Spain is still the team to beat. The defending Euro and World Cup champions have their Barcelona core intact and will once again treat the world to their metronomic passing. They won in South Africa with the fewest goals scored in World Cup history. Seven to be exact. That is because as Jonathan Wilson pointed out ball possession can be seen as a form of exalted defense. The midfield still have Xavi and Iniesta, the torchbearers adding more invention with Cesc Fabregas coming into his own after his Barca return. David Silva, such a delightful presence in the City offense ready to scam the opposition with his trickery. Juan Mata out on the wings will pose problems with his delivery and set pieces.
El Rioja will be without Carles Puyol which is almost unthinkable but yes, players get old and injured. The heart of defense looks a bit shaky with Raul Albiol as an unfamiliar partner to Gerard Pique who has had his problems with form and focus. The wingbacks are talented but green, however, Vincent Del Bosque is convinced that Juanfran Torres and Jordi Alba are ready to kick it up a notch. The excellent Santi Cazorla has also made his comeback after so much injury. There are of course additional buffers in Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets, so the back four are not left completely exposed.
Chelsea’s stonewalling tactics of Barca which proved successful point to a similar template for Spain’s rivals in the group. The rope a dope can be exhausting and a breakdown in intensity and concentration can lead to fruitful counterattacks as Chelsea were able to do. Which is why Spain need to show ability to score more. Four years ago we saw Fernando Torres blister Philipp Lahm for Spain’s winning goal but he comes back with all sorts of questions. Del Bosque can turn to Llorente, the other Fernando who has been in great form for Athletic Bilbao.
Italy has been beset with another match fixing scandal that continues to unravel and burgeon beyond its borders. Domenico Criscito lost his place on the Azzurri for taking money to produce favourable results for Lazio. Andrea Barzagli is out of the group stages with a calf strain. Even Gianluigi Buffon is being investigated in illegal sporting bets. Cesare Prandelli was ready to pull out and Mario Monti, the Italian PM, said it would be fitting if Italy abstained from any competition while they cleaned house. Four years ago, they also conceded their edge to Spain, losing in the Euro 2008 semi-final, 2-4 on penalty shootout.
With all the distractions off the pitch yet again tarnishing the “beautiful game” (quotation marks need to be put around this term permanently), the Italians can turn to their team for redemption. Think again. We have a house of cards here with Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, two volatile personalities who have the propensity to both embarrass and delight. Balotelli has already caused a sensation saying he’ll kill any fan who engages in racial abuse and Michel Platini firing back putting him on notice. The veteran midfield led by Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi, will be called on to steady the ship. The psychological edge will be provided by Thiago Motta who can get inside anyone’s head. Inter lost a gem when PSG stole him away.
Italy’s problems could benefit Croatia who have Slaven Bilic as coach. The always colourful Bilic is an absolute slave driver who can get the best out of any team. The Croatians have lots of talent. Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic, and Darijo Srna are the creative cogs. Srna is a master blaster of set pieces with Modric only a shade behind. Then there is Nikica Jelavic who has been on fire ever since his Everton transfer. Bilic is expecting Jelavic to deliver and if his present form is any indication, Croatia should not have problems scoring goals. Eduardo will be followed by Arsenal fans for sentimental reasons. The defense is very experienced with Josip Simunic leading with 95 caps. Goalie Stipe Pletikosa has 91 caps but that is not a patch on Shay Given’s 121 appearances for the ROI.
The Aston Villa goalie also has a booming long ball which should see Roy Keane, Shane Long, Kevin Doyle or Simon Cox trying to take advantage off to go behind the lines. Giovanni Trappatoni has his work cut out but he does have some patches of brilliance in this hard working Irish team with Damien Duff providing instances of cutting edge for Fulham. There is Man Utd reject Darron Gibson who can smash the ball from long distance and Stephen Hunt who can sweat a small country motoring up and down incessantly. But if the Irish can get out of this group it will be nothing short of a miracle.
