Spain – Italy
Spain’s opener against Italy will be an important game for them, and a good win could set the benchmark for the rest of the tournament hopefuls. Should they lose however, questions will be be asked about the form and fitness of certain players, and whether the squad has declined from 2 years ago. Italy on the other hand enter the tournament with low expectations yet are still many peoples wild card pick. They have quality players, but the question is if they have gelled as a team well enough. Less than a year ago, they beat Spain 2-1 in a friendly, but since then injuries and another betting scandal have deprived them of key players and they could struggle to cope.
Spains will be without record goalscorer David Villa for the tournament and he will be a big loss. Tasked with replacing him will be either Fernando Torres or Alvaro Negredo, both of whom have had difficult seasons at club level and are unconvincing sources of goals. Another option is Fernando Llorente, who has had a good season with Athletic Bilbao and offers a more direct route to goal. He probably won’t start games though and better used as a substitute when things aren’t going so well as a ‘plan B’, as seen against Scotland in qualifying. Spain also have the problem of having too many players with similar skill sets, and having to fit them into a balanced formation. They sometimes struggle to do this and become too narrow and easy to defend against, as seen against England last November and Switzerland in the World Cup. Left back Jordi Alba could be the solution , and will look to get forward at every opportunity, helping stretch the play.
Italy have a talented squad and are spearheaded by Mario Balotelli. While he has undoubted talent he has been a bit part player for Man City this season, only making 20 starts in all competitions. With Italy’s success or failure depending in him, it will be interesting to see how he copes under this newfound pressure. While their attack is excellent, the rest of the Italy starting XI looks dubious. An injury to Barzagli means De Rossi will have to play out of position at centre back, while Giaccherini is not ready to be starting at this level.
Prediction: Spain 1 – 1 Italy
Rep. of Ireland – Croatia
Ireland have looked solid defensively under Giovanni Trapattoni and will be very difficult to score against, having kept 3 clean sheets in their last 5 games. This will be Slaven Bilic’s last tournament with Croatia, and he will want to leave on a high note. Croatia have a decent squad and believe they are capable of going all the way. If either team wants to get out of the group they will need to win this game, as points will be hard to come by against the Spaniards and Italians. While neither teams have eleven quality players, both have one or two top players who they will look to too win the game for them.
Croatia’s best player is Luka Modrić of Tottenham. Playing in centre midfield he has the ability to dictate games and if Ireland don’t put pressure on him, his passing will punish them. While he looks tired from a long season with Spurs , hopefully his quality can shine through, as there will be a lot of clubs looking at him for next season. Ivica Olic’s injury could turn out to be a blessing in disguise as it opens the door for Nikica Jelavic to start. Jelavic has been in lethal form since signing for Everton in January, and with 9 goals from 10 starts, expect him to score should he get the chance.
Trapattoni has favoured more experienced players, but has included exciting winger James McClean in his Ireland squad. Fresh from a good season with Sunderland he could provide a good option of the bench should Ireland need a goal. With good pace and trickery he can beat a man and put good crosses into the box for Kevin Doyle, Shane Long and Robbie Keane to get on the end of.
Prediction: Rep. of Ireland 1 – 0 Croatia