If only Greece, and not Croatia, had dropped into this pool.
First of all there’s Spain. Commanders of everything. Reigning Euro champs, World Cup holders, and based around a Golden Generation at Barcelona that some rate as the best club side of all time.
So once more they enter a tournament as favourites. They should walk out of this group without breaking a sweat with their intricate passing and around 80% of possession. But it will be interesting to see how they go once the knock-out phases come around. No side will have undergone more video analysis and scrutiny than Spain; not to mention Barcelona’s travesty of an exit in this year’s Champions League semi final.
Sometimes it’s not so easy being the team everyone wants to beat, and in Ireland and Italy they have opponents at this stage who will know what to do. No side has ever won three consecutive major tournaments; not even Germany.
And they will miss Villa badly.
Italy find themselves in the unusual situation of not being top seeds but in the far more position of entering a big tournament under the cloud of match fixing allegation back home. The last time they did that was in Germany in 2006 and they won that one, but this time they’ve lost a player; not the ideal build-up. And while only so much can be read into pre tournament friendlies they did lose 3-0 to Russia over the weekend.
But once the real stuff starts you would imagine they will be hard to break down, but will probably struggle to score. A lot will rest on Balotelli:- more on him later.
Speaking of sides with good defensive records, welcome in fellow debt strugglers the Republic of Ireland. Ensuring the long ball game makes its presence felt in Eastern Europe.
Forget the fact they now have an Italian coach in Trapattoni; they got to this tournament by playing Jack Charlton football. The midfield won’t be the main feature of this side. Having said that, don’t expect Spain or Italy to have it all their own way. You don’t build up a 14 match unbeaten streak by accident.
Random stat fact: Italy have never beaten the Republic of Ireland in a competitive international
The wild card in this group is Croatia. Likely to be the most genuinely attacking of the sides in this group (Spain are pretty but often over elaborate) the Croats will add unpredictability to proceedings. It’s a shop window for Modric too; for better or for worse. The late withdrawal of Olic is a blow though.
Now back to Balotelli. Take the quiz; well done if you get more than 5/10.