Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Euro 2012 roundtables #4: Group C preview

Euro 2012 Roundtable #4

Group C Preview

Group C

Ah, a group with, in no particular order:

My picks to win the tournament.

Two perennial underdog who likes to pick off larger nations.

The greatest side in the world. TM.

The winners of the last two World Cups.

Michael’s favourite current player. Bar none.

The land of my ancestors. Who are also Gavin’s least favourite team in the tournament.

Some leaky defences, Richard Dunne, and some top class finishers. Balotelli, Jelavic, Llorente, Cox, the names just roll off your tongue.

All things considered, this may be a contender for best group of the tournament.

But will it live up to expectations or be a damp squid?

Not that I’ve seen many squids that weren’t damp. Squid tend to be damp, on the whole. A dry squid is no good at all for the squid in question, really. They like living in the ocean, so they can live, and last I checked, oceans tend to be, ever so slightly, damp. Unless you are in the Sahara Ocean, which is quite deserted.

Where was I?

Oh yes...

Thoughts on Italy?

Michael: When people look at Italy, they tend to see a dull, ultra defensive side who are cynical and sit on 1-0 leads. The term catenaccio is thrown around with great aplomb. Its a national stereotype which ignores the fact that many of the more successful Italian sides – 1982 for example – were as good at attacking as they were defending. As much as Italy is reknowned for producing a conveyer belt of top class defenders, it is their seemingly endless supply of quality midfielders that attracts me. Their fantistas, capable of winning matches on their own. Their dogged defensive midfielders, with so determination. Their playmakers, often deep-lying, who can control any game, and see the winning pass five passes before it is required.

Of the latter, the Italian sides current, Andrea Pirlo, is unabashedly my favourite player currently active in football. On his day, he is the greatest player in the world and utterly unplayable. He is often looked over for big awards, as he is an unshowy performer except for rare occasions. AC Milan thought he was over the hill and so binned him in 2011. He then moved to Juventus, where he was pivotal in their undefeated title winning season. Thirty three, and still strong, if he turns it on, Italy will be a team hard to beat.

With the lack of a proper Robert Baggio, Pirlo will be in that role too.

I like the coach Prandelli, he has said all the intelligent things. This is a warm up tournament for the World Cup, it is a tournament too early for his players. He shields them from the media. He was quick to give Mario Balotelli a complete vote of confidence, announcing soon after his Arsenal sending off he was almost certain to make the Italian squad. He also announced he would argue to the death any pundit who tried to argue against some of his more controversial picks, like Di Natale, who was seen as past it. Prandelli has shown remarkable man management skills at the top level, and though his squad are buffeted by the scandals of home, they have a strong figure who seems adept at accentuating the positive in each player. He also likes to play in a more attacking spirit, which is also welcome!

Italy usually bring classic matches. In 2002, they had memorable ties with Croatia and of course South Korea. In 2004, their existence created one! In 2006, the USA match was memorable, as well as the German semifinal. In 2008, the Dutch game. In 2010, they were involved in three good games, but went home having won none of them. Then there was the Australian game in 2006, seemingly not controversial for the Materazzi’s unfair red card, and more for a completely just penalty awarded in the dying moments. Even Sepp Blatter came out and denounced it, showing not only does Sepp say anything that will give him political back up in a key area, but also that hes rubbish as a football pundit. It was quite clear at the time and remains so: Bresciano catches Grosso off balance, he goes into the box, Lucas Neill dives down to the ground for no good reason (anything that can dispossess the ball, bar his elbow, he’s managed to block out of the way) and as Grosso was trying to get around him, he falls. The slight issue where Neills arm was in front of Grosso and suddenly behind his leg right as Grosso lost control of the ball was a bit dodgy for the Australians at the very least. Foolish move, and really people should concentrate more on how Australia couldn’t beat Italy with superior numbers for forty minutes and then felt the need for the old hacky moves.

You can at least expect the Italians to be memorable.

And with more match fixing scandals in Serie A, its them vs the world.

And history shows how well that often works out...

