6 Nations: : Lions Watch

After a few Blog-less months (caused by the stresses and strains of a journalism course which has somewhat taken over my life the past few months…), I am pleased to make my return and what better excuse to do so than the 6 Nations and the forthcoming Lions tour.

The British and Irish Lions have a mouthwatering summer tour of Australia lying in wait and as is always the case in a 6 Nations tournament in the lead-up to a Lions tour, competition for places is starting to hot up.

Gatland has much to consider after the first weekend of action

The opening weekend had all British rugby fans wishing that the likes of Martin Castrogiovanni and Sergio Parisse were not Italian and were English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish dynamos instead as they helped inspire Italy to a stunning victory over France.

The opening weekend also saw a rejuvenated Ireland conquer Wales who are continuing their free-fall from their Grandslam-winning pedestal, and England demonstrating the sort of attacking verve en-route to victory against Scotland that helped them defeat world champions New Zealand in the Autumn.

As is nearly always the case in a Lions year, the opening weekend provided a fascinating insight into who might make the trip and who might not.

It threw up the usual blend of ‘dead-certs’ confirming their status as being such (e.g Dan Cole, Rory Best, Johnny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll, Chris Ashton), former favourites for selection on the wane (Sam Warburton and Jonathan Davies, the latter seemed to just have an off-day) , and young unexpected contenders throwing their hats into the ring for selection (e.g Joe Launchberry, Billy Twelvetrees.

Anyway, now that the dust has settled on the wonderful opening round of this year’s tournament it is time to look ahead to this weekend’s action and I have decided to highlight some of the key British and Irish players and clashes to look out for this weekend.

Cian Healey Vs. Dan Cole:

Come the first test match against Australia this summer these two could well be partnered as the first-choice tight-head and loose-head props for the Lions but this Saturday they will be head-to-head and it promises to be a snarling battle. Both were true to form on the opening weekend and proved why they are both regarded amongst the very best in the world in their respective positions.

Ben Youngs Vs. Danny Care:

This is an ‘in-house’ battle within the England setup and one which seems to drive both players on rather than inhibiting their performances. They are both world-class, both exciting, both energising, but unfortunately both are still pretty young and each have a tendency to undo some of their fantastic work with some clumsy errors. They are however both in the running for a spot in the Lions squad as well as being locked in a battle to wrestle the number 9 England shirt from one another. Hopefully this battle can continue to inspire the pair of them and we can look forward to a big 60 minutes from Ben Youngs this weekend and an exciting cameo from Care in the last 20.

Justin Tipuric:

 

Justin TipuricLess than a year ago it seemed that Sam Warburton could do nothing wrong. He had performed and led the Welsh side superbly at the World Cup in late 2011 and then he flourished again as skipper as Wales went on to Grandslam glory in 2012. He has however been a steep downwards slide since then and so have Wales as a collective unit. Captain Sam is missing this weekend though and at the moment this actually seems to be a positive for the Welsh as it opens up a space for the dynamic Justin Tipuric. Prior to last weekend I had heard an awful lot about him but hadn’t seen much of him myself, however, his performance after coming off the bench against Ireland made me sit up and take note. Could he be the answer to Wales’ desperate prayers of late? Could he even be Lions material? We might just find out against the French this weekend…

Brad Barritt Vs. Brian O’Driscoll:

Brian O' Driscoll 6 Nations 2013This week Sir Clive Woodward conceded that in England’s last Grandslam winning year in 2003, when Brian O’Driscoll was at his dazzling best, that he earmarked no less than three England players to nullify the Irish master’s threat. If last weekend is anything to go by then Stuart Lancaster may have to follow Woodward’s lead in his team instructions as O’Driscoll returned from injury in stunning fashion. Barritt playing alongside Billy Twelvetrees in the England midfield will surely be charged with such a task this weekend at the Aviva Stadium and the whole game could well hinge on this battle.

Other things to look out for this weekend:

The Irish back-three (even without the absent Tommy Bowe), the battle of the two fly-half Lions front-runners Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell and the development of Scotland flyer and Lions full-back hopeful Stuart Hogg who made a great impression at Twickenham last Saturday.

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Euro 2012: My Team of the Tournament

Last night’s resounding 4-0 win for Spain sealed their third straight major tournament victory and furthered their case to be considered the greatest international team of all time and as such it is no surprise at all that they have dominated my team of the tournament.

Spain Win Euros

Spain answered their critics with an outstanding performance en-route to a 4-0 win in last night’s final

The team is as follows…

Formation: (4-3-3)

Iker Casillas:

It is very hard to argue with Casillas’ stunning record of five clean-sheets in six games and with him now homing in on a staggering 140 caps  for his country one might be forgiven for thinking that he could yet go on to reach an even more unbelievable total of over 200 caps! His form has been terrific and he has fully justified his continuing superiority over and above the likes of Pepe Reina and Victor Valdes in Spain’s goalkeeping pecking order which is littered with an embarrassment of riches.

