Euro 2012: Group C Preview

Spain's players (L to R) front row: Benat Etxebarria, David Jimenez Silva, Alvaro Arbeloa, Santiago...

Spain's players (L to R) front row: Benat Etxebarria, David Jimenez Silva, Alvaro Arbeloa, Santiago Cazorla, Juan Manuel Mata and Ignacio Monreal. Second row : goalkeeper Jose Manuel Reina (aka Pepe Reina), Sergio Ramos, Raul Albiol, Xabier Alonso and Fernando Torres pose prior to their international friendly football match against South Korea on May 30 in the buildup to Euro 2012. (REUTERS)

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 5:23 PM ET

SPAIN

Most any other team in the world would be crippled with the loss of two key elements.

But, then, no other team is Spain.

The defending World Cup and Euro champion goes into Euro 2012 as favourite again. That despite missing one of the best strikers in the world, David Villa, and Carles Puyol, the defender who has been one of the team's best performers under pressure and its heart and soul.

Puyol has an injured right knee and Villa couldn't recover quickly enough from a broken left leg. While it causes Spain a great deal of discomfort, it isn't a death knell.

Expected to fill in for Villa is one of David Silva, Fernando Llorente, Juan Mata or Fernando Torres.

Yes, Torres has made the cut. He has had a nightmarish season for Chelsea but has shown signs of snapping out of his lethargy. Just what Spain needs, another in-form striker.

The Spaniards' heartbeat comes from their world-class midfield. Other teams are happy to have a dominant midfielder. Spain has several. Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Thiago and attacking midfielder Cesc Fabregas are stunning in their talent and how well they integrate.

Do the Spanish have a weakness? If you look hard it could be at the back. Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Alvaro Arbeloa are solid but have had some trouble with quick attackers.

The best way to avoid getting into trouble defensively is to keep the ball away from the opponent. That's how the Spaniards operate.

Spain used to be a team everyone expected to underachieve. Now everyone expects Spain to win.

Euro Record

2008-Winner, 2004-Group stage, 2000-Quarterfinals, 1996-Quarterfinals, 1992-Qualifying, 1988-Group stage, 1984-Second, 1980-Group stage, 1976-Quarterfinals, 1972-Qualifying, 1968-Quarterfinals, 1964-Winners, 1960-Quarterfinals

ITALY

Italy is in a different place in its history entering Euro 2012.

No one is quite sure what kind of team will make its appearance in Poland.

Italy is in a transition phase with its national team. After winning the World Cup in 2006, it performed horribly in two major tournaments, especially the 2010 World Cup when it failed to advance to the second round from a relatively weak group.

Since then, coach Cesare Prandelli has been patching holes while looking for long-term solutions to a team that has been hurt by retirements, age and a lack of creativity in the midfield.

One of the biggest questions facing the Italians revolves around finding someone who can consistently put the ball in the net.

Prandelli is not the pragmatist so many other Italian coaches have been. He enjoys good, attacking soccer.

The problem is he isn't sure what combination of strikers will do the trick. Antonio Cassano has missed months with heart surgery. Although he has resumed playing, who knows how long he can go. Giuseppi Rossi is hurt.

The most talented striker but also the most dangerous is bad boy Mario Balotelli. The Manchester City player is as immature and selfish as he is gifted. Prandelli likely will put him on centre stage and hope Balotelli understands the seriousness of the situation.

There is high hope with Prandelli's selection, a mix of young and veteran.

But Italy will struggle in the midfield especially against Spain.

There is one thing the Italians have been very good at: They often perform at their best when not much is expected of them.

Euro Record

2008-Quarterfinals, 2004-Group stage, 2000-Second, 1996-Group stage, 1988-semifinals, 1980-Fourth place, 1972-Quarterfinals, 1968-Winner, 1964-Last 16

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND

There won't be many surprises when the Republic of Ireland plays in Euro 2012.

But that doesn't mean there can't be some surprises.

The Irish take whatever talent they have and get the most out of it by working harder than most teams.

Coach Giovanni Trapattoni has them believing they can do just about anything.

Their Euro qualifying run displayed this confidence. Ireland was undefeated during qualifying for Euro 2012.

This isn't a fluke qualification. The "Trap" has them playing successful soccer. The Irish likely would have qualified for the 2010 World Cup if not for the infamous Thierry Henry handball during a match against France.

The Irish don't score a lot of goals, but with Trapattoni they don't need to. They are tenacious defenders and have enough talent up front to create issues if an opponent pushes too far forward. Robbie Keane and Damien Duff are still dangerous players.

Keane has been especially good of late for the national team, scoring eight goals in 10 matches.

In the midfield, the solid Glenn Whelan rarely gets the recognition he deserves.

The key to the Irish success, though, is Shay Given, the little lad in net. Given can stop the ball. The Irish drew a tough group with Spain -- the defending Euro and World Cup champion -- traditional powerhouse Italy and a difficult Croatia squad. Advancing will be a long shot for the Republic of Ireland.

But Trapattoni, a former Italian national team coach, knows how to win. More importantly, he knows how to play against Spain and Italy.

Euro Record

1988-Group stage, 1964-Quarterfinals

CROATIA

For a young nation, Croatia has developed an impressive fear factor in the world of soccer.

No team ever wants to see Croatia in its group.

Croatia gained independence in 1992, but has been developing top footballers since long before then.

It is the nation most often tagged with the label of being the dark horse.

Croatia has a slew of quality players led by one of the best in Europe, Luka Modric. The Tottenham star came to the forefront in Euro 2008 and was selected to the UEFA team of the tournament.

Modric has good support.

One of the best-known members of the Croatia squad doesn't even play. Coach Slaven Bilic is a guitar-playing law graduate who speaks multiple languages. A free spirit, he's as far as you can get from your standard soccer coach.

Croatia captain Darijo Srna has been consistently one of the top Croatian players. His club side uses him at the back but Bilic has moved him up front during the Croatian qualifying run.

After Euro, Bilic will leave his post to take over as coach of Moscow's FC Lokomotiv. It's about the money.

He wants to go out in a big way and he has a nice team. Not only can he rely on veteran players but he has several young talents he picked to the roster. They will be a handful for the opposition.

While Spain and Italy are considered the favourites in Group C, none of that makes much difference to the Croats. They are more than capable of making things uncomfortable for both those clubs. When Italy and Croatia meet in the group stage, it likely will determine who will make it through.

Euro Record

2008-Quarterfinals, 2004-Group stage, 1996-Quarterfinals


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