Jon: It’s all gone a bit chaotic with their preparations – first there was the injury to Giuseppe Rossi which ruled him out, then there was the emergence of another match-fixing scandal (which led to Dominic Criscito being ruled out), then their friendly against Luxembourg was cancelled thanks to an earthquake and finally they’ve lost 3-0 to Russia in a very Italian performance (fabulous going forward, dodgy at the back). And of course there’s the most unpredictable element of all, Mario Balotelli, more of whom later. Those of us who’ve grown up watching Italy at international tournaments might find it strange that we’re expecting a more adventurous Italian side than normal, with the likes of Giovinco, Cassano and the old master himself Pirlo. Unlike the other nations we expect to see in the later reaches of tournaments – Germany, the Dutch and Spain - this approach is untested for them at tournament level. I expect it to ultimately be a tournament too early for them, but they should be entertaining while they’re about.

Gav: They are tying with Russia on my insular rating – 3 players play outside of Italy. Which means, I have to ask the question, will they have a squad once all this match fixing dust settles?

Michael: Probably not. Del Piero and Maldini are warming up just to be on the safe side. Though to be fair, Del Piero and Maldini could probably still destroy the current Ireland team. Class is permanent.

Dave Beattie: Thoughts on Italy? I'm a bit worried about Italy. They are usually the team I love to hate when it comes to major international tournaments. But I really liked Prandelli as a club coach & if World Soccer's description of their tactics as "more attack oriented than some previous Italian teams" is accurate then I might be forced to turn my ire elsewhere.

Michael: Portugal? (Poor Torn, he’ll be wondering why everyone has such a downer on the Portuguese)

Keld, Denmark: The defence and midfield look solid and based on the Serie A champions Juventus. The big question mark is up front, where much seems to be in the hands of the enigmas Balotelli and Cassano. The latter only just returned after heart problems kept him out for the main part of the season.

Joao Diogo Reis: Italy had a shameful 2010 World Cup – two draws against Paraguay and New Zealand, and the ultimate humiliation, defeated by Slovakia. They were also eliminated in the group stage in the 2009 Confederations Cup, with one win against the USA and two defeats against Egypt and Brazil.
It’s a dark era for Italian football, and I don’t think it is over yet. 

Half of the squad doesn’t have experience at major tournaments. Some who were just in the 2010 WC squad would rather have not been there; it hasn’t enhanced anyone’s reputation.

One of the interesting things about Italy will be their unique tactic. While everybody will be using 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 or 4-4-2, Italy will use a 4-3-1-2. Italian club teams are the ones who try to innovate in the Champions League and Europa League: Napoli and Udinese played with a back three, while Inter started the season with a 3-4-3 project but was quickly abandoned. 

Italy’s first game will be against their last opponent in the Euro Cups: Spain, who eliminated them in the 2008 quarter finals. While the 2008 game was supposed to be “balanced” (Italy was the recent World Champion, and Spain hadn’t its Euro and World crowns yet), this one isn’t. Italy’s fight should be with Croatia for the second spot, not with Spain for winning the tournament.

Thoughts on Spain?

Michael: No bad.

Jon: What do you say about the Spanish that hasn’t been said already? ‘They’re crap’. Back in the real world, what do you say? That they’re the natural conclusion to the mantra about possession being nine tenths of the law? That their technical perfection can be sterile, particularly when other teams attempt to counter it by parking the bus? That they’re unquestionably one of the finest national sides of all time, matching the achievement of Zidane’s France in being both World and European champions? All of that. And then to keep their feet on the floor you remind them that no national side has ever won three straight major tournaments before. In a technical battle they will best any side, the biggest threat to them before the tournament centres on how they cope with the absences of both their most reliable goalscorer David Villa and the hugely influential Carlos Puyol and whether all the games played by the Barça and Real Madrid players who provide the bulk of their side might catch up on them.

Michael: They’ve only got Casillas, Pique, Iniesta, Pedro, Xavi, Torres, Llorente, Fabregas, Mata, Xabi Alonso, Alba, Ramos, Busquets, Cazorla, Silva, Martinez. So once you take away those seventeen players, they’re quite ordinary, really. Apart from the subs. And the people who didn’t make the squad. And their kids. But apart from that...

Gav: I’ve seen a lot of lovely football in Spain this season, but I do find myself wondering – can they do it without Lionel Messi? I don’t think Torres is as good, but fortunately they have Llorente (the good Fernando Torres).