Mathieu Debuchy:

Until he was played out of position in the quarter-final against Spain, Debuchy had looked a very useful attacking right back and it is easy to see why several clubs appear to be interested in acquiring his services in time for the new season.

Mats Hummels:

Having heard much about Hummels’ development at Borussia Dortmund but having not actually seen much of him play myself I looked forward to seeing what he had to offer and he didn’t let me down. He looks strong, comfortable on the ball and very assured in the challenge whether it be aerial or on the deck and I think he proved that he has the makings of one the world’s finest centre-halves.

Sergio Ramos:

Ramos may have spent much of his career as a right back but he looked very assured in the central role and he grew in stature throughout the tournament. His contribution to five straight clean-sheets was immense and it will be hard to see Carles Puyol getting his place back in the side if he were to choose to keep playing international football.

Jordi Alba:

Alba deserves a place in this side even if only for the remarkable off the ball run he produced to score the second goal in the final. He has had a fine tournament and he deserves an enormous amount of praise not only for his attacking value at full-back but also for proving that his defensive abilities are right up there too.

Xabi Alonso:

I think Alonso might well be the most underrated player in the Spanish side. As well as providing a tremendous work-rate and a bit of steel in the Spain’s sextet of midfielders, his passing ability sometimes goes under the radar when playing alongside the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Silva and Fabregas but it is supremely good over both short and long distances. Alonso also deserves great credit for his two well taken goals in the game against France and the composure he demonstrated in scoring his penalty in the semi-final shootout with Portugal.

Bastien Schweinsteiger:

Like Alonso, Schweinsteiger gets through a hell of a lot of work in the ‘engine room’ of his side’s midfield and his ability to play a slick, slide-rule pass is second to none (…well, very few anyway…) Gomez’s prowess in front of goal impressed in the group stages for the Germans and it was  mainly Schweinsteiger’s hard work which earned the front man his best opportunities.

Andrea Pirlo:

If it weren’t for the outcome of the final then he would be a runaway winner of the player of the tournament award as he was at the heart of all that was great about a surprisingly strong showing from an Italian side that few people fancied to make a huge impact on this tournament. Against England and Germany in particular Pirlo played wonderfully well from deep in the Italian midfield and his exemplary displays of passing football demonstrated exactly what many of the sides at this tournament lack; a midfielder with so much class and ability that they can create space for themselves and dictate the play from multiple positions on the field.

Andres Iniesta:

Iniesta had a fabulous tournament and even though he may not have scored any goals he was a constant threat to all opposition that Spain came up against and the pressure built by his passing play and smart movement contributed significantly to Spain’s third straight major tournament success. He has been named the player of the tournament by Uefa having not managed to get himself on the scoresheet at any point in the tournament and this speaks volumes about his contributions.

Cristiano Ronaldo:

Love him or hate him, you have to respect him. I definitely and unashamedly veer on the side of ‘love him’ and was pleased to see him have a major impact on a major tournament in international football, as it has put many of his doubters to shame and it demonstrated that he does indeed possess the leadership skills necessary to captain a Portugal side who impressed throughout much of this tournament. He may not quite have inspired his side to make it all the way to the final but he goes home with a share of the ‘golden boot’ award having bagged three goals.

Mario Balotelli:

As is the case with Ronaldo you may well love or hate Balotelli, but regardless of which side of the fence you sit on it is hard to deny that he isn’t a joy to watch one way or another. Throughout lengthy periods of this tournament Balotelli was superb and his behaviour was generally pretty decent by his standards which perhaps showed signs of increased maturity in the unpredictable young front-man. He too will return home with a share of the ‘golden boot’ and one would hope that he can look back on this tournament as the start of a more consistent and reliable stage of his developing career.

Euro 2012: Prediction for The Final

Spain Vs. Italy:

So, here we are. It is time for the final and time for us to find out who will be crowned either the kings of Europe or the new kings of Europe.

Spain Vs Italy

Spain will of course go into the game as favourites but Italy should be hopeful that they can cause an upset

Spain head into the final hunting a third straight success in major tournament football, a feat which has never before been achieved and Italy are looking forward to trying to prevent the Spaniards from taking the title and also continuing their uncanny run of achieving major tournament success in the wake of or in the midst of major match-fixing scandals within their national game.

So far many have deemed Spain’s performances a little lacklustre when considering their enormously high standards but such thoughts and pessimism regarding the Spanish must be unfair given that they have once again made it all the way through the tournament and into the final.

Italy on the other hand have been the recipients of an enormous amount of praise for the way in which they have surprised people not only with their ability to carve out important results but also the way in which they have gone about their business on the pitch, playing with perhaps a greater emphasis on the attacking side of the game than has been evident in former Italian sides in major tournaments.

