Are Spain the greatest national side ever?

Weeks after the final and the most recent title for Spain is not the time to provide a balance of the Euro2012. The question I would like to address is much simpler: is this Spain side the best of all times? As in all comparisons, one should start by defining its parameters. In this case, the question is: what constitutes being the best? I’ll try to answer by approaching the question from different angles.

Number of trophies
This is the one more readily pointed as the evidence of spanish superiority over any other country in history. The fact that a run of two European Championships and one World Cup has never achieved is an immediate indication that Spain are on a level of their own. in this aspect Spain has one single rival: the Uruguay side of 1924-30 as pointed by Jonathan Wilson. That was the only side to have won consecutive tournaments in the manner of the spaniards. The question of whether the Olympics can be placed in the same level of the Eusopean Championship is moot. At the time it was an important competition (the only real international one) and involved (in theory) countries from all over the world. However, some countries did not bother to travel to some of the tournaments at the time and it is possible to make the case that the uruguayans did not face as serious an opposition as Spain.
Any other possible contenders (Italy in the 30’s, West Germany in the 70’s) either failed one of the possible trophies in the run or had other blemishes. In terms of simply taking trophies, Spain hardly has rivals. The main question could have been placed by Brazil between 1958 and 1962, but they failed to get the Copa America in 1959 and became thus ineligible, even if in those times this was considered by them as a minor tournament. In any case, Spain could then be considered, using these criteria, as the best national side ever.

On the pitch
This is a much trickier proposition and one that can be directly answered: no one team could be considered as the best ever. The differences are too great to mention and, furthermore, football itself changes so fast these days that it is debatable whether this Spain team of 2012 could be considered the same as that of 2008. From the back five, only two players remained and one of them in a different position. From the midfield, only Iniesta and Xavi featured regularly four years ago. Whereas that team fielded two identifiable strikers, this one has none. It would actually be a much more interesting exercise to have Spain 2008 play Spain 2012 to see which would come out on top.
Taking thses caveats in mind, one has to compare not with the above mentioned other contenders, but with Brazil 1970. However, brilliant as that side was, it was built for one single tournament and dazzled as much for the yellow shirts appearing for the first time in colour in TV’s all across the world, as for the amazing quality and balance of a team that was not expected to achieve those breathtaking football heights. Spain, at least if considering the core of Casillas, Ramos, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, have been battering opponents for four years straight, only occasionally conceding goals and never failing in knock-out stages. It is possible to imagine that Brazil 1970 could challenge Spain 2012, but it is unlikely. With a side built to use the ball but without the guile to defend adequatly, Brazil would probably be, as almost anyone else, passed into submission.
In this aspect, a much better case could be made for West Germany 1974. In Holland, the germans faced an opponent built around very much the same guidelines of passing and movement and, on Cruijff, had the individual brilliance that Spain lacks. Still, the germans managed to win, using a mixture of tactics, desire, strength and brilliant football. Furthermore, in Müller they had a striker who would not forgive the few mistakes the spanish back four could commit. In terms of trophies, the germans would come short. In terms of their impact on the game at the time, they could challenge the spaniards.
(A small interlude to explain the impact point. Even though we today remember the Holland side and their clockwork brilliance as much as we now are mesmerised by the passing of Spain, these are extremely difficult levels to achieve that come once every two generations. A much more lasting legacy may come from the tactical or technical innovations that managed to stiffle these sides. Nobody managed to follow the dutch from the 70’s, but the german approach was used to exhaustion and ended up being followed far more widly than the former approach).
Similarly to the germans, the uruguayans could be pointed as possible contenders for the title of best. Due to technical and tactical differences (not to mention physical) as well as the advent of professionalism, there is no chance that a magically transported Uruguay team from 2930 could compete would present day Spain. Still, taking the realities of the time into consideration, Uruguay, with their silky approach to football, could be contenders for the best ever.
In this thought exercise, some space should be made for famous losers. Hungary 1954, Holland 1974, Brazil 1982/86 should all be remembered. In tournaments of only a few weeks where one slip can be fatal, one should forgive somewhat those wonderful teams that captured our imagination more than the eventual winners.

