Group C could well have been termed the Group of Death were it not for the arrangement of Group B. But with reigning World and European Champions Spain paired with former World Champions Italy, talented Croatia and gutsy Republic of Ireland, groups don’t come much tougher. Spain and Italy played out a 1-1 draw whilst Croatia comprehensively beat Ireland 3-1.
Here are 5 things we learned today.
1. Spain are not an unstoppable force
Favourites Spain were fairly lacklustre against Italy. Sure, they played nice tiki-taka football at times and are by far the most talented squad on paper, but they suffered Barcelona syndrome of overplaying the ball around in midfield with a lack of real penetration. People compared Spain to Barcelona without Messi, and the lack of a focal point in attack showed. The interchangeable 4-6-0 formation works with Messi as the false nine, but Fabregas isn’t quite the same player and this often left Spain with no one to get on the end of an Andres Iniesta or Xavi Hernandez pass. Torres’ late cameo appearance echoed his fortunes in a Chelsea shirt this season, meaning Del Bosque will surely start Fernando Llorente in their 2nd game against the Irish.
2. Ireland are all-but out of the tournament already
Any team relying on John O’Shea and Keith Andrews is going to struggle at this level, and that certainly was the case for the Irish tonight. They were outclassed by the technically-gifted Croats and things don’t get any easier with games against Spain and Italy to come. The Irish fans should just enjoy the tournament and hope for the best – not getting pummelled in both their remaining games.
3. Croatia could spring a few surprises
I tipped Russia and Croatia to be the dark horses of the tournament, and they have arguably put in the most accomplished attacking displays so far (granted, they have had relatively comfortable games). Like the Russians, Croatia have a wealth of attacking talent and a settled team with both young and experienced players balanced throughout. If they can get a result in either of their remaining games they will likely be heading to the Quarter Finals to face either France or England.
4. Organised Italy are a different team to 2 years ago
Playing an unusual 5-3-2 formation with midfield bulldog Danielle De Rossi in a sweeper role, the Italians were compact and organised on the break and utilised long diagonal balls to Cassano, Balotelli and – in the latter stages – Di Natale in a counter-attacking strategy. If it were not for a bit of Balotelli’s madness, Italy could have won the game today. With central midfield dictated by expert passers Marchisio and Pirlo, the Italians look like a team with a genuine chance of doing well in the tournament. The next game against the Croatians could decide who progresses to the Quarter Finals.
5. Balotelli is still mental
Super Mario displayed his usual mix of brilliance and madness against the Spaniards. Unfortunately, the genius shown by his no-look backheel control to keep the ball in play was overshadowed by his lack of temperament. After earlier repeatedly punching the turf in frustration at a refereeing decision, he later brilliantly beat Ramos to a long ball and closed in on goal. Instead of hammering the ball past Casillas or squaring to Cassano, he seemed intent on eye-balling the Spanish goalkeeper into submission. Ramos’ recovery challenge caught Mario completely by surprise and led to his immediate substitution. Utterly bonkers.
Other brief grievances:
– The British media seem utterly incapable of focusing on a game involving two non-British teams. Instead, we are subjected to continuous England-centric rumour and speculation rather than discussing the tactics or selections of the upcoming fixture. The broadcasters continue to shoehorn England interviews and footage into halftime and post-match analysis instead of daring to dissect the on-pitch action. Even the post-match montage after today’s fixtures was England-France themed. Utterly infuriating.
– Sergio Ramos cut his hair and it looks silly.
– Someone in the crowd of the Croatia-Ireland game managed to buy a referees whistle off eBay and decided to use it randomly throughout the game, often leading me to think that play had stopped. This was immensely annoying.
– ITV’s coverage features the most bizarre choice of background music which sounds – as pointed out by my observant friend Nick – like an extract from Russian children’s composition Peter and the Wolf.
Here’s Group C after the opening round of fixtures.
To the delight of the BBC and ITV, England play France tomorrow and they can finally roll out all that fascinating footage of Gerrard discussing how they’ll “give it everything” and “that they don’t fear anybody”. There’s a relief.
Come on England etc.