The man behind most of Italy’s attacking play has been Andrea Pirlo who has had an astonishingly good tournament and who has shone above the likes of Xavi and Iniesta of Spain each of whom have become the benchmark for creative midfielders to aspire to over the past few years. Pirlo’s range of passing has been at the forefront of Italy’s success in each and every one of their matches thus far and Spain will have to deal far better with the threat he poses from deep in the Italian midfield than either England or Germany managed to do in the previous two rounds.

Contrastingly, Spain have struggled to decide upon their ‘go-to man’ in this tournament and perhaps that is why they haven’t been quite so fluent as people have come to expect them to be. Some of their best attacking play has though been provided by Andres Iniesta who has been given a more forward-thinking role over the past couple of years by the Spanish coaching team and they will need him to be at his very best if they are to make history this weekend.

I have a feeling that this will be a very close game indeed and I think that things will unfold in similar fashion to how they did when these two sides met in their opening group game where Italy took the lead and were pegged back by Spain. I think that normal time will again see these two sides locked at 1-1 and I think Spain will win in extra-time in spite of a brave Italian performance.

I actually think that Italy could well be the side creating the bulk of the game’s best chances but I am backing Spain to fight their way to the narrowest of victories courtesy of some clinical finishing.

Euro 2012: Semi-Finals Predictions

Portgual Vs. Spain:

Though the reigning champions Spain will go into the first semi-final as big favourites to win and progress to a third straight final in major tournament football, their opponents and next-door neighbours Portugal are arguably in better form and will be keen to get one over on their more celebrated neighbours.

Ronaldo Casillas

This international ‘derby-match’ makes for a mouth-watering semi-final clash at the Euros

It isn’t as if ‘getting one over’ on Spain is Portugal’s only huge incentive to take this run further either, they are also hugely driven by their failure to capitalise on their run to the final on home turf in 2004 and to some extent are still embarrassed by their loss to huge underdogs Greece in that final and they are more than keen to try and erase such bitter memories with an incredible rise to prominence at this tournament.

If Portugal were to defeat Spain and then whoever would be lying in wait in the final then the Portugese will have landed the trophy in the most spectacular of fashions having come through the ‘group of death’ defeating Denmark and Holland along the way and then having defeated rivals Spain and then either one of footballing super-powers Germany or Italy in the final.

Typically, to win a major tournament you have to have overcome some serious opposition along but with their quarter-final draw aside, if Portugal were to win the tournament come Sunday evening then they would surely have had one of the more amazing runs ever seen in a European Championships.

Portugal will need to keep their dreams in check though for now, as they must try and do what nobody has done since France in 2006 and find a way to get the better of Spain in the knockout stages of a major competition.

Spain have been on the receiving end of a wave of criticism in this tournament for their perceived negativity in not selecting an ‘out-and-out’ striker  in half of their games but their record stands up against any criticism and scepticism as they have won three out of their four matches and drawn with fellow semi-finalists Italy.

Arguably their most criticised performance was their quarter-final showing against France but the facts are that they won the game 2-0 against very strong opposition and that they hardly ever looked even remotely troubled throughout. People have begun to turn against Spain as they do with many sides that are successful over a long period of time, as success does grate on some and any complaints about Spain’s strategy at this tournament and also the lack of excitement for the neutrals in a couple of their matches is just grown out of bitterness.

It is very hard indeed to justifiably have a pop at Spain and Vicente Del Bosque’s preferred tactics as they have once again found themselves unbeatable up to this point of the tournament. However, if Portugal harbor real hopes of becoming the first team since France to get the better of Spain in a major tournament then they would do well to follow in the footsteps of Croatia who may have ended up losing to Spain but along the way they caused some major concerns for their more celebrated opponents and could really have won the game had they made the most of their chances.

I think Portugal are actually quite well set up to cause Spain some issues and I think that inspired by Cristiano Ronaldo they will draw the game 1-1 in normal time. If this predicted score is to materialise then I will back Portugal to win either in extra-time or on penalties even if just to make this score prediction a little more ballsy.

 

Italy Vs. Germany:

The second of the semi-finals is set to be a very intriguing game indeed and in the wake of Germany’s performance against Greece in the quarter-finals which was full of attacking intent and ambition, their coach Joachim Loew now has some very tough selections to make in his side to face an Italian team who are likely to pose a greater threat and greater defensive resistance than Greece were capable of.

