Much has been said about Spain and Italy and how they will easily navigate their way against the Republic of Ireland and Croatia. But is not going to be a walk in the park for the two European giants.
SPAIN- Ranked 1st in the world
Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas, Pepe Reina, Victor Valdes
Defenders: Alvaro Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos, Juanfran, Jordi Alba, Raul Albiol, Gerard Pique, Javi Martinez
Midfielders: Xavi, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, David Silva, Santi Cazorla, Cesc Fabregas, Juan Mata
Forwards: Jesus Navas , Pedro, Fernando Llorente, Fernando Torres, Alvaro Negredo
When you look at that 23-man squad, Spain look like an invincible team. They have probably the best goalkeeper in Casillas and a midfield which is likely to defeat anyone in its way. Their defence, without Carles Puyol will certainly be a wee bit easier to penetrate but Pique and Ramos will make sure it doesn’t happen too often.
With the architecture of Xavi and Alonso in the middle, there will be no dearth of chances but the absense of David Villa will add pressure on Torres and Llorente to score. Their back-up is also fantastic, with Silva and Fabregas like-for-like replacements if Xavi and Iniesta misfire.
Prediction: Will draw a game but still finish 1st and qualify for last eight.
ITALY- Ranked 12th in the world
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon , Morgan De Sanctis, Salvatore Sirigu.
Defenders: Ignazio Abate, Federico Balzaretti, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Christian Maggio, Angelo Ogbonna.
Midfielders: Danielle De Rossi, Alessandro Diamanti, Emanuele Giaccherini, Claudio Marchisio, Riccardo Montolivo, Thiago Motta, Antonio Nocerino, Andrea Pirlo.
Forwards: Mario Balotelli, Fabio Borini, Antonio Cassano, Antonio Di Natale, Sebastien Giovinco.
Italy are European giants… no matter what, they are always considered as having a chance to reach at least the final four of an international tournament. But their performances have not been as creative of yesteryear. They are still the best defensive side in Euro qualifying— conceding only two goals on the road to the finals. Their real problem is attack and midfield.
If Cassano and Balotelli (both temperamental forwards) click, then Italy will have no worries up front. But they have a certain risk attached to their inclusion in the first XI. Obviously they are favourites to start, but Cesare Prandelli needs to be clever how to use these loose cannons.
Prediction: May struggle to break down a resilient Ireland and Spanish squads. We’ll be brave and say they won’t make it to the last eight.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND- Ranked 18th in the world
Goalkeepers: Shay Given, Keiren Westwood, David Forde
Defenders: John O’Shea, Stephen Kelly, Stephen Ward, Richard Dunne, Sean St Ledger, Darren O’Dea, Kevin Foley
Midfielders: Glenn Whelan, Keith Andrews, Keith Fahey, Darron Gibson, Damien Duff, Aiden McGeady, Stephen Hunt, James McClean
Forwards: Robbie Keane, Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, Simon Cox, Jon Walters.
Since that Thierry Henry hand-ball incident in the World Cup qualifiers, Ireland have looked like a different squad. They are a group of players who look fine-tuned to frustrate. But they need to grab their chances and make it count when it matters most. McLean and Duff are fine wingers who will provide crosses for Keane, Doyle and Long— all strikers who excel in the tap-in business.
But their central midfield lacks any spark. There is no one in the middle to make things tick and in their quest for a clean-sheet, they are often lagging in the counter-attack. If they find a way to link better in the middle, then Ireland can spring a surprise.
Prediction: Will get one result, but still finish 4th in the group.
CROATIA- Ranked 8th in the world
Goalkeepers: Stipe Pletikosa, Danijel Subasic, Ivan Kelava
Defenders: Vedran Corluka, Josip Simunic, Ivan Strinic, Gordon Schildenfeld, Domagoj Vida, Jurica Buljat
Midfielders: Danijel Pranjic, Darijo Srna, Ognjen Vukojevic, Ivan Rakitic, Tomislav Dujmovic, Luka Modric, Milan Badelj, Niko Kranjcar, Ivan Perisic, Ivo Ilicevic.
Forwards: Mario Mandzukic, Eduardo Da Silva, Nikica Jelavic, Nikola Kalinic
Croatia are a very talented group of players who love playing in a slick style which is aided by their skillful midfield and clinical forward line. The quad of Srna, Rakitic, Modric and Kranjcar is full of flair and this is a team which could take down Italy. Their defence is a worry though, but if they grab a couple of quick goals, then Croatia are set to cause a few worries for the big teams.
Jelavic of Everton has hit form at the perfect time and Da Silva is back to scoring form after his horrific injury. Croatia are the team to really beat to make it past this group.
Prediction: Will cause an upset and finish 2nd to reach last eight.