Can we then declare a winner. Not really. Not objectively, in any case. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and in this case it is also true (just replace “beauty” by “greatness”). Spain are, undoubtebly, the greatest national side in the last 20 years. Possibly 50 years. Beyond that it becomes a muddy issue. What nobody can deny is that they belong amongst the greatest ever and are creating a unique dinasty. Much of that may be due to the present laws of the game as much as their youth policy. This, however, is an issue for another time.

 

Thoughts on Portugal-Spain

In short: an excellent first hour, with plenty of tactical battles and a balanced game, followed by the effect of portuguese tiredness and a better spanish bench in pushing Portugal back. Penalties ended up deciding it on a fine edge and allowed the better team to go through to the final.

Starting situation
I had written that Spain would benefit from using a winger such as Navas, but del Bosque opted to go for Silva on the right and Iniesta on the left, reserving Navas for the supersub effect. As expected, this meant that either Arbeloa would not push forward at all or that Ronaldo would get time on the left. Spain, rather surprisingly for me, went for the second option and Arbeloa appeared frequently on the portuguese half to try the overlap after Silva cut in. The main problem was that with Silva being picked by the central midfielders (usually Meireles), Arbeloa had to face Coentrao alone which was an advantage for the portuguese. On the other hand, Ronaldo’s free rein ended up not being so free as expected due to the excellent match from Pique, who several times ran across to the right to put pressure on the portuguese and cover for Arbeloa. Still, after the first few counters by the portuguese, usually through the left side (for more organised attacks, the right side was usually chosen), Arbeloa started snuffing those out with soft fouls. At a certain moment a less lenient referee might have given him a yellow card for repeated fouling, but he escaped. With these tactics, and with the support of Iniesta to Alba, the portuguese got also stiffled and simply could not get the desired breakthrough and score. Most of the attacks were relying on long diagonal balls from Pepe and Bruno Alves and if the first ones were not bad, Bruno Alves tended to overhit his passes and concede possession too cheaply. Veloso would have been a better option, but he almost never had enough time on the ball for it.
On the spanish side, Xavi’s move more upfield had been restricting his influence for a while, but in this match, with Veloso closely guarding him, he became almost completely anonymous and disappeared from sight. When he was replaced by Pedro, at the beginning I had not realised he was gone because I had hardly seen him throughout the match. In that sense, placing him in that position against a portuguese side that featured an in-form deep lying anchorman was a bad tactical move from del Bosque. on the other hand, it also serves to show how much less of a team Spain become without this great orchestrator of moves. The introduction of Negredo from the start was a surprise but, as Michael Cox argues, he might have been seen as the man who could simultaneously play on the shoulder of the defender, hold up balls and finish plays. Still, in a system which had no width and with strong and fast defenders such as Pepe and Bruno Alves, his influence was limited. In this sense, Llorente would probably have been a better option. It was still a shame not to see him staying to play with Navas and Pedro. There were two or three balls on the box for Fabregas that an accomplished striker would have been able to put away or possibly test the keeper.
The result at half time mostly reflected the capacity of both teams to stiffle each other and a 0-0 scoreline was absolutely logical.

Change of tactics
When Fabregas came in, shortly after restart, the spanish team immediately looked better because Fabregas can operate at faster speeds than Xavi and that gave better decisions and faster actions in front of the defence. Furthermore, as soon as Navas was introduced, Spain immediately restricted Coentrao and were able to keep Arbeloa tighter on Ronaldo. In one stroke, Spain had better offensive and defensive shape. On the left side, when Pedro was introduced he not only did the same to restrict Joao Pereira, but the fact that Nani frequently played more as a wide midfielder than a winger meant that Alba could also push forward and create overlaps. Of course the tactics worked excellently, but the fact that Portugal started to tire played an important role. Much was made of the extra two days the portuguese had, but this usually does not play much of a role and the dynamics of the game can be much more determined. As in the semi-final against Germany two years ago, when the Germans got tired chasing the ball, the portuguese started getting exhausted around the one hour mark. Pressing intensely high up the field is tiring and Spain, even though they had less rest, did not overexert themselves against France and could always rest with the ball. This became more and more evident as the time went on and the tiring limbs of the portuguese even caused some commentators to ask where were the spanish finding their strengths.
The depth of the portuguese in comparison with the spanish one was also evidenced by the reluctance of Bento in substituting players. Even these changed little, with the change in personnel being more significant because of the characteristics of each player rather than from a tactical switch. Oliveira brought more running but less ball challenge (something which Almeida did quite well and probably kept him on the pitch until so late). Custodio more energy and new legs, but less passing ability in comparison with Veloso. Varela could probably have come earlier to challenge Alba and check his runs, but Nani was playing well and there were not so many players to change. With hindsight, maybe he could have been brought on for Almeida (since Ronaldo ended up playing almost as target man and Oliveira became anonymous on the left flank), but the switches were all tactical sound and logical. The main problem was the lack of tactical alternatives for Portugal (Bento used only 15 players in the whole tournament) and the tiredness after the strong pressing in the beginning. One word for Patricio: in the whole tournament he had little to do and was at fault only on the second goal of Bendtner (and only partially) but here he kept concentration and parried brilliantly a short range shot from Iniesta that managed to save Portugal at the time. As I read at a certain point on Facebook, Portugal found out on the semi-finals they had also brought a goalkeeper.