Pirlo Italy

Pirlo’s ‘Panenka’ spot-kick capped a wonderful night’s work against England both for him as an individual and for Italy as a whole

Arguably the toughest of Loew’s decisions regarding his line-up for the semi-finals will be whether he can find a place for the very impressive Marco Reus. Reus was behind much of Germany’s best play against the Greeks and he got his name on the score-sheet in emphatic style and may well have played his way in Loew’s thinking ahead of the Italy clash, as this individual performance was arguably more impressive than any other by one of Loew’s usual first-choice trio of attacking midfielders Thomas Mueller, Lukas Podolski and Mesut Ozil thus far in this tournament.

It seems a formality that Mario Gomez will come back in for Miroslav Klose as the lone striker and Germany will be heavily reliant upon Gomez to prove himself just as clinical this time around as he was in the opening two games of the tournament, which saw him score three goals having had possession of the ball for just 22 seconds throughout these two matches. This conversion rate was staggering and it proved many of Gomez’s doubters very wrong indeed and now Germany will hope he can return to the side in similar goal-scoring fashion.

Germany’s opponents Italy may not have frightened the life out of any potential opposition at this tournament with their failure to score over 120 minutes of football against England who they had on the back-foot for much of Sunday night but they did play well and they will be hugely encouraged by Andrea Pirlo’s glorious exhibition of passing football and one of Mario Balotelli’s more persistent, determined and perhaps most importantly mature performances in an Italian shirt.

Italy are under no illusions about the task lying ahead of them if they are serious about winning the Euros and they know they will have to be more clinical if they are to have any chance of doing so but there were many more positives than negatives to come out of their quarter-final performance and consequentially they will head into the Germany game with greater self-confidence.

I think that Italy will find it hard to adapt to being fronted up to when it comes to possession and in terms of territorial domination in this semi-final clash after the dominance they experienced in their game against England and what I think will hurt them the most is that Andrea Pirlo in particular is far more unlikely to have a huge say in this game as Germany are better equipped to deal with the significant threat which he poses.

I think Germany will win the game 2-1 and I still have them down as my favourites to win the tournament as I have throughout the entirety of the competition.

Euro 2012: Quarter-Final 4

England Vs. Italy:

The last of the quarter-finals at the Euros pits England against an Italian side that have been trying their utmost to gain the upper hand in the psychological battle going into Sunday night’s game with their suggestions that ‘England are the new Italy’.

Rooney Pirlo

In a game which is set to be a battle of two organised outfits, Rooney and Pirlo will carry the heavy burden of being the ‘difference makers’

These remarks and suggestions of copycat tactics on one hand send out the message that the Italians are flattered by England’s ‘aspirations’ to take on board their style of play and that to have ‘followers’ of their methods is empowering and on the other hand attempts to belittle England by suggesting that they needed to copy the Italians in order to further themselves.

There is certainly more than a hint of a dig in the messages coming out of the Italian camp about England but when it comes down to it they will know that they are up against a team who are not merely an organised unit but rather a team on the up, a team that are as settled and as happy as they have been in quite some time and ultimately a team that can carry a significant threat.

England are unlikely to have taken too much heed of the Italian’s efforts to ruffle their feathers given their recent run of results and they too will go into this quarter-final match with real hope as well as a great deal of respect for their opponents.

Respect aside though, England will realise that this Italian side isn’t the strongest that they have ever brought into a major tournament and that they have nothing to fear going into the match, plenty to take care of and much to plan for but ultimately this Italian squad don’t possess the defensive qualities or midfield tenacity of many of their previous squads for major tournaments and England should go into this match believing that they can hurt the Italians.

If you look at each individual position across the field, in all honesty it would be hard to identify many Italian players that would make it into England’s starting line-up and this in itself should motivate England to prove they aren’t the ‘new Italy’ but perhaps that they can be a better version.

To pick between Gianluigi Buffon or Joe Hart in goal would be a tough call, you would probably have to find a place in England’s line-up for Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio would have a chance of making it in but the only other player who would almost certainly make it into England’s team is Mario Balotelli who would get the nod ahead of Danny Welbeck.

So, England should go into this match confident that they can get a result and I have a feeling that they will whether it be by hook or by crook. I think that the game will end 1-1 after ninety minutes and that England will take the game either in extra time or in a penalty shoot-out and if this were to happen then England would face-off against Germany in what would be an epic semi-final clash that would stir memories of England’s shoot-out heartbreak from Euro 96 at Wembley.

Euro 2012: Quarter-Final 3 Prediction

Spain Vs. France:

Throughout the group stages both France and Spain struggled for fluency at times and both flirted with elimination from the competition on match-day three of the groups when they were each given a real scare by ‘inferior’ opposition.

Spain France Euro 2012

Spain and France have struggled to find their best form so far in the competition

France in particular struggled to find form in the group stages and qualified from group D as runners-up having managed a total of just four points from their three matches, their most disappointing performance of all coming in their final game against Sweden where they were beaten 2-0 by a side already assured of elimination from the competition.

