We are at the halfway stage of our initial previews of the groups and teams taking part in the 2012 European Championships, and the moment has arrived to talk about the holders of the trophy. That’s the Spanish team led by Vicente del Bosque and part of Group C which also has another history making team, Italy plus two teams who are thought of as outsiders who could upset the forecasts: Ireland led by Giovanni Trapattoni and Slaven Bilic’s Croatia . Different styles, different approaches to the game, several options…but with the same objective: to book their ticket to the next stage and have an eye on the final.
The Spanish team start as clear favourites on merit. Apart from the fact that they won the trophy last time out, the team was then managed by Luis Aragones and did their job against Germany and the unforgettable goal by Fernando Torres was the icing on a cake baked with skill and commitment throughout the competition, and they are now at the peak of their potential. The success enjoyed was followed by the World Cup in South Africa but with Vicente del Bosque on the bench. If these weren’t enough credentials, they had a great qualification phase, with 8 wins and they haven’t lost a competitive match since the unexpected defeat by Switzerland in the early stages of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Spain usually play with a 1-4-3-3 system, and if there are no problems, they will keep this idea in the first match against Italy. The movements of players like Xabi Alonso and Xavi Hernandez mean they will be able to play with two centre midfield at times in the game. It’s an option they can always use because basically the tendency of both players, especially Alonso, is to come deep to receive the ball when Spain are developing play from the back, opening up the centre backs and dropping even more with Sergio Busquets.
In defence, Gerard Pique says he has a good understanding with Sergio Ramos of Madrid, both of whom look as if they will be the starters, and Jordi Alba has shown he is a constant threat for the opposition in attack with his overlaps in to the space left by Andres Iniesta when he comes inside which he does well. David Silva can do exactly the same on the other side, allowing Alvaro Arbeloa to get forward and look to play penetrating passes to Fernando Torres who looks to be the favoured option to start the competition as the striker for the Spanish side.
With any one of a number of players, and in the Spanish squad there are several who can play in any position, their game plan, the strategy will nearly always be the same. A lot of possession and an almost perfect combination play to keep control of the game until they choose the right moment to find the gaps and hurt the opposition. As the opposition know what they will do, that is precisely where the danger will come from. They will look to get behind the high Spanish defence to get a direct attack on goal.
And one final point about Spain to reinforce their potential. There are two talented players missing, David Villa and Carlos Puyol, two very important injuries, and their positions will be filled by quality players who will want to show they are capable of covering these two iconic players.
The Italian squad was another team who firmly guaranteed their passport to these finals. They didn’t lose a single match of their fixtures in qualifying stage and only had a couple of draws which didn’t affect their progress to Poland and the Ukraine. Their defence, unsurprisingly when talking about Italy, was the most miserly in their group conceding only two goals in their ten games.
Cesare Prandelli’s side plays with a very Italian shape based on 1-4-3-1-2 (although it wouldn’t be strange to see 1-3-5-2 after their last minute injuries) which maintains a good balance between all the lines and good organisation tactically: it gives good defensive solidity and transition to attack and central build up. A significant part of this will be the presence of players like Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Riccardo Montolivo and/or Claudio Marchisio. Compact lines with a good work rate are the other two characteristics of the Italians. A side which, it goes without saying, attack more easily when they have space up front and rely on the chance to get the ball back and come out with players from the second line.
Andrea Barzagli’s problems could mean they end up using 1-3-5-2 with De Rossi as a centre back and Thiago Motta in midfield, a crowded midfield, for the Italians.
In any case, what seems to be an indication of how they will play is that Andrea Pirlo is a key piece in the project, the player through which they will build their attacks. One detail, Giorgio Chiellini, the centre back from Juventus in Turin, has told anyone who is willing to listen that their team ‘is not about waiting so we won’t be staying back all the time’. In case Barzagli can’t play, the coach will almost certainly call up Davide Astori from Cagliari to cover.