Penalties
Much has been written about the fact that Ronaldo took the last penalty. This is however common for Ronaldo with Portugal. He may be the best penalty taker, but his record on a club level in penalty shoot-outs is not the best (failed against Chelsea in the Champions League final and against Bayern in the semi-finals). Besides, it is quite common to get your two best penatlty takers as the first and last in the list. One to get them off to a flyer and the other to close the count. The main difference ended up being only some five centimetres. Bruno Alves’ penalty was good but slightly too high. Fabregas’ was only slightly good enough. Had the five centimetres gone the other way, Ronaldo might have won it for Portugal with his last penalty.

Semi-Finals

Very well, a single post on the semi-finals will do, as I am sure everybody has read everything somewhere before.

Portugal-Spain
Certainly my preference goes to a repeat of the 4-0 victory of November 2010. However, that match had a very specific set of circumstances: it took place in Portugal, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Portuguese Republic, was supposed to promote the World Cup 2018 joint Portugal-Spain bid and it was a friendly seen by the spanish players especially as a waste of their time and energies. For the portuguese players, however, and especially for Cristiano Ronaldo, it was an opportunity to get one over the long time neighbours and rivals and, at the same time, show that the wobbly start of the qualification for the Euros was gone. In that match, Portugal played a very aggressive style, harrassing the spanish players when off the ball and darting rapidly through the flanks when on it. The spanish players always moved themselves and the ball slowly and were obviously as uninterested in the match as any newly minted world champions would be.
In this semi-final the story may well be somewhat different, but essentially from the spanish side. If everyone expects Portugal to again seat deep and absorb pressure hoping for a counter-attack (as they played in the World Cup match under the guidance from Queiroz), they might be in for a surprise. It is obvious that Spain will keep the ball and play as patiently as they have done since del Bosque took over, but I simply do not see Paulo Bento telling his players to sit back. Especially since Spain does not have much width without the contribution of the full-backs and these will most likely try to stay as much as possible goalside from Ronaldo and Nani. Besides, if the typical spanish attack involves the penetrating vertical pass, it is likely Bento will trust Pepe’s fast running and good form to snuff out these attempts. The question remaining in Portugal’s line-up will be whether to start Hugo Almeida or Nelson Oliveira as a replacement for Postiga. Personally, I would expect Almeida to get the nod, seeing the difficulties Pique had against him in South Africa (his substitution was highly questioned at the time) and also because by playing longer balls, a target man could be very useful to Ronaldo.
From the spanish side, the usual question could be: Fabregas or Torres. Or, in other terms, a striker or a false 9? Signs indicate del Bosque will go for Fabregas, but the truth is that a winger such as Pedro or Navas could be extremely useful, especially in exploring the left side of the portuguese defence and to restrain the forward runs from Coentrao. Even though the whole press coverage seems to bill this as a match between Ronaldo and Spain, Veloso’s checking of Xavi and Moutinho’s pressure on Alonso and Busquets could be the decisive issue in play. Also, if Nani keeps on defending as he has so far and then putting crosses with the quality and frequency he can, Spain’s central duo may suffer.
I still predict a simple 1-0 victory for Spain, with the goal arriving at some point in the match and then the spanish simply killing the attacks by keeping the ball. However, if there is a moment when Spain may be vulnerable, it is this one. And if Portugal play as a team and Ronaldo shows his good face, an upset would not be unexpected.

Germany-Italy
Two days rest and less minutes on the pitch for the quarter-finals. These may be the decisive factors. Especially because it will be difficult to predict how these two teams will play. Traditional instinct suggests that Germany will attack from the off and the italians will sit back, soak pressure and try to break forward using their talented attacking line. In this match, however, it is quite possible the situation will reverse.
Prandelli has, in his tenure as Italy’s national coach, cultivated a possession-style of game based on the spanish approach. With a team boasting Pirlo, Montolivo, Motta, de Rossi, etc, this becomes almost natural. Also considering that the golden period of Cannavaro and Nesta at the back is gone (even if the present centre-backs are quite good), it is unlikely Prandelli will want a game taking place too close to his box. The germans, on the other hand, are quite adept at switching between taking the game to the opponents and playing on the counter. For this match, I can imagine Joachim Löw going for the latter option. This makes even more sense when the italians have the type of side likely to be exposed by the width players such as Müller and Podolski can bring to the germans. After having stayed on the bench for the match against Greece (and after the poor performance of Schürrle), it is possible at least one of them will be brought in. The use of Müller would still have the advantage of increasing the defensive cover on midfield in comparison with Reus or Schürrle. It can easily be expected to see Reus on the left (cutting in to the centre or searching the byline) and Müller on the right. Both are extremely mobile players who could combine excedingly well with Özil in his runs to the flank. The big question is whther to use Gomez or Klose. Gomez adds more physicality, something the italians are not comfortable against. On the other hand, Klose has better movement and knows the italian defenders better.
From the italian side, there is the question of how they will line up. Probably they will bring in Mota into the midfield (possibly at the expense of Montolivo) and try to send Ballotelli and Cassano wider in order to pin the fullbacks and escape the influence of the german midfield. Still, the lack of rest will probably take its toll and I can see Germany taking the victory with 2-1 at the end of the match or in extra time. As everyone else, I am (from aneutral point of view), aching for the Germany-Spain final. We shall see.

Standpoint, part 3

Quarter-Finals

Portugal-Czech Republic
As everybody has been keen to point out, Cristiano Ronaldo has been the outstanding attacking player of the tournament. If he had been criticised for his profligacy against Denmark, he had also, as Raphael Hönigstein wrote, put on a typical team-first display to help control the match. That Portugal had needed a late winner from Varela was a different story. Before that he had shown that, despite his constant histrionics, he can lead also by example on the pitch. Still, it was against Holland and the Czech Republic that he really has set the tournament alight. He ran, dribbled, passed, shot (with either foot and head), hit the post four times and scored three all-important goals. Moreover, his simple presence conditions the defensive set-up of the opposite team and creates space for his teammates. This was clear against the Czech Republic, where other players frequently had opportunities to shoot simply because Ronaldö’s presence cleared the path. Even the fact that he was lurking just outside the box created the space for the movement that culminated in Moutinho’s cross for his header. He has been the determining factor in Portugal’s advance, that much is certain.
Still, he has not been the only one. After the goals conceded all started from the left flank which Ronaldo seldom helps cover, Paulo Bento reshuffled his team somewhat to improve fluidity and increase solidity. Miguel Veloso has been the invisible star of the team, by dropping deep to stick to the opposing attacking midfielders and frequently run to the left to give support to Coentrao. In the first matches, it was Moutinho who would cover that side, but as Zonal Marking demonstrated, in recent matches there has been a switch between Meireles and Moutinho, with the latter now closer to the right side and the former offering the attacking thrust and defensive cover from the left. This was a shrewd move, as Bento realised that Meireles was not in his top form and therefore his attacking instincts could be sacrficed in favour of those from Joao Moutinho and at the same time his work rate could help compensating for Ronaldo staying up the pitch. This strongly stiffled Jiracek and with Gebre Selassie occupied, all czech threat had to come from Pilar, a player that was almost always well dealt with by Joao Pereira (who always had support from Nani and never had to face a 2vs1 situation at the back). In the end, the match could be summarised by the portuguese attacks breaking over and over again against the czech defence, the posts or Petr Cech. Ronaldo’s winning header may have come late, but was totally deserved.

Germany-Greece
Hailed as the the match of the €uro, this encounter had plenty of political conotations. On the pitch, however, the story would be quite simple: Germany would attack and Greece would defend, with an eye on the counter-attack. Joachim Löw decided on this match to present a very different forward line, with Reus on the right for Müller, Schürrle on the left for Podolski and Klose as striker for Gomez. The emphasis seemed to be more on creativity and technique (as well as movement from the part of Klose) to try to break the tight defence. Since Müller and Podolski are more direct players better suited for counter-attacking, this was a clever move. Still, the greek defence proved difficult to break, something which was not helped by an unusual slugginesh of Schweinsteiger on the ball (due to an ankle injury). Greece would defend inside the box, close out outside shots and hit the ball fast usually for Samaras who would try to impose his strength to Boateng and create openings for Salpingidis. In this phase, Katsouranis showed strong defensive awareness and brilliant passing skills, with his passes to the runners always narrowing avoiding interception. Without any team able to break the deadlock, the breakthrough came from Lahm who, taking advantage of not being closed down (the greek players were more concerned with the midfielders) unleashed a shot from outside the box and changed the match. Even though Greece unexpectedly drew just after half-time, they needed time to regroup at the back, having come back onto the pitch in a more attacking disposition. Khedira took advantage of that and scored what, psychologically, amounted to the coup de grâce for the greeks. From then on, it was a matter of putting in another couple of chances (and Klose drawing closer to Gerd Müller’s all-time scoring record with the Mannschaft) and Greece pretty much conceded defeat when Liberopolous came in for what was his final career match, in order to say goodbye to the fans. Germany progressed and stay as the only team to have won all matches whereas Greek go home knowing they overachieved and that they made their fans proud.

France-Spain
This was in effect the most boring match of the tournament so far. One may blame it on Spain’s style of game, with possession and safety being paramount, but France did not help matters by shrugging their formidable attacking force and ligning up with two right-backs, one nowadays mainly defensive player (Malouda) and almost only Ribery and Benzemea to try to fashion some chances for les Bleus. It was therefore ironic that the two right backs failed to stop Iniesta’s pass to Jordi Alba and the latter’s cut into the box before he layed a perfect cross for Xabi Alonso’s header. Still, the main fault was from Gael Clichy, who should have covered that side but was sucked inside and opened up space on his back
After this, the match could be summarised by a possession glut from Spain, closing spaces when out of possession and keeping the ball when in attack. As Cabaye’s influence grew, some spaces appeared at the back, but these were always well dealt with, especially since most openings came from movements wide by Benzema which left the centre completely devoid of french players, since no midfield runners seemed to be available. The second goal from Alonso was almost the only other notable incident on the match and if it brought the scoreline higher than what Spain deserved, it also punished a fearful french side which could have been one of the most exciting ones in the tournament. Spain go on to try to make history and France go back home only in slightly lower disgrace than after South Africa.