Arguably their best performance of the groups was against England in their opening game where they dominated the game for long periods but even with the amount of territory and possession they managed against the English they still didn’t look hugely threatening as they were all too often limited to long range strikes at goal.

If France are to have any hope of shocking the reigning European and World Champions Spain then they will have to find much more fluency and will have to find ways of getting in behind their opponents which is something they have really struggled to do in their group matches against England and Sweden.

When the French are at their best they find a way of getting their danger men into the action on a regular basis and it is essential that they provide the likes of Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery with plenty of ball so that they can use the full width of the pitch and stretch the game. If they don’t manage to do so then it is likely that Spain will be allowed to play within their comfort zone in the narrow areas of the pitch where they can really hurt France with their tight and slick passing.

If Spain have their own way then they will try and dictate the play as mentioned and keep the game in the central areas of the field where they are arguably more blessed than any other nation. In their final group game against Croatia they may have eventually snatched the points through Jesus Navas’ late tap-in but for long periods of the game they looked fragile against the counter-attacking willingness and talents that Croatia had at their disposal and they should really have been punished in the last half an hour when Ivan Rakitic failed to head home the easiest of his side’s chances.

Had Rakitic applied the finishing touches to Croatia’s most threatening break then Spain could well have been the tournament’s biggest opening round casualty but they managed to pull through in the end and they will be hoping they can re-find their best form in the knock-out stages where it really counts.

Spain’s finest performance of the competition thus far came when they defeated the Republic of Ireland by four goals to nil. In this match they found a balance between their suffocating midfield play and their ability to stretch the game when required and as such they created several good chances and made their opponents look horribly out of their depth.

Tonight Spain will have to do much the same if they are to get the better of a France side who will arguably provide Spain with their toughest challenge so far in tournament if they can find anything like their best form. I think that Spain will just about get the job done but I expect them to find the going tough throughout periods of the match before coming out of the game on the right side of a 2-1 final scoreline.

Euro 2012: Day 11 Predictions

Croatia Vs. Spain:

This fixture places the top two teams in Group C against one another and if either side wins the match then they will top the group and face the runners-up in Group D in the quarter-finals.

Torres Spain

Torres found his best form against Ireland and will be hoping to keep it up against Croatia tonight

Up to this point Croatia have surpassed the expectations of many and they have been well worth the four points which they have gained so far in the group stages. Their opening  3-1 win against Ireland was clinical and then they followed this result with a strong second half fight-back against Italy to earn themselves what could prove to be a crucial point.

They will again have to dig deep if they are to get anything out of their match against Spain and given their  opponents’ suffocating style of possession-play Croatia are likely to have to be even more clinical than they have been already in their opening two games. The key to Croatia getting a win or a draw will be the solidity and stubbornness of their defensive play and the link play between star player Luka Modric and their two impressively clinical front-men Mario Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic.

Having struggled to break down a stubborn Italian side in their opening game, Spain will have been buoyed by their thumping of Ireland four days ago. Vicente Del Bosque decided to ditch the ‘4-6-0’ formation from their opening fixture and opted for a recognised front man in the form of Fernando Torres. He then had to do little more than sit back and reap the rewards of his decision as Torres bagged himself a couple of confidence boosting goals in an emphatic victory, which sees them head into the last game of Group C as the favourites to win the group.

They may be the favourites to win the match and win the group but Spain will have to be very wary of the threat which Croatia have posed to the other sides in Group C and this match is unlikely to be anywhere near as comfortable as the other night against Ireland. I’m going for a 2-1 win for Spain with Torres to add to his goals tally for the tournament.

 

Italy Vs. Ireland:

Up to this point Ireland have failed to do themselves justice at the Euros and as old and stubborn as he may be, Giovanni Trapattoni will surely be left ruing his side’s missed opportunity to announce their return to tournament football with real gusto. Two games and two unimpressive losses is a record which Ireland will be determined to nip in the bud and they will be very eager to put things right by at least going home with a point courtesy of their final group game tonight.

Dunne Given

Ireland have disappointed thus far and Italy will be confident of inflicting another defeat upon them

Their opponents today are Italy who will be fairly satisfied with their first two games of the tournament in spite of only having picked up two points. Their opening day draw against Spain will have been of particular satisfaction as they matched ‘the world’s best side’ for long periods of the match and as well as negating much of the threat of their much-vaunted opposition they also created some very decent chances of their own and could even have won the game had they been a little more clinical. Their second game of the group stages will have been have been less pleasing, as a win would have put them in contention to win the group and they failed to push on from what was a very impressive first half performance against the Croats and ended up with another 1-1 draw.

This record of having led both of their matches but having failed to win a game so far in the tournament will be a real concern for Cesare Prandelli and his Italian side but they know that they must win against Ireland tonight  if they are to have any chance of progressing to the last eight and I think they will do so. I think Italy will win the game 3-1.