They have a class squad, really, don’t they?

Dave Beattie: Thoughts on Spain? Have to be favourites for the tournament but Switzerland showed in 2010 that they can be beaten. So did Chelsea in a way - if you assume Barca are at least as good as Spain... That said their squad depth looks frightening. How many other countries wouldn't have found room for a talent like Muniain in their 23? I love to watch them play & I've rooted for Spain in major tournaments for years but I like my football more unpredictable than "the favourites win" - so I hope either someone stops them or if they can't stop them they at least make them exceed everything they've done before to win in style.

Joao Diogo Reis: Spain is the best team of the World.
They won 14 competitive games in a row (a world record): 6 2010 World Cup games plus the 8 Euro 2012 qualifiers.
And future is bright: not only they are the European and World Champions, they are also the under-21 European Champions. There’s a new generation ready to replace this one.
Vicente Del Bosque opted for the World Champions in this tournament: 19 of Spain’s 23 players were also in the World Cup squad. The exceptions are Capdevila, Marchena, Puyol and David Villa out, and Jordi Alba, Santi Cazorla, Juanfran and Negredo in.
Puyol and David Villa are injured – if not, they’d surely be in this squad too.
Replacing these two will be Spain’s “problem”: Javi Martínez as central defender, just like he did for Athletic Bilbao this season? Or Sergio Ramos as central defender just like he did for Real Madrid with Arbeloa as right back? And who should be the striker, Fernando Torres, hero of the Euro 2008 final but without a single goal in the 2010 WC, or Llorente?
Spain is so good that even without Puyol and David Villa they look like the better team, their subs are better than the starters from most of the other teams, even the players who couldn’t get in the squad are some of Europe’s finest and will surely shine in future tournaments (De Gea, Thiago Alcântara, Muniain, Adrián López, etc.)

Keld, Denmark: Del Bosque will probably not deviate from his World Cup winning formula, so he will wear both belt (Busquets) and braces (Xabi Alonso). This is probably necessary as Puyol is absent and the Shakira-ridden Pique has struggled all season. Javi Martinez or Sergio Ramos will be called upon to close the gap of Puyol. The squad is a plethora of midfield stars, but there are problems up front. David Villa, who scored the necessary goals in 2010, is gone, and Fernando Torres is well, you all know . I don’t see Llorente or Negredo starting all games, so I think del Bosque will go with David Silva in the famous “false 9” role. He was terrific when tried in that role against Scotland, but that’s not really much of a test, is it?

Michael: They’re no bad. Still think calling up Negredo over Adrian was an error though, Olympics or no Olympics. Nothing quite like looking on the bright side of life, eh?

Thoughts on the Irish? (Gavin might want to skip this question, ahem)

Gav: What the ... *lots of beeping* ... do they think ... *lots more beeping* ... Hungarian refereeing ... *even more expletives* ... to Estonia!

Joao Diogo Reis: Ireland is one of the weakest Euro 2012 teams (alongside the co-hosts Poland and Ukraine). 

The last time that they qualified for a major tournament was 10 years ago. They still keep 4 players from that squad: goalkeeper Given, defender Dunne, midfielder Duff and forward Robbie Keane. 

Although they are “supposed to” be eliminated in the group stages, perhaps even lose the 3 games, history says that Ireland was always competitive in final tournaments (4 points in Euro 1988, World Cup quarter finalists in 1990 with 4 draws and 1 defeat, against… Italy, 4 points again in the 1994 WC, and finally 5 points in 2002, progressed from its group, and then eliminated in the last 16 round in a penalty shootout by… Spain). 

Everybody remembers the way that Ireland missed the 2010 World Cup; it would have been interesting if they were in France’s group. Perhaps they can still meet later in the tournament, but I doubt it.

Keld, Denmark: Well their material fits well to their role as an underdog, and they will be a hard nut to crack for the opponents. A hard-working side with Kevin Doyle to aim for up-front. The pacy wingers could cause many teams problems on the break, and maybe Robbie Keane can pull off a trick or two before probably retiring.

