Sunday, 10 June 2012

Euro 2012: Things get interesting on Matchday 3

Today's matches provided a bit more drama than yesterday's, as the reigning world and European champions Spain met Italy, and the group's two wild cards Ireland and Croatia faced one another. Italy v Spain ended 1-1, which despite the scoreline was an entertaining, fast-paced match, while Croatia confirmed their status as a possible contender by dismantling Ireland 3-1.

The day's first match was the big one for me, of course. With every tournament that rolls around I'm never sure which Italy is going to show up - the confident, fast-paced Italy of 2006, or the listless, negative Italy of 2008 (and 2010). In general I err on the side of pessimism and assume Italy won't be getting out of the group, although I'll admit that even I was a little surprised when they failed to do so in 2010.

My misgivings this year weren't helped, despite some good buzz surrounding coach Cesare Prandelli, by questions about Italy's strikers. Antonio Cassano's in the squad, despite coming off a stroke earlier this season, while Giuseppe Rossi is recovering from a leg injury that should keep him off the pitch for the better part of a year. Which leaves Mario Balotelli, who can charitably be described as mercurial, and less charitably as batcrap crazy, along with a bunch of other players who've roundly failed to make their mark in the last few years.

So I was happy to see that when today's match started, Italy were running for the ball, passing well and actually going for goal. Balotelli and Cassano were up front, Andrea Pirlo was orchestrating things in midfield, and in goal they had a safe pair of hands in Gianluigi Buffon. In contrast to the grinding 0-0 draw these two teams played in 2008, Italy looked happy to actually go for it, rather than merely stopping Spain from playing.

And let's be honest, Italy truly did stop Spain from playing today. The Spanish were the clear winners in terms of possession and passing, and they had a lot of chances to score; the thing that let them down in the first half was their apparent need to walk the ball into the Italian goal. What let them down in the second, of course, was Fernando Torres, displaying so much raw talent that at one point Buffon was able to dispossess him and dribble the ball away. This, of course, is why Chelsea paid the big bucks for Torres. Not that Italy were so incisive on the attack, either - despite a few good attempts, Balotelli in particular was woeful, including during a run on goal that demonstrated neither speed nor purpose.

So imagine my delight when di Natale came on soon after the half and promptly scored. I don't want to come off as overly partisan here, but I did roar so hard that I saw stars for a few seconds after.

Of course, the real blow to the head came a few minutes later when Cesc Fabregas equalized for Spain. But in fairness, it was a long time coming, and if Torres hadn't been so awful they'd have deserved to beat Italy.

Turning to the other match, I noted yesterday after Denmark's win over the Netherlands that I wouldn't be too hasty to rule out Ireland, despite them being the clear weak link in Group C. Well, they didn't play too terribly - their goal in the first half gave them a lot of hope - but with hindsight the scoreline shouldn't have been too surprising. Croatia's been showing some serious quality since 1998, including when they beat Italy in the 2002 World Cup, and they'll be well-placed to pounce on any weakness by either Italy or Spain to progress to the knock-out rounds.

But, while I can't see Ireland getting to the next round, both Italy and Spain have a long history of losing to teams they shouldn't ever lose to (cf the game against North Korea in 1966, or Spain's opening loss to Switzerland in 2010). Group B may be the group of death, but this is just as tough a group, and could throw up a surprise or two.