Euro 2012: Day 7 Predictions

Italy Vs.Croatia:

Both of the sides involved in the first of Thursday’s matches will be very pleased with how they acquitted themselves in their opening fixtures of Euro 2012.

Di Natale Italy

Di Natale’s finish was sublime and he may well start against Croatia

Italy dealt well with Spain’s unusual ‘4-6-0′ formation for the first hour of the game and looked consistently threatening on the break with Balotelli and Cassano both spurning decent opportunities before second half substitute Antonio Di Natale popped up with a delightful finish to give them a surprise lead.

Unfortunately for Italy the lead wasn’t theirs for long as Spain hit back quickly through Cesc Fabregas’ equaliser but ultimately the Italians will be fairly pleased with the draw and with how they dealt with Spain’s unexpected formation and typically constant threat in and around the box.

Croatia will also be in good spirits heading into the Italy clash as they were at their clinical best against an Irish side who are often very difficult to break down. Croatia manager Slaven Bilic set his team up in a positive fashion and knowing that Ireland would play on the back foot seemed to grasp the fact that his team would need to make the most of any opportunities that came their way and his players

Mandzukic Croatia

Mandzukic was the two goal hero Croatia in their opener

delivered.

The game between these two sides is arguably the most pivotal of the entire group stage as many believe it will decide who qualifies from the group along with tournament favourites Spain. However, if Croatia win and Spain fail to beat Ireland in the second of Thursday’s matches then Croatia will already be through as group winners.

Italy will be pleased with their point against Spain and will back themselves to beat Ireland so a draw on Thursday wouldn’t be an awful result and I think that is what the outcome will be, I’m going for a 1-1 draw.

Spain Vs. Ireland:

Ireland and their fans may well just be happy to be in the Euros as many are suggesting but they will still be feeling a little flat after a disappointing defeat in their opening game of the tournament.

McClean Euro 2012

The Ireland manager has been put under great media pressure to start James McClean against Spain

Spain on the other hand certainly have more lofty ambitions about the tournament as a whole and though they may view Italy as their greatest challengers in Group C I think they too will be left a little underwhelmed by their opening day performance and result.

Time will tell of course whether Spain’s point against the Italians was actually a very good point in the context of the group but with the players that Spain have at their disposal they would surely have hoped they could start building some momentum with a win right from the off. The second round of group fixtures though provides Spain with the perfect opportunity to kick-start the defence of their European crown against an Irish side who looked a little lacklustre at this level in the opening round of fixtures.

Fabregas Spain

Fabregas was probably the most advanced player in Spain’s surprise ‘4-6-0’ formation

The reason Ireland’s performance was so disappointing was that not only did they try and play defensive minded football as everyone had expected them to, but their display at times crept beyond this and into the realms of negativity and damage limitation. Within the context of major tournament football they simply appeared a little shell-shocked.

Sadly for Ireland I simply can’t see how they are going to drastically improve on Sunday’s showing and avoid being eliminated from the tournament on Thursday and I expect Spain to win comfortably. I’m going for the reigning champions to win 3-0 but if they play with an ‘out-and-out striker’ then they could even win by more.

Euro 2012: Day 3 Predictions

Italy Vs. Spain:

Spain and Italy could hardly be going into this tournament having had more contrasting preparations for the tournament.

Spain Italy football

Spain will be big favourites to defeat Italy and are the favourites with the bookies to win the tournament

Spain have won both of the last two major tournaments and are heading into the Euros with a strong, familiar and for the most-part experienced squad and as such are very much being targeted by the rest of the field as ‘the team to beat’ to.

Italy on the other hand have disappointed on their two most recent outings in major tournament football, have a younger and more inexperienced look to their squad than usual and their domestic leagues have once again been embroiled in a wide-scale match-fixing scandal.

On the plus side  though for Italy, the last time their nation was under scrutiny amidst match-fixing issues they went to the World Cup in Germany 2006 and they came home as champions of the world. Also, as much as Spain may possess a squad packed with talent, class and depth they are missing a couple of the key players from their recent triumphs, Carles Puyol and David Villa, both of whom have failed to recover form injuries in time for the defence of Spain’s crown.

In spite of their high-profile injury absences Spain still have an embarrassment of riches at their disposal and I expect them to win 2-1 in the opening game of Group C. Just as an aside to my score prediction, I think it will be intriguing as it always is to watch Mario Balotelli and to see whether he looks like producing the sublime or the ridiculous at the Euros, both of which we know he is all too capable of…

If Balotelli and fellow front-man Di Natale can link well with each other then don’t write off Italy’s chances of getting themselves a draw but I think Spain will be a little too good for them on the day.

Croatia Vs. Ireland:

The second match on the opening day for Group C sees Ireland return to the big time and although they have a very tough looking group draw they will head into the tournament with great enthusiasm and the hope that they can spring a few surprises.