Dave Beattie: Thoughts on the Irish? (Gavin might want to skip this question, ahem) When I think of football & Ireland I immediately think of Gerry Armstrong in 1982 (I know wrong country) & Ray Houghton in 1994. Italy & Spain... Now with an Italian coach with a more traditionally Italian style than the Italians themselves I hope they can give me something to cheer about. I guess the experienced spine of Given, Dunne & Keane - plus possibly Duff out wide - will be key.

Jon: Royally screwed. Arguably Trapattoni has already got them punching well above their weight just by getting them to the tournament – even Jack Charlton could call on players from England’s top clubs, . Trap’s introduced Italian style defensive steel but maintained the grand Jackie Charlton tradition of long balls and set pieces. It’s a formula which has worked well enough to take them to the verge of the last World Cup before Henry’s infamous handball led to the French pipping them and got them here behind a good Russia side. They won’t concede too many but it’s tough to see them posing the scoring threat they’ll need.

Michael: “ Made a note in my diary on the way here. Simply says... "Bugger". Darling, Blackadder Goes Forth.

Can’t think why that comes to mind.

Ireland (in this case the Republic) have made a habit of turning bad draws into success stories. In 1988, they were drawn against Holland, the crack USSR, and some side called England. They nearly qualified for the Semis. In 1990, they managed to get to the World Cup Quarterfinals, though I’m not sure anyone quite knows how, least of all Jack Charlton or David O’Leary. In 1994, they took on Roberto Baggios Italy and won, and managed to get to the last sixteen despite a fiery clash with Mexico. In 2002, Roy Keane happened just before they kicked off, and despite being over played in both matches, Ireland still managed to sneak draws against Cameroon and Germany. I like David Bennie’s comment in Soccer Samurai that the moment when Geremi scuffed his open chance for 2-0 in the Cameroon/Ireland tie, that he was surprised ITV didn’t flash up “PIVOTAL MOMENT” on the screen!

Bennie also suggests that the Mick McCarthy/Roy Keane fall out transpired in the following way:

“McCarthy: I am the Irish coach and therefore above grammar.

Keane: An Irish gentleman need not know Gaelic, but he should at least have forgotten it.”

It’s a great book, I strongly suggest it if you ever see it on Amazon. Gets read as often as the Glanville, and my rather tattered copy of Bill Leckie’s Penthouses and Pavements.

Where was I?

Oh yes, despite everything, it come down to a penalty shootout against Spain in 2002, where the Irish could claim they were a bit unlucky, certainly.

Unlucky wasn’t the half of it, as they proceeded not to qualify for any tournament between then and now. Unlucky certainly in 2004. A bad start – thumped by Russia – saw them recover to take 2nd late in the group, only to lose to Switzerland and see the Russians, who had managed to lose to Georgia (not a match you will see in the near future), somehow sneak into the playoff spot, and sneak to the Euros after dispatching a gutsy Wales. Ireland’s 2004 performances – a competitive draw in France, a friendly win over Holland – suggested they were one of the best sides to miss out on the 2004 Euros. They looked good for a place at the World Cup though, and were in a friendly enough group. Over cautious management tactics (which I feel is a kind enough euphemism) meant a group Ireland could have grabbed by the throat they instead allowed to become a four way dance, and in the final showdown, the French regrouped to win in Dublin, and the Irish were home. After looking favourites for so long, they finished fourth. It was truly an example of finding defeat in the jaws of victory.

In qualifying for 2008, they were, not very good. They did manage to finish 3rd in the group, but ten points behind the Germans, and never looked in the qualifying fight. They were undefeated at home, but that record including a 1-1 draw with Cyprus to compliment their 5-2 thrashing away.

Then came Trappatoni, and things began to change. They finished behind the Italians in the qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, and so a playoff beckoned. Against France. And we all know of the Hand of Thierry which saw the French qualify at the expense of the Irish. Two years on, and the Irish qualified, despite the Estonians feeling aggrieved. If history repeats itself, Estonia are going to the World Cup.

I have a great fear Ireland are going to get thumped to bits in this group. Whelan and Andrews going up against Iniesta and Xavi is the stuff of nightmares. They actually have some talented players, but its a tournament too late for most, and a tournament too soon for others. So thumped is my general feeling.

Thoughts on Croatia?

