It would disingenuous to say that this came as a surprise. In the first "round" of Group C matches, Italy and Spain played to a tight 1-1 draw while Croatia dispatched Ireland with surprising (to me, at least) ease. With Spain lined up to play Ireland and Italy setting their sights on Croatia, I don't think any of us were confused over what would be the more competitive game. As much as we wondered aloud how it might play out if Ireland was able to retain its defensive shape and crowd the box, we always knew what was going to happen here. We might not have known the extent to which Spain would dominate and what the specific storyline would be (more on that later), but Spain over Ireland was almost a foregone conclusion. The wild card was Croatia vs Italy, a match pitting a strong under-the-radar team with a perennial powerhouse. Italy had already stolen a point from Spain and Croatia had done their job in beating Ireland. A win for the Croats would put them into the quarterfinals while a win for Italy would all but punch their ticket at the expense of the game number two rivals. So, how would it play out?
Croatia vs Italy
For a while, this looked like Italy would strike a blow for the old guard. While the game started out as a midfield battle that was yet to be settled, Italy took control over the course of the first half and became the odds on favorite to open the scoring. Mario Balotelli was firing from long range (closely too, though he didn't force Stipe Pletikosa into any extraordinary saves), Antonio Cassano was making creative runs to free himself and others in the attacking third, and Andrea Pirlo was controlