides that this could be the key game in the battle for second. All in all I believe Croatia will have more of the play, but Republic Ireland will stand strong and I can see the teams sharing the spoils in Poznań.
Croatia vs. Italy
As crucial as the match up with the Republic of Ireland will be in the race for second a lot also lies in the game against Italy in Poznań on the 14th. Italy are one of the most successful teams in the world, and it was only back in 2006 that the country celebrated being crowned world champions. Since then however Italy have seemed to struggle to make the transition from old to young, and ultimately it was this, along with the early loss of Buffon, that doomed them to suffer embarrassment at the last world cup, being dumped out without a win. A lot in group C falls down to whether Italy perform like this again or whether they can rediscover their winning streak, which has eluded them in their warm up games as they were run ragged by Russia, who beat them 3-0 at the beginning of June. Once again the Italian national game is being dogged by corruption claims and there are two members of the Italian squad at the Euros who are involved with the corruption scandal, defenders Domenico Criscito and Leonardo Bonucci, and Criscito has been pulled from the squad due to the match fixing allegations, which has seen 17 people, including 11 players arrested. It is important to note however that the last bout of Italian corruption on a national level come out as they prepared for the 2006 world cup, which they went on to win, which does suggest that the players will be able to put the investigation of many of their clubs behind them when they step out together at the championships.
Now despite their failures at the last international tournament and the controversy over the national game Italy’s squad reminds us that you can never ignore them as a footballing force. They have typically strong centre backs in Chilleni and Barzagli who will be strong in the air, they will give the Croatian forwards a tough time, and even if Jelavić or Mandzukić manage to work their way past the back four they will have to beat one of the best goalkeepers of our time, Gionluigi Buffon. The midfield is strong,and viewers can expect to see the likes of De Rossi, Pirlo and Montolivo bossing the midfield for Italy, and this strong three man midfield may make it difficult for Croatia to get going. Up front they have one of the most controversial men in football, Mario Balotelli, love him or hate him he is a talent that can not be ignored, his impressive scoring record for Premiership champions Man City will have cemented his place in the starting line up, however it remains to be seen how he will react to the tough crowds in Poland and Ukraine, which if the Holland training ground incident is anything to go on, will act in a disgraceful manner and threaten to ruin the tournament. Alongside Balotelli we may see Antonio Cassano, who is a capable striker and a cool finisher. All in all the Italy game is probably the hardest to call in the group, as it is just impossible to say what sort of Italy team is going to turn up, all pre tournament signs point to them performing below expectations once again, however it is impossible to write of a giant like Italy, and if they pick up their game and perform to the level the are capable of they could kill off the hopes of the smaller nations of Croatia and Ireland. Personally I don’t believe Italy will reach the levels that have come to be expected of them, and I can see Croatia grabbing all three points against the giants of Italy.
Croatia vs. Spain
Undoubtedly Croatia face their toughest test against world champions Spain. Spanish football has dominated the world game since their success at the 2008 European Championships, as sides in the national game stepped up after the success of the national team on an international level. Barcelona has been hailed time and again as the best side in the world, and they were beaten to the La Liga title this year by Real Madrid, which has maintained its title as international powerhouse for many decades now. The style of play that has become synonymous with Spanish football, quick short passing and playing the possession game will once again set Europe alight, and I can see them defending their title, this being said holders do normally find it difficult in major competitions, and the weight of expectation will be hanging strongly over the Spanish players.
In terms of the squad Spain are missing two massive players in Puyol and Villa, the former has been Mr. reliable for so long now, being a rock at the back whilst being able to get forward at set pieces and cause problems for the opposing back four, however I would say he is the easiest to replace, as they will probably draft Sergio Ramos into the middle to partner Piqué and then they have a number of options to fill Ramos’ spot at full back, all high in quality. In terms of replacements for Villa things are a little more difficult. Fernando Torres has had a torrid time since his big money move to Chelsea, some might claim he came good towards the end of the season, however his form this year doesn’t suggest he’s ready to lead the line of the best footballing nation in the world. This leaves Fernando Llorente as the most viable option to replace Villa, and the striker has been on fine form for Athletico Bilbao, seeing his side to two finals last season, the Europa League and the Copa Del Rey. Now the problem with Llorente is his style of play, the big 6ft 5″ striker likes crosses to come into the box, and a lot of his goals this season has come from balls in from the flanks, finishing with his head, and Spain just don’t play that sort of football, and it will be interesting to see if he is able to cope with short balls to his feet. These factors do not overtly sleight against the chances of the world champions enough to look past them as favourites, and it would be a big surprise if they didn’t get the win against Croatia.
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