Michael: Dad hates Croatia. He’s probably reading this right about now. Hi Dad! Bet he never thought I’d be organising this sort of thing after seeing Gala Fairydean v Arthurlie as a child.

It is true that Croatia have had a cynical nature to their football which shows up in unsavoury moments. The infamous Australian match in 2006 wasn’t even an eyeopener to it, as Bilic himself in 1998 simulated to get Laurent Blanc sent off in the World Cup semifinal!

What makes this even sadder is that when they put their heads down, they play some lovely stuff. They blew Germany off the pitch in 2008. They were undone in the Quarters by the comeback kings, Turkey, and followed that up by a home and away thumping by England which prevented them qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. In 2006 and 2004, they were considered dark horses, and went out very quickly. I’ve actually only seen them qualify from the group stage once, and they needed to narrowly beat terrible Austria and Poland to do it. The omens don’t seem good for them here.

That said, Croatia did well in 2008, without any strikers. This time they have Jelavic, Mandzukic and Eduardo. They could be problematic. But then, could is one of the harshest words in the English language.

Jon: Bilic believes they can win the tournament, the bookies disagree. Their 4-4-2 tactics look a tad old-fashioned in a tournament of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 but still they’re officially amongst the ten best teams in the world. If Italy can be caught out as their defeat to Russia suggests then Eduardo and the in-form Jelavic are ideally suited to do so, but then they may well fall apart against the well organised Irish side.

Keld, Denmark: A quite experienced side with several players in their best footballing age. Schildenfeld and Simunic in the central defence are not of great quality, so the midfield four will be expected to help out massively in defence. The relentless pressure from Olic and Mandžukić up front will frustrate opponents, but in order to be dangerous they will need good services from Srna and Rakitić on the wings.

Dave Beattie: Thoughts on Croatia? They still have one of my favourite players in Modric but otherwise they seem to be a pale shadow of the team I loved watching four years ago. See them as more likely to be 4th than 2nd in the group but wouldn't mind seeing them prove me wrong - if only for outgoing coach Slaven Bilic who will surely be coaching in the Premier League sometime soon. 


Gav: They have a pretty strong squad, and without having to play against the double pairing of Theo Walcot and Emile Heskey they should get far. Maybe not the ideal group for them though. It might be tough for them but I suspect they might finish 2nd in this group.

Joao Diogo Reis: Croatia is the most successful ex-Yugoslavia country.
4 years ago they won their 3 games in Euro 2008 group stage, and then were eliminated by Turkey in quarter finals, in a penalty shootout.
They already had their revenge in Euro 2012 qualifiers – they qualified eliminating Turkey in playoffs, with an overwhelming 3-0 win in Turkey.
They kept most of the important players from Euro 2008. Only the Kovac brothers Robert and Niko retired.
They also have many players (13) who never played at a major tournament, including Eduardo (Croatia’s top scorer in Euro 2008 qualifiers, who broke a leg in February 2008 and was injured for 1 year, thus missing the tournament).
They have a “perfect” calendar: they start with Ireland (the easiest), then face Italy (probably already with a 3 points advantage), and end the group stage against Spain (probably already qualified after the second game).

Balotelli - saint or sinner?

Michael: Ah, Balotelli, what a mercurial nutter he is. Capable of greatness and stupidity often in the same game. His heart seems in the right place, though he was the immaturity of a child never allowed to grow up, and his head often gets lost. I can’t help but like the boy though, and chose to personally believe nearly every one of the incredible Balotelli myths that have sprung up in Manchester. After all, when questioned about one of the more outlandish ones (Mario dressing up as Santa to hand out cash to disadvantaged kids, as first heard on Twitter), Roberto Mancini said: “It’s something I could believe Mario would do.” That’s good enough for me then! As for the Euros, he’ll be a Saint. The chance to be saviour for a nation is a temptation too strong for him to do anything else surely.

Jon: He has a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other and you never know which one he’s going to listen to. Combine that with arrogance born of flamboyant talent and you have a player who will entertain as genius or pantomime villain, rarely are there any half measures. I wouldn’t change a thing, but I’d hate to be managing him.

Dave Beattie: Ballotelli - saint or sinner? Ballotelli AND Cassano in the same dressing room. Volatile. Much.