Giovanni Trapattoni Slaven Bilic

The opening game for Ireland and Croatia will depend much on the respective strategies of their two managers

Their opening game pits them against Croatia who have at times really impressed in tournament football since returning as an independent nation in the early nineties and who possess a few of European football’s most sought after and most in-form players.

The two names that spring to mind immediately with Croatia in terms of their biggest assets are Luka Modric, who is on the radar of several European super-clubs, and Nikica Jelavic who has proved an instant hit in the Premier League with Everton. If Modric is at his superb best then it is likely that Jelavic and his fellow forwards will have plenty of scraps to feed on and if they do then Ireland could be in for a torrid evening.

Ireland are likely to set up in typical fashion as their manager Giovanni Trapattoni is very sure of his first XI and how he thinks they can be most successfully deployed. The manager tends to side with defensive responsibilities and his Ireland side are expected to soak up pressure and to try and produce match-winning chances on the break with the likes of skipper Robbie Keane ready to pounce at the top end of the field as and when chances might come his way.

It is essential that Ireland try and keep Modric under wraps as he has the potential to pull the strings and eventually pull Ireland apart with his clever running and eye for a killer pass. I think Ireland will give a decent account of themselves in this game but I expect Croatia to triumph either 2-0 or 2-1.

 

Euro 2012 Group C: Can anyone topple Spain?

Italy:

The Italian national side may have endured a few years of indifferent form but they remain the most recent side to have won a major trophy aside from Spain who accompany them in group C.

Spear-headed by ‘Super-Mario’ Balotelli the Italians will go into the Euros knowing that in being drawn with the reigning champions they have immediately become only the second favourites to progress from their group but also that they have a huge chance to send out a statement of intent by either beating Spain or by finishing above them in the group.

Balotelli Italy

Balotelli will have to keep his emotions in check if he is to deliver for Italy at the Euros

As ever with the Italian national side there is plenty of experience to call upon in the form of players like Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgo Chiellini, Daniele De Rossi, Anrdrea Pirlo and Antonio Di Natale but the squad they’ve named for the Euros is arguably their most exciting and refreshing selection for quite some time in major tournament football.

In and around the experienced figure-heads of the squad there is plenty of youth and plenty of talent and it isn’t limited to just one area of the field either. At the back the likes of Angelo Ogbonna and Ignacio Abate look like big prospects and up top they have included the likes of Fabio Borini and Sebastian Giovinco to support the ever-eccentric Balotelli.

One to watch… Mario Balotelli: It may well feel like Balotelli has been around forever given the antics on and off the field which have made him so well known but this will be the very first major tournament appearance for Italy. There is no doubting his ability to succeed and be a star at the Euros but huge questions still remain about his temperament and it will be interesting to see if he can keep his emotions in check.

Euros nostalgia: Italy have a rich history in World Cup football but their Euros record is poor by comparison. In two of the past four tournaments they have failed to get out of their group but they did reach the final in 2000 when they were felled by an extra-time winner from France’s David Trezeguet. The only time Italy have won the tournament was way back in 1968.

Tournament prospects: It appears to me as if Italy will be hugely reliant on the ability of Balotelli up-front as he is their real stand-out player. There is a decent blend of youth and experience at Italy’s disposal for the Euros and in spite of the turmoil in domestic Italian football at the moment it would still be a surprise if they weren’t to make it out of the group.

Spain:

Reigning champions Spain have an awful lot to live up to this summer given their fantastic performances in the last two major international competitions but their technically gifted squad should be confident of landing a third straight piece of silverware.

Iniesta Xavi

Spain’s ‘Golden Duo’ in midfield will team up once again

One area which could be exploited by other teams is their defence which will be missing their rock of a centre-half and the man that would have been their captain, Carles Puyol. Any potential problems at the back for Spain may not just be caused by Puyol’s absence but also the form and versatility of their other defensive options.

Their other truly world class centre-half, Gerard Pique, hasn’t enjoyed his finest season with Barcelona this year and he may well be partnered by Sergio Ramos, a man far more accustomed to playing at full-back, in the heart of Spain’s defence.

Another potential creak in the Spanish rear-guard is their lack of a natural left-back. They will probably opt to play Valencia’s Jordi Alba in this position but he isn’t exactly a natural defender. He is very strong going forward has the pace and stamina to get up and down the left flank all game long but it is unclear up to now whether he possesses the discipline to play in such an important position on one of world football’s biggest stages.

Another major miss for Spain this summer is that of David Villa who hasn’t recovered in time from a broken leg suffered at the back end of 2011. However, as much as Villa is a big loss one would have to think that Spain have more than enough in reserve to cover his absence as their squad still possesses so much attacking strength and depth that players such as Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and Fernando Torres all might struggle to find a place in the starting line-up.

