Ireland’s hopes will be resting on the shoulders of Robbie Keane. (Photo: Getty Images)
Group C, consisting of Croatia, Republic of Ireland, Italy and Spain, commences today in Poland, and could throw up a few surprises. Spain are the holders, and are hotly tipped by most football fans, while Italy were the last team to win a major tournament aside from the Spanish, finding themselves victorious at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The Republic of Ireland have become resilient under the stewardship of Giovanni Trapattoni, and are rigid enough to keep talented attackers at bay, while Croatia boast the energetic Luka Modric, who has been instrumental in Tottenham’s recent success and will surely be a key player for them this summer.
Spain – Key Players: Xavi, Iniesta – Prediction: 1st
The reigning champions have to be amongst the favourites for this summer’s tournament. With the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Xabi Alonso in their squad, you’d be foolish to write them off. However, this summer they will be missing an important cog in the centre of their defence – Carles Puyol suffered an injury leading up to the championship and isn’t in the squad. His replacement will most likely be Sergio Ramos, who will most likely do a decent job; however Puyol’s influence is priceless and could be sorely missed. They are also without their most prolific goalscorer, David Villa, whose impact in their successful Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup competitions was enormous. They have three very different forwards to choose from, Fernando Llorente, Fernando Torres, and Alvaro Negredo. Torres is expected to get the nod over the Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla strikers, and he really does have something to prove to his doubters. They should be able to cope with the absence of two key players, and would still expect to top the group.
Republic of Ireland – Key Players: Robbie Keane, Shay Given – Prediction: 2nd
The Republic of Ireland are a real banana skin within this group – the other three teams will see themselves as the better side, however with a rigid system in place under Trapattoni, and the good vein of form that they’re in at the moment, nobody wants to face them. Their Italian manager will have a great knowledge of football in his homeland, which could give them a great advantage over them, and he also possesses a wealth of experience of managing at the very top level in many countries. Robbie Keane has always been prolific for Ireland, and his exceptional finishing will be complemented by the never-say-die attitude and impressive work rate possessed by his strike partner Kevin Doyle. They have flair on either wing – both Aiden McGeady of Spartak Moscow and James McClean of Sunderland are both capable of creating something out of nothing. They’re definitely a side to look out for; I’d tip them to take second place.
Italy – Key Players: Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Pirlo – Prediction: 3rd
The Italians most likely won’t be too confident of their chances this summer. They’ve been in poor form of late, losing their last three games against Uruguay, USA and Russia without netting a single goal – the last international goal scored by an Italian was way back in early November. They are prone to underperforming at international competitions, as they showed in South Africa two years ago, crashing out emphatically in the group stages without winning a single game – Paraguay and Slovakia progressed at their expense. On top of this, the ongoing match-fixing scandals involving a number of top Italian clubs will surely be detrimental to their performances, with key defender Domenico Criscito withdrawing from the squad because of police investigating his actions. Sadly for them, the Prandelli era hasn’t brought better days just yet, and things don’t look like brightening up anytime soon.
Croatia – Key Players: Luka Modric, Nikica Jelavic – Prediction: 4th
Croatia head into the tournament after a less than convincing qualifying campaign, slipping to second in what seemed like an easy group, containing Greece, Israel, Latvia, Georgia and Malta. They failed to beat Greece home and away, and could only draw against Georgia – who are currently ranked 95th worldwide. Looking at these results, they don’t quite seem capable of challenging the top teams. Their own FIFA world ranking of 8th flatters them hugely, and although they toppled Turkey in the play-offs to reach the tournament, they were comprehensively beaten 3-1 by Sweden a few months later. Luka Modric and Nikica Jelavic, both of whom ply their trade in the Premier League with Tottenham and Everton respectively, will be instrumental in any success they have, however if they continue to underperform on the international stage, Croatia will sorely lack any sort of cutting edge.