Gav: He’s apparently a very gifted footballer. All I’ve seen him do is gift games to the opposition. As the ITV pundits will no doubt ask you CONSTANTLY – which Ballotelli will turn up?

Keld, Denmark: He will start as the undisputed first choice up front, and I think he will be saint. Italy surely needs him to be.

Joao Diogo Reis: I can find a lot of adjectives starting with an s for Balotelli: stupid, spontaneous, spoiled, silly, skilled, superfluous, etc.

Players to watch out for?

Jon: (Michael drums fingers and narrows eyes, writer takes note) Ignoring Pirlo would be a real mistake. In a fine career, orchestrating Juve’s unbeaten season over the past nine months may be his finest achievement yet. Cassano and Giovinco but above all no-one will be able to take their eyes off Balotelli – you can believe he might actually carry out his threat to kill any racists from the stands. For Croatia it has to be their mastermind Luka Modric whose ability to control games is frankly wasted in the Premier League – there’s a very good reason Roman Abramovich was willing to pay £40 million for his services. The Irish will largely be reliant on their defence, so key for them is likely to be Richard Dunne who’s just back from an injury layoff. As for Spain – well do you really need me to mention every single midfielder they’ve got? With the Spanish the interest lies with who’ll start up front for them.

Michael: Giovinco is highly rated by Prandelli, and Borini by the Italian media, so they should be interesting to see. Have Italy ever taken five strikers to a tournament before? Attack minded Prandelli is a big favourite here. Simon Cox is actually quite a talent so it will be interesting to see him at the highest level if he gets much game time for Ireland. I picked up Mandzukic as a talent to watch way back in 2008, so to ignore him now would be churlish. And finally, Cazorla. He gets forgotten, in fact, some pundits were even saying he should get axed! But he provides an asset for Spain in midfield, and in a team with so many world class midfielders, that is saying something!

Gav: Everyone from the Spain squad.

Dave Beattie: Spain - Everybody knows Spain already and Xavi & Iniesta are two of the best players in the world to watch - even without Messi. After watching Athletic Bilbao this season I'm interested to see what Llorente can do in front of goal for the national team. With Villa out & Torres in questionable - if improving - form - he might well get that chance.

Italy - I was looking forward to seeing Claudio Marchisio in South Africa & he didn't too much. Anonymous sources (wikipedia - cough) tell me he played out of position then so I'm giving him a second chance. If Italy do well AND force me to like them he's the kind of player who will have a good tournament.

Croatia - Modric & maybe Jelavic. Interested to see how much playing time some of the younger players get too - particularly Ivan Perisic from German Champions Borussia Dortmund.

Joao Diogo Reis: Balotelli - everybody will be expecting something from him… not necessarily something good.
Jordi Alba – the “new guy” in Spain’s team. Capdevila wasn’t an outstanding player; he doesn’t have a big responsibility replacing him. Maybe he will team up with his former Valencia teammate David Silva in Spain’s left flank, making it more offensive than the right flank.
McGeady – the only Irish who doesn’t play in an English speaking country. Duff isn’t getting younger, now it’s up to him to get Ireland forward and catch opponents unbalanced.
Eduardo – 4 years ago he missed the Euro that he deserved to play; now he finally gets his chance.

Keld, Denmark: Christian Maggio has been outstanding as a right wingback in Napoli for a few seasons. He might play a bit further back at the national side, but he should cope well.
Valencia’s Jordi Alba looks like the first choice on left back, and as a former winger his offensive qualities are undisguised. Whether Alba, who is widely expected to join Barcelona this summer, has the necessary defensive qualities is another question.
Jon Walters will probably not start for Ireland, but the Stroke striker will probably be the impact guy from the bench. His physicality could cause problems for tired opponents, and Walters has had a decent season in Stoke.
Mario Mandžukić has been the stand-out performer for Wolfsburg this season with 12 goals and 8 assists. The tall striker is a great at holding up the play, possesses a decent technical ability and is a beast in the box

Will Croatia be dark horses or lambs to the slaughter?

Gav: Dark horses, definitely. They will get out of this group.

Keld, Denmark: Somewhere in between. I don’t see them going further than the quarter finals, but they could spring a surprise against one of the giants in this group.