One to watch… Fernando Llorente: The powerful Athletic Bilbao forward has played a huge part in his clubs impressive cup runs both in Europe and in domestic football this season and in the absence of David Villa and the absence of Fernando Torres’ best form it could be down to him to lead the line for Spain and to provide the bulk of goals needed to win a tournament like the Euros.

Euros nostalgia: The previous European Championships in 2008 saw Spain underline their undoubted potential. Inspired by the coinciding rise to prominence of Barcelona and their famous ‘tiki-taka’ brand of football, Spain passed their way to the most elegant of major tournament victories sealing their triumph with a 1-0 win over big-tournament specialists Germany in the final.

Tournament prospects: Given their recent successes in major tournament football Spain will go into the Euros as the team to beat and rightly so. They may appear a little damaged by a couple of major injury-enforced absences but the depth of quality at their disposal should allow them to cope with such losses and go deep into the competition. I have a hunch that this might be the tournament where they are finally denied victory but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them get to the final once again.

Republic of Ireland:

This is the first time that the Republic of Ireland have qualified for a major tournament since the World Cup in 2002 and their Italian-heavy coaching contingent deserve an enormous amount of credit for the work they’ve done in getting their side back to this level.

There are a few survivors from the World Cup in 2002 still present in Ireland’s squad for the Euros and they will be hoping that these more experienced players can help them try and stand up to the likes of reigning champions Spain in the group stages.

James McClean Ireland

McClean has been a great find for Sunderland and he hopes to be much the same for Ireland

To be drawn in the same group as Spain on their return to major tournament football might appear a little unlucky for Ireland but their players and their fans will just be delighted to be back at this level and to be being thrust into direct competition with the world’s best side.

One to watch… James McClean: Sunderland’s power-house of a winger was plucked from the relative obscurity of the Irish leagues last summer and since Northern-Irishman Martin O’Neill has taken the helm at the North-East club McClean has been thrust into their starting line-up and has excelled . The youngster’s meteoric rise to prominence was sealed when Giovanni Trapattoni named him in Ireland’s squad for the Euros and now he has the opportunity to impress on an even bigger stage.

Euros nostalgia: Ireland’s only previous taste of the Euros came under Jack Charlton’s management back in 1988. They narrowly missed out on a semi-final place but took away with them the precious memory of defeating England 1-0 in their opening game of the tournament.

Tournament prospects: Ireland go into the Euros as huge underdogs and most people, myself included, will expect them to end the group stages propping up the rest of teams in Group C. The excitement surrounding them competing in one of world football’s biggest competitions will undoubtedly inspire them and I expect them to give everyone in their group a good game but ultimately I can’t see how they will get enough points on the board to challenge for a place in the quarter-finals.

Croatia:

Ever since Croatia took their first steps into international football as an independent nation in the early 1990’s they have never looked back and they have often impressed and punched above their weight in major tournaments.

Modric Croatia

Modric will be key to Croatia’s hopes at the Euros

This time around the Croats will head into the Euros armed with a squad including one of world football’s most highly-rated attacking midfielders in Luka Modric and they will hope that their chief playmaker can help them compete strongly in the group stages and get them into the reckoning for a place in the last eight.

Though they might not possess one of the more eye-catching squads in European football Croatia should not be underestimated as they have a lot of very decent players to accompany the likes of Luka Modric and perhaps none more so than their striker Nikica Jelavic who has been a major hit at Everton since signing from Rangers in January.

One to watch… Nikica Jelavic: Having established himself as the most threatening striker in the SPL in his time with Rangers, Jelavic has now made the big move south of the border and into Premier League football and in his first few months in England he has proved himself time and again and his form towards the end of the season was as good as pretty much any other striker in the league. If the Croatian front-man can carry this form into the summer then Croatia could spring a few surprises once again.

Euros nostalgia: Croatia are responsible for one of the most famous nights of English football’s recent history after defeating them by three goals to two at Wembley in the final game of their qualification group for the 2008 tournament. This victory saw Croatia become one of the teams to qualify at England’s expense and thus denying one of Europe’s finest sides on paper a place in the previous European Championships.

A brief summary of Group C:

On paper it appears as if reigning champions Spain will be the huge favourites to win Group C and I can’t see anybody preventing them from doing so.

Beyond this though I am struggling to work out exactly what the outcome of the group will be but I suspect that Ireland will finish bottom of the group and therefore I think that it is between Italy and Croatia in the battle to qualify for the latter stages of the tournament.

If it were simply down to the quality of the sides on paper then I would plump for Italy every time but Croatia have demonstrated several times in the past that they aren’t afraid of a challenge and Italy may well be inhibited by the ongoing investigations into corruption and match-fixing in their domestic leagues. It is a really tough call and I am clueless as to who will progress alongside Spain.