Today at Euro 2012: Croatia v Spain; Italy v Republic of Ireland
Croatia v Spain
There were two spectres hovering over the Croatia team as they trained under sullen skies in the PGE Arena in Gdansk yesterday. The first, expressed continually in the Italian media, was that they would contrive to draw 2-2 with Spain tonight, allowing both sides to qualify for the quarter-finals at Italy's expense.
The second was that there would be a repeat of the racism directed at Italy's Mario Balotelli during Thursday's 1-1 draw in Poznan, which has led to the Croatian FA being charged by Uefa – who may impose the same suspended six-point penalty that will hang over Russia for the next four years, following violence by their supporters in Wroclaw.
The first, said coach Slaven Bilic, was an absurd suggestion, though he took the racism threat rather more seriously. "I would say to the Italian people: 'Trust us'," he said. "If it is 2-2, it is 2-2; that is not such an unusual score. It is not as if we would have to draw 7-7. That would be strange.
"Racism is a big problem in Europe and around the world. Not even as a football manager, but as a Croatian, a parent, a sportsman and a person who lives in a modern, open-minded state, I am very disappointed by this. Everyone is welcome in our country. I don't like these kind of supporters and nor do our players. We are angry at these couple of crazy supporters and we have to put the sanctions in place that will stop them forever."
Should any punishment arise, Bilic will not be around to endure them, since he has accepted a lucrative offer to manage Lokomotiv Moscow once the tournament is over. Not many would bet when that would be. Bilic has always predicted that, if his team managed to escape Group C, they could go a very long way. "We have always played better against the better teams and now we are up against the best in the world," he said. "For this generation of Croatian footballers, this is the game of their lives."
Spain, Bilic said, "had shown two faces in this tournament" and it was the one they displayed in the opening fixture against the Italians that interested him most. "We learned something from that," he said. "We have to play against Spain as the Italians did because they caused them problems." Nevertheless, Vicente del Bosque is likely to start with Fernando Torres, something he did not do in the opening fixture.
Croatia: 1 PLETIKOSA, 11 SRNA, 5 CORLUKA, 13 SCHILDENFELD*, 2 STRINIC, 7 RAKITIC, 8 VUKOJEVIC, 10 MODRIC*, 20 PERISIC, 17 MANDZUKIC, 9 JELAVIC
Spain: 1 CASILLAS, 18 ALBA*, 3 PIQUE, 15 RAMOS, 17 ARBELOA*, 14 ALONSO*, 16 BUSQUETS, 6 INIESTA, 8 XAVI, 21 SILVA, 9 TORRES
*misses next match if booked
Kick-off 7.45pm, Gdansk (BBC1) Ref W Stark (Ger) Odds: Croatia 7-1 Draw 7-4 Spain 8-11
Italy v Republic of Ireland
Italy know that a victory tonight is a minimum requirement against a team that has conceded seven goals in two matches. Even that might not be enough. Should Croatia and Spain draw, Italy would be at the mercy of goal difference.
After two 1-1 draws so far, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli is considering moving from a 3-5-2 system to 4-3-1-2. Daniele De Rossi would move back into midfield from centre-back, with Ignazio Abate and Federico Balzaretti at full-back. Mario Balotelli's patchy form and knee injury mean he will probably lose his place up front to Antonio Di Natale, who scored a brilliant goal against Spain.
Damien Duff will captain Ireland for his 100th cap while Giovanni Trapattoni will bring Kevin Doyle back in for Simon Cox up front.
Italy: 1 BUFFON, 7 ABATE, 15 BARZAGLI, 3 CHIELLINI*, 6 BALZARETTI, 16 DE ROSSI, 21 PIRLO, 8 MARCHISIO, 22 DIAMANTI, 11 DI NATALE, 10 CASSANO
Ireland: 1 GIVEN, 3 WARD, 2 ST LEDGER*, 5 DUNNE, 4 O'SHEA, 7 McGEADY, 8 ANDREWS*, 6 WHELAN*, 11 DUFF, 9 DOYLE, 10 KEANE*
*misses next match if booked
Kick-off 7.45pm, Poznan (BBC3) Ref C Cakir (Tur) Odds: Italy 3-10 Draw 9-2 Republic of Ireland 10-1
Not another 2-2: Italy fear repeat
Italy need to win to progress, but even if they do, a 2-2 draw between Spain and Croatia will knock them out. It is an invidious position, but even more so given that Italy were knocked out of Euro 2004 in exactly the same way, when Denmark and Sweden drew 2-2 to make it out of the group. The winner between Spain and Croatia tonight will top the group, while the loser would also go through if Italy drop points.
Player to watch: Claudio Marchisio, Italy
A strong Juventus has always meant a strong Italy, and so it is with the spine of this side. The Italian champions provide the goalkeeper, the three best centre-backs and the two-chambered heart of the midfield: not just Andrea Pirlo but also Claudio Marchisio.
It certainly helps having players that know each other. Pirlo only arrived at Juventus last summer but instantly reached an instinctive understanding with Marchisio. For Juventus his job is to reach the parts of the pitch that the 33-year-old genius cannot. Marchisio bounds up and down, making tackles, making runs, making the space Pirlo needs to paint his masterpieces. It clearly works: Juve won their first Serie A title since 2003.
The Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, unsurprisingly, has aped Juventus, abandoning his preferred 4-3-1-2 for their 3-5-2. Pirlo and Marchisio come into midfield, joined by Thiago Motta. And so far it has worked very well. Spain were surprised by Italy's brave, purposeful style. While the Spanish midfielders passed the ball between themselves, Marchisio drove through the middle, leading Italy's attacks.
But Marchisio is not just a runner. In the first half against Croatia the 26-year-old was very accomplished, impressing with his footwork and shooting – he went close to scoring more than once.
The breadth of Marchisio's skills recalls his hero Steven Gerrard. Like Gerrard, Marchisio is a local boy and one-club man. He grew up as a Juventus fan and has just completed his sixth first-team season. They hope he can be their Daniele De Rossi. So far he is doing well enough.
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