So the opening two rounds are in the books and my picks are already looking shaky, as evidenced by my preview for groups A & B which can be found here. Now just in time for the bottom half of the draw to kick off here is a preview of groups C and D.
Teams – Croatia, Ireland, Italy and Spain
Group C possesses an interesting makeup with the defending European and World Champions Spain followed by a strange mix of teams that are quite difficult to read in Italy, Ireland and Croatia. The two biggest teams in the group get the games going with Spain and Italy facing off on the 11th followed by Ireland and Croatia. In round two Italy take on Croatia before Spain and Ireland with the final round consisting of Croatia and Spain, then Ireland and Italy.
Croatia has plenty of talent on offer and teams from that region of Europe always seem to have a real guile in their playing style, never afraid to get into the dirty areas of the game and scrap for a result. Their star player is Tottenham (potentially soon to be Manchester United) midfielder Luka Modric who can direct play and score when needed. His partnership with Niko Kranjcar in the centre of the park will be crucial to the Croatians success. Up front the line will be lead by Everton striker Nikica Jelavic who is coming off an impressive six months with the Merseyside club. The Croatians have every chance of progressing through the group stage in second spot behind the Spanish but it will be important for them to get off to a good start in their opening game.
The Italian squad for this competition presents a real conundrum for analysts as they appear to be in a state of transition but it still has plenty of talent on offer. World champions in 2006, major disappointments in 2010, this squad will be looking to send their veterans out on a high by asking them to carry their team. In goal will be the elder statesman Gianluigi Buffon who had a season that belied his advanced years. Perhaps the most interesting player to watch in the whole tournament is one of the next generation of Italy in the combustible Mario Balotelli who could probably be given his own 24/7 show and manage to produce more than enough content in half that time. Balotelli’s eccentricities mean that the likely starter up front will be the 34 year old Antonio di Natale who is featuring in his last tournament for Italy but is still very capable. Something still seems off about this Italian squad and given that their first match is up against Spain you have to wonder how this team will respond playing catch up for the rest of the group stage.
Ireland managed to overcome the heartbreak of missing out on the 2010 World Cup in controversial circumstances to make this tournament through the playoffs. On first examination this squad is severely lacking in talent but there are plenty of players who can do a job when asked to. Combine that with a manager who knows how to get through to his players and make teams overachieve then you have the makings of a potential pain in the ass for the rest of Group C. There are plenty of names you would recognise from across the Premier League and even an MLS name in there to for the American fans. While it may not be 2002 anymore Robbie Keane is still a very able striker and the team will look to him for leadership with plenty more talent on the bench if needed. The shining star of the squad is the young winger Aiden McGeady who has grown up a lot since his move to Russia. This squad will be hard to break down and could potentially steal a result and shock a few people. They won’t win the tournament but you know they, along with the fans will at least enjoy the beer on offer.
There is a reason the Spanish side has won the last two tournaments it has competed in, this squad is talented, organised and plays a style of football that is very difficult to break down. With the year round nature of football though, this is also a side that has not had much of a break from playing in the last few years and in the club season, you could see the players starting to wear down. Of course this side is still incredibly talented, all you have to do is look at what guys are being relegated to the bench to see why they are the favourites for this tournament. Captain Iker Casillas is backed up by Barcelona shot stopper Victor Valdes and Liverpool’s Pepe Reina, both of whom could start for most other teams in this tournament. If Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso are not working in midfield then they can call on Cesc Fabregas or David Silva to change things up. Up front they are missing their leading marksman David Villa through injury but Fernando Torres will be starting for the Spanish side. If his recent hot streak for Chelsea does not translate to the national side then the coach will be able to call on Fernando Llorente to come on and try to spearhead the attack. If they do not reach the semi-final there will be a national inquiry, if they do not reach the final it will be a massive failure and if they don’t win it will be a real letdown for the Spanish fans.
Teams – England, France, Sweden and Ukraine
Group D has the classic European rivalry (aside from anyone versus Germany) of France and England facing off in the opening game of the group followed by Sweden taking on the other co-hosts of the tournament the Ukraine. France and the Ukraine kick off the group’s second match day followed by England and Sweden with the final games being England and the Ukraine as well as France and Sweden.
The English side has been hit by a raft of injuries that could ultimately wind up helping their campaigns. With the only major tournament win coming in 1966 at the World Cup the masses are desperate for a taste of success but even they have to admit that this tournament could be a rough one for them. Lost in just the last few weeks are Chelsea pair Frank Lampard and Gary Cahill through injuries joining a plethora of talent on the sidelines including Wayne Rooney who is suspended for England’s first two games after picking up a stupid red card in England’s final qualification game. Despite all the players who are missing, there is still some reliable veterans for new coach Roy Hodgson to rely on including talismanic midfielder Steven Gerrard who, if he manages to avoid breaking, could be a key contributor as captain of the squad. The key for England in this tournament is making sure they are in with a chance going into their last game against the Ukraine for the return of Wayne Rooney. This squad will be good enough to get out of the group but in the knockout stage all bets are off.
On paper (or the FIFA games) the French squad can match nearly any team in the tournament in terms of skills and talent but as we learned in 2010, when the talent is combined with overinflated egos and immaturity talent counts for nothing. The coach from 2010 has been replaced by Laurent Blanc who has a much better relationship with his players. in their warm up games they hit a scare with midfielder Yann M’Vila suffering an ankle injury that is likely to rule him out for the opener against England at least. If this squad manages to come together they will be a very good bet for a spot in the competition’s final four for certain but it all comes down to attitude, otherwise we could be in for a big shock.
It may seem like a bit of a surprise but this Swedish side actually looks pretty good, even if it’s solely because of the fact they have one of football’s most feared strikers in Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front. The thing about having a player who is head and shoulders above the rest of his team is the other players will defer to him on the field when they should be a bit more selfish. This has lead to people starting to wonder if the Swedes are better off without Ibrahimovic because it allows the side to play more fluently without having to cater for the AC Milan man’s giant ego. There are plenty of players who are talented in their own right in this squad, none moreso than dead ball specialist, Sebastian Larsson of Sunderland who could grab a few goals for himself if the strikers are able to win free kicks in scoring position. This squad will be hard to break down like the rest of the lower rated teams in the competition but their sojourn will end after the three group games.
The other country who will have the luxury of playing in their own stadiums throughout the tournament is the Ukranian side who will be competing for the ‘commentators and journalists worst nightmare’ award for having a group of players whose names are next to impossible to spell and/or pronounce. The star man in the squad will be Anatoliy Tymoschuk from Bayern Munich who had a phenomenal season for the Champions League runners up. Long-term fans of the English Premier League (that rules out Man City supporters) will remember some names in this squad as well with Chelsea’s “buy of the decade” Andriy Shevchenko teaming up with fellow flop from his time at Liverpool Andriy Voronin to lead the home side’s forward line. As cool as it would be for the home side to capitalise on a wave of emotion, they will need England or France to collapse to have any hope of progressing through.
Tournament Picks: (These were made before the tournament started)
To Progress Out of the Group:
A: Poland and Russia
B: Netherlands and Germany
C: Spain and Ireland
D: England and France
Golden Boot: Mario Gomez
The German striker is off to a good start so far scoring in the German’s opening game.
Player of the Tournament: Robin van Persie (Netherlands)
Coming off the best club season of his career the Dutch hitman continues his form.
Tournament Winner: Netherlands
Yep, I’m still backing them even with their upset loss last night.