Italy-England
As Zonal Marking noted, England’s best period (the first half hour) coincided with Pirlo’s most quiet one and also with the period when Rooney better harrassed the italian regista. Whether Pirlo’s (and by extension Italy’s) dominance started because of Rooney neglecting this job or whether Rooney simply failed to do it because of Pirlo’s quality is difficult to point out, but it is not hard to imagine it was the former. Rooney is an excellent defender and chases the ball whether, but seems to get tired (as in bored) of this job quickly and prefers to stick to attacking. He has only ever managed to be a more defensive player when playing at Manchester United to give Ronaldo more freedom and it appears that, if he is the top player in the group, he will refuse to do too much of the dirty work. This marked the difference with Pirlo, who always ran after his opponent on the rare occasions he lost the ball.
Although Pirlo’s performance should obviously be lauded, Montolivo was only slightly less influencial. He operated more forward and his short passing frequently found spaces with Cassano and Ballotelli which confounded the english defenders. Still, a wastefulness from the italian players guaranteed that England managed not to concede in 120 minutes of play. As time wore on, England reverted to Hodgson’s revered two banks of four and waited it out, hoping for a long ball forward which could conjure a goal from a moment of brilliance by Rooney. Unfortunately, not having any other quality player next to him to fashion such chances (Wellbeck has promise, but he is no Nani or Valencia), the Man United man felt isolated and slowly faded away. In the end, the question was whether Italy would be able to break the english resistance or whether the penalties would tell the same old story. They did and England go back home. Despite some encouraging signs by some players, this was a performance that should actually not bring too much hope to english fans. Wellbeck only showed some flashes, Ashley Cole was largely anonymous, Wallcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain had impact mainly against tiring and mediocre defenders and the best members at the back were men around 30 years old. The day that strikers will get used to fake a shot to let Terry go to ground before actually shooting, England’s defence may actually crumble. Until 2014, however, the three lions may still be able to limp to Brazil.
Italy will now face Germany, an opponent they have a good history against. Still, with two less days to rest and 30 minutes of play (plus the stress of a penalty shoot-out) extra, they may fall to Germany’s attacking machine. After the possession masterclass by the italians in the quarter-finals, we may well see them going back to basics and shut down at the back in the semi-finals. Still, a side with Pirlo and Ballotelli should never be written off.

Final thoughts
As Sid Lowe wrote, the four best and most interesting sides made it to the semi-finals. Both matches will probably see proactive sides (Spain and Germany) against reactive ones (Portugal and Italy, respectively). Still, with the players on display, it should never be expected that one team will park the bus while the other looks for a way around it. These matches, even with the need to keep solidity in mind, could give some of the most interesting semi-final matches in several years.

Standpoint, part 2

Group D

In my predictions for this group I had imagined France going through as first and England as second, with Sweden possibly being able to challenge the latter for this spot. I had never expected such a mediocre performance of the swedes in the first two matches (especially in defence) or that Ukraine could cause these many problems. I could not follow these matches as well as I would have liked (the work that kept me from writing also kept me from watching everything I would have liked to, so compromises had to be made), but the general impression was one of a talented but disfunctional french side, organised english and ukrainian ones and a swedish side which relied too heavily on their star player. In the end, the results might not have been totally expected or logical (England were very much the weaker side against large periods of the match against Ukraine), but reflected what happened.

Group A

Much of what I had expected came to being. Russia surprised me with their 4-1 thrashing of Czech Republic, but it was all downhill from there. They seemed tired (at the end of the match against Poland they hardly moved) and the players seemed uncomfortable with having to be the attacking side and playing a proactive game. It was telling that their best result came in the match when the opposition decided to take all initiative and left spaces at the back. Also some element of luck (understood as a happy accident) might have been at play there.

Poland were, as expected, too much dependant on their three star players. It’s not that they did not perform: Piszcek did well, Lewandowski was excellent and Blaszczykowski was the best polish player. It’s just that the opposition knew that, by shutting out these three, there was little threat from their teammates. This ended up being their undoing in attacking terms, since the defence did well throughout the tournament.

The winners were Czech Republic, the team I had expected especially because of a solid group, without real stars, but consistent and balanced. They were never going to hit great heights, but in an even group, it was clear that the better organised side might come out top. Gebre Selassie may have caught the eye with his forward runs, but his defensive positioning was often questionable and some more maturity will help him tremendously. At this moment, however, Vaclav Pilar may already be pointed as the surprise of the tournament, with his pace and trickery causing problems throughout. If supported by some more creativity and movement from his teammates, he could have carried the team further. At under 1 million euros he already seems the bargain of the summer for Wolfsburg.

Greece played pretty much the way it was expected. Solid at the back, with some attacking runs (they were more attacking than in previous tournaments) and had as star players the young centre-back Papadopoulos and midfielder Katsouranis. In the end, they qualified through hard work and plenty of heart, but also some tactical astuteness from their manager Fernando Santos (especially against Poland). They would never set the world alight, but they showed enough spirit for their compatriots and that was what they had aimed at.