With Prandelli, the team will try to play more football and it may be that he is forced to play three at the back through injury and take a risk. 1v1 situations against strikers with pace like, say, Fernando Torres or the ability of Andres Iniesta and/or David Silva could be extremely dangerous for them. On the other hand, Italy would be stronger than Spain in the middle with more players and they could stifle Del Bosque’s players in that zone so they are not so exposed in these situations of 1v1 in decisive areas.
For the first time since Germany in 1988, Ireland are in the finals of the Euros. That was their first and only appearance until they play here against Croatia, and they didn’t get past the group stage, which confirmed their expectations. This time they would be happy to spring a surprise and go further.
The veteran, Giovanni Trapattoni’s side usually has a plan A, with a classic 1-4-4-2 formation and at times a plan B which changes to a 1-4-2-3-1. Their main plan is to defend deep with intensity. It is a team with a good work rate, organisation and philosophy, with more physical than technical attributes. In their repertoire on offer, their counter attacks stand out and also their efficiency in the box with the few chances they get. They maintain a good attitude on the pitch and above all a good intensity in all their play. This is despite their limitations on a technico-tactical level.
It’s clear that amongst their good players you have to mention Robbie Keane, John O’Shea, Damien Duff, the goalie Shay Given (we will see how fit he is in the finals) and especially Aiden McGeady who is a player who can unbalance defences in the wide areas and a very important part of their attacks together with the opportunism of Robbie Keane.
Another aspect which stands out in this squad is the absolute faith in the coach, Trapattoni. They will have less possession of the ball although they will defend with a lot of spirit and sacrifice. They know that one of their strengths will be at set plays, so they work hard preparing matches. In Ireland people know that the game against Croatia will be the key to their progress and keeping the dream alive. Especially if Spain and Italy draw.
In any case, the achievement of being in the finals has been reality for a while and now anything more will be an added bonus. And under no pressure they could achieve great things from the position of underdog.
With a notable inconsistency in their recent International matches, they were quarter finalists in 1996 and 2008 but were not in Euro 2000 nor in the World Cup in South Africa (2010) after coming third in France (1998), Croatia can also play to their strengths without pressure.
Usually they play with a system based on 1-4-4-2 and have qualities in organisation, work rate and a good response in important, decisive parts of games. The Croatia team, led by Slaven Bilic relies on players with a lot of ability and talent as individuals, players who can impose a good tempo on the game and have a strong mentality. They have had some really good performances, remarkably good, with others more inconsistent. Sometimes they lose positions tactically and this ends up with an unexpected result.
Several players stand out at the moment in the Croatian squad, the ones that spring to mind are Luka Modric, the goalie Stipe Pletikosa, Darijo Srna, Ivan Rakitic or Vedran Corluka. We cannot include, although he would normally be included if it wasn’t for his unfortunate injury, Ivica Olic who will not be there. We also have to put in to the injury chapter names such as Ivo Ilicevic who has been replaced by Sime Vrsaljko and Corluka who pulled out of training and will have to see how he recovers before making a decision.
Although in Group C they will have to fight Ireland for the chance to spring a surprise and Spain and Italy get an unexpected shock, the Croatians are ready for anything. Having said that, they know, as Ireland do, that the first match, against each other is absolutely crucial for them both to progress in the competition. They know Spain are good but they have faith that in one game out of ten they can win and it could be in this competition. They also know that the Spanish and the Italians are better overall but they do not fear playing the way they can with the players they have. If it is their day, players like Modric can change a game even in the finals. Yes, there strikers haven’t been scoring many goals but towards the end of a demanding league like the Premier Nikica Jelavic has scored a few and he could be important at a key moment.
As is the norm, we are left with the excitement of waiting for the ball to start rolling in Group C and we can start to draw conclusions based more on what’s actually happened in Euro 2012 which has already started with passion, intensity and a certain dose of uncertainty.