Today at Euro 2012: Italy v Croatia and Spain v Ireland
Thursday 14 June 2012
Italy v Croatia
The Croatia and Italy coaches, Slaven Bilic and Cesare Prandelli, have admitted to struggling to work out how the other will play in their Group C match today.
Bilic, who saw his side sweep aside Ireland in their opener, said that although the Azzurri are behind reigning champions Spain in quality, they more than make up for it with their variations in tactics.
"You know how Spain are going to play but Italy are so unpredictable," Bilic said. "They can play the short balls, play through the middle and counter-attack with long balls from [Andrea] Pirlo to the strikers. They are one of the biggest favourites."
This should be a tactically interesting game as Bilic's Italian counterpart, Prandelli, appears to have little idea of how Croatia are going to operate either. "Croatia are the most dangerous squad because they are the most unpredictable one," he said. "They change the way they play all the time, sometimes even from one half to another."
Both coaches are expected to retain the systems that served them well in the opening games. Bilic has little reason to change anything given their 3-1 defeat of Ireland – Luka Modric will still be the focal point of a probable same XI.
Prandelli is set to keep faith with Antonio Cassano, despite the striker courting controversy with homophobic comments about the Italy squad on Tuesday. After his goal against Spain, Antonio Di Natale is pushing for a starting berth, meaning Mario Balotelli would have to be content with a place on the bench. The game comes too soon for defender Andrea Barzagli, but it is hoped he will be fit for their game against Ireland on Monday.
Spain v Ireland
The simplicity of Ireland's approach can still cause Spain a few problems. Indeed, the world champions have arguably given themselves their own biggest issue.
Consider the Spanish at Euro 2008. With Marcos Senna holding, Xavi conducting and Andres Iniesta and David Silva creating directly ahead, there was a seamless nature to their passing. Once opponents began to congest the box and try to hit on the counter, Vicente Del Bosque added a second pivot, in Xabi Alonso. This, however, has had two consequences. First, it split the Barcelona core of Sergi Busquets and Xavi. Second, by placing the less mobile Alonso in the centre and pushing Xavi further forward, it took the Barcelona player away from where he is most effective. With a more constrained view of the opposition half, Xavi cannot supply the same level of pass.
The effect of all of this is that Spain's possession football is not quite as penetrative as it was in 2008 – counter-intuitively, the extra defensive midfielder puts more pressure on the back line. Because Spain's passages of play are more liable to end without effect, they are vulnerable to being caught by a quick punt up the pitch – as happened against Switzerland at the 2010 World Cup.
Without Carles Puyol they lack presence at the back. Worse, the absence of an off-pitch relationship between Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique is reflected on the pitch. As we saw against Italy, they leave big gaps between each other and lack assurance in the air. The method of Ireland's goal against Croatia? A cross between the centre-halves for a header.
Spain may be imposing, but hurting them is not impossible.
Player to watch: Christian Maggio, Italy
Italy's defensive crisis could be the making of them, and of Christian Maggio. Cesare Prandelli was forced to move to 3-5-2 for the Spain game on Sunday, but found a system to match the world and European champions. And by allowing for dominant wing-backs, Prandelli has given Maggio his preferred platform.
For four seasons Maggio has been part of one of Europe's most engaging sides, the Napoli team revived by the ownership of Aurelio De Laurentiis. In Naples, Maggio plays as the right wing-back in a 3-4-1-2 system. With the cover of an extra centre-back Maggio is free to shuttle up and down the wing, knowing that he has cover behind him and space in front.
Like football's next best attacking right-back, Dani Alves, Maggio always seems empowered by the element of surprise. The tactics are no secret but, as a move builds up, attention is drawn to the midfielders or forwards in possession. Then, suddenly, the ball is swept to the right and, as if by magic, Maggio appears, ready to shoot or cross.
The role requires pace, stamina, bravery and timing but Maggio has all of these and more. He was excellent in the season just gone for Napoli, whom he joined from Sampdoria in 2008. Maggio was relentless against both Manchester City and Chelsea in the Champions League, and only when he went off injured at Stamford Bridge did Chelsea move back into the tie. Maggio was selected in the Serie A team of the season, and ended it with a well-earned Coppa Italia winner's medal
It was enough to move Maggio in Prandelli's thoughts but he must have expected to play here in a back four. Absences then demanded a change to a back three and now Maggio has the chance to do for his country what he does for his club. Expect more of the same down his flank this afternoon.
Today at Euro 2012 in figures
2002 Spain's last meeting with the Republic of Ireland came 10 years ago, almost to the day. The sides drew a World Cup second-round match 1-1 in Suwon on 16 June 2002, Mick McCarthy's side eventually losing on penalties.
50 Nicklas Bendtner celebrated his 50th cap for Denmark last night with his fifth goal in five matches against Portugal.
45 Spain's squad has the highest average of international caps – six more than tonight's opponents Ireland.
5 Irish supporters will be hoping that Keith Andrews packed his shooting boots for the game in Gdansk – the midfielder missed the target five times during the opening-game defeat against Croatia on Sunday.
When teaching the meaning of Christmas backfires
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