Group C

As expected, Spain came out on top, with Italy getting second place ahead of Croatia and Ireland departing with three defeats. Italy, however, did much better than expected, strongly stiffling Spain (and even having the best opportunities to win the match) and not being far from beating Croatia. Had Croatia drawn with Spain in the last match, Italy might have been gone, but the spanish were keen to avoid surprises and won against the croats with a display somewhat characteristic of their Euro: unconvincing. Still, in the end the best teams went through and Croatia can go back feeling they really gave their best. Ireland went for the party and cannot really be disappointed: their victory was in being there.

Euro2012 – Group C

In group C, two teams can be immediately pointed out as favourites to go through to the quarter-finals: Spain and Italy. The theoretically most accessible team will certainly be Ireland, with Croatia hoping to pip one of the favourites to the top places. However, at a time when reactive sides seem to be doing increasingly well against possession-based sides, Ireland could cause some surprises under the guidance of Giovanni Trapatonni.

Spain are the european and world champions and are again the overall favourites to the title and as such are also favourites for taking the group. Still basing the side around the Barcelona and Real Madrid players with a couple of others thrown in, Spain will expect to pass their way to the top and use this style to both attack and defend. In comparison to their sides from 2008 and 2010, there are some changes in personnel which could prove to be important, especially at the back. If the absence of Capdevilla should not be a problem (Jordi Alba should be a more than capable replacement), Puyol’s injury not only removes the most dynamic member of the back four, but also the man who commanded them and kept the whole group concentrated (as well as scoring some important goals). As an extra, the switch of Sergio Ramos from the right to the centre also caused Arbeloa to start and thus remove some of the width that Ramos brought with his forward surges. The absence of David Villa also brings one extra problem, as Spain strongly depended on him for goals. With Torres’ drought and with Llorente’s different style of game, Spain are somewhat wanting for goals. However, with the amount of opportunities they are likely to create, this should not be an important problem during the group phase.
Despite seeming less strong than in other years, Spain should take the top place in the group. Being qualified by the last match, it is possible they will settle for a draw with Croatia.

Italy seemed to be one of the biggest favorites after Spain, Germany and Holland, but the recent betting-investigations seem to have taken a dent on their confidence and fluidity. With that in mind, Italy has taken two World Cups in scandal filled years, but it is possible this year that flip will turn out a strech too far. In a side with Buffon, Chiellini, Pirlo, de Rossi or Ballotelli, anything can be expected, but some of these players could be excused for being a bit distracted at present (Ballotelli lives in that state permanently). On top of that, the recent injury to Barzagli reduced the tactical options at the disposal of Cerare Prandelli for the group matches and may mean Italy will not be able to switch between four and three at the back as he might have wished.
All in all, if Italy manage to stay focused, they could be the biggest surprise of the tournament (what with them not being considered real contenders), but they still will come second to Spain in the group phase.

Croatia have been for some time most commentators’ dark horses but have always failed to live up to expectations. In the end the lack of real world class players apart from Luka Modric and a shaky defence always seem to make the difference against the bigger or more determined teams. With this being the last tournament national coach Slaven Bilic will take part, it is also the last opportunity to take advantage of a certain core of players at thier highest level. The team depend very strongly, and as it would be expected, on Modric’s playmaking qualities. His time in England has supplied him with the ability to deal with more physical opponents, but that should not be the biggest issue in this group apart from Ireland (who defend very deep in any case). More decisive might be the capacity of widening the play on the part of Dario Srna, Perisic or Pranjic, especially when dealing with Spain and Italy, teams which have a natural tendency to play more narrow. In the end, however, much of the success will be placed on the capacity of converting their chances and in that regard Croatia may come somewhat short.
In other groups, Croatia would be strong favourites to go through, but against Italy and Spain, it is quite likely they will come short. Much of the croats’ possibilities will rest on Italy overcoming the recent distress. If Italy falter, Croatia could very well go through.

Ireland‘s presence at the Euros should already come as a success and a testament to old man Trapatonni’s abilities to bring the best out of weaker sides. Recognizing the limitations of his side, he should line up with a safety-first approach and relying on a direct game and set-pieces to get a goal. Truth is, I do not know enough about Ireland and most english speaking readers will be better informed than me, so I will just jump to the predictions.
These are quite simple: Ireland would be lucky to escape with anything at all from this group. Still, a surprise result is not beyond them and even if they should  go through, they may well complicate things for the favourites.