Joao Diogo Reis: I don’t think that Croatia succeeding will be unexpected, in fact, that’s what I expect to happen. The question is more appropriate to Ireland: dark horses or lambs to the slaughter?

Dave Beattie: As indicated above I'm inclined to think lambs though the more I'm writing about this group the more doubts are creeping in.

Jon: Well it’s a little harsh to call a team who haven’t been out of the world’s top ten for a few years as either dark horses or lambs, even if they had to go through a playoff to get here! Croatia would’ve graced either Groups A or D and I’d have favoured them to qualify from either, here their fortunes depend upon how Prandelli’s playing ideal translates to tournament football and also whether they replicate their indifferent form from qualifying or if their more impressive displays from the playoffs against Turkey are more representative.

Michael: Dark horses. With full referential knowledge of Jon’s previous statement.

Just how thumped will Ireland be? (Or not, if you wish to argue otherwise)

Michael: Pirlo v McGeady, Richard Dunne v Jelavic and Llorente, Walters v Pique? Very!

Jon: Well 1994 shows that Ireland needn’t necessarily be thinking that it’s only a matter of how many they concede. Ireland’s secret weapon sits in the dugout though, with Trap being probably the finest manager at the tournament. With his attention to detail and ability to weld a team into more than the sum of its parts they may not go home with many points but neither are they likely to be thrashed. Look for a lot of tight games with Trap’s nous closing the undoubted skill gap between them and the other teams in the group.

Joao Diogo Reis: In theory they will lose the three games, but history says otherwise.

Dave Beattie: I'm inclined to think less thumped than Croatia but I could be very wrong.

Keld, Denmark: They will cause problems for every team, and the point they steal could decide this group.

Gav: No where near as thumped as I would like, but will ship at least 6 goals per game. :(

Pick of the group? (As above)

Gav: Spain vs Ireland. Ireland to concede 20 goals? Yes please!

Jon: For all Estonians, Spain dismantling the Irish. Given teams may simply try the method of defending deep and narrow against the Spanish and restricting opportunities as per the last World Cup I’m going for Italy-Croatia, which is also likely to be the crucial game in deciding who qualifies.

Michael: Italy/Croatia. Though its hard just to pick one. For those in the dark, Ireland enjoyed some dubious refereeing calls in their playoff with Estonia, where Gavin lives. To explain his slight upcoming schadenfreud .

Joao Diogo Reis: Italy vs. Croatia: In 2002 Croatia won this game but it was Italy that progressed from the group. This will be crucial in the fight for the second spot.

Dave Beattie: Pick of the group? Spain v Italy. After that it depends how the group develops. Italy v Ireland with both teams on 3 points would be fascinating. On the other hand if Croatia confound my uneducated expectations then they might well not need to be world beaters to upset Italy on matchday 2. I mean Slovakia - or at least their star players - disappointed me overall in 2010 & they still beat Italy...

Keld, Denmark: Ireland vs. Croatia in the first round. Both teams know that a win here will be immensely important for their chances to reach the quarters.

Who will qualify?

Dave Beattie: After all that, Spain and Italy.

Jon: As with Group B it seems a question of who accompanies Spain through. I’m saying Italy, just as I want to see as much of Balotelli as possible.

Michael: Spain and Italy

Gav: Spain and Croatia, quite easily.

Joao Diogo Reis: Spain and Croatia.

Alan Kalder: Qualifiers: Spain and Italy, but Croatia could sneak in! I'm looking for/hoping for big things from Fernando Llorente.

Keld, Denmark: Spain and Italy

Spain 7/7

Italy 5/7

Croatia 2/7

Ireland 0/7

That bonus question again. I like the random Stuff, and so do others.

Gav: Spain won the World Cup in 2010.

Keld, Denmark: Italy only let in 2 goals in qualifying.

Alan Kalder: Trivia: Fernando Llorente is known as "The Lion King." Athletic's nickname, of course, is "los leones."

Jon: No side’s ever won three major tournaments in a row and no-one’s ever retained the European Championships crown. Yet Spain qualified with eight wins from eight and the only answer anyone’s found to them is defending deep and narrow and relying on fortune favouring them…

And that is Group C.