Advance to round two: Spain, Croatia
Players to watch for: Fernando Torres, Jordi Alba, Cesc Fabregas, David Silva, Nikica Jelavic, Eduardo, Luka Modric, Milan Badelj, Mario Balotelli, Antonio Cassano, Claudio Marchisio, Leonardo Bonucci, Thiago Motta, Shane Long, Darron Gibson, James McClean.
Goalkeepers: Stipe Pletikosa (FC Rostov), Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Ivan Kelava (Dinamo Zagreb)
Defenders: Vedran Corluka (Tottenham), Josip Simunic (Dinamo Zagreb), Ivan Strinic (Dnipro), Gordon Schildenfeld (Eintracht Frankfurt), Domagoj Vida (Dinamo Zagreb), Jurica Buljat (Maccabi Haifa)
Midfielders: Danijel Pranjic (Bayern Munich), Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Ognjen Vukojevic (Dynamo Kiev), Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla), Tomislav Dujmovic (Zaragoza), Luka Modric (Tottenham), Milan Badelj (Dinamo Zagreb), Niko Kranjcar (Tottenham), Ivan Perisic (Borussia Dortmund), Ivo Ilicevic (Hamburg)
Forwards: Mario Mandzukic (Wolfsburg), Eduardo Da Silva (Shakhtar Donetsk), Nikica Jelavic (Everton), Nikola Kalinic (Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk)
Coach: Slaven Bilic
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Morgan De Sanctis (Napoli), Salvatore Sirigu (Paris St Germain)
Defenders: Ignazio Abate (AC Milan), Federico Balzaretti (Palermo), Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Christian Maggio (Napoli), Angelo Ogbonna (Torino)
Midfielders: Daniele De Rossi (Roma), Diamanti (Bologna), Emanuele Giaccherini (Juventus), Claudio Marchisio (Juventus), Riccardo Montolivo (Fiorentina), Thiago Motta (Paris St Germain), Antonio Nocerino (AC Milan), Andrea Pirlo (Juventus)
Forwards: Mario Balotelli (Manchester City), Fabio Borini (Roma), Antonio Cassano (Milan), Antonio Di Natale (Udinese), Sebastian Giovinco (Parma)
Coach: Cesare Prandelli
Republic of Ireland
Goalkeepers: Shay Given (Aston Villa), Keiren Westwood (Sunderland), David Forde (Millwall).
Defenders: John O’Shea (Sunderland), Richard Dunne (Aston Villa), Stephen Ward (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Sean St Ledger (Leicester City), Darren O’Dea (Celtic), Stephen Kelly (Fulham), Paul McShane (Hull City)
Midfielders: Glenn Whelan (Stoke City), Keith Andrews (West Bromwich Albion), Aiden McGeady (Spartak Moscow), Darron Gibson (Everton), Paul Green (unattached), Damien Duff (Fulham), Stephen Hunt (Wolverhampton Wanderers), James McClean (Sunderland)
Forwards: Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), Kevin Doyle (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Shane Long (West Bromwich Albion), Jonathan Walters (Stoke City), Simon Cox (West Bromwich Albion)
Coach: Giovanni Trappatoni
Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), Pepe Reina, (Liverpool), Victor Valdes (Barcelona)
Defenders: Alvaro Arbeloa (Real Madrid), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Juanfran (Atletico Madrid), Jordi Alba (Valencia), Raul Albiol (Real Madrid), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Javi Martinez (Athletic Bilbao)
Midfielders: Xavi (Barcelona), Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid), David Silva (Manchester City), Santi Cazorla (Malaga), Cesc Fabregas (Barcelona), Juan Mata (Chelsea)
Forwards: Jesus Navas (Sevilla), Pedro (Barcelona), Fernando Llorente (Athletic Bilbao), Fernando Torres (Chelsea), Alvaro Negredo (Sevilla)
Coach: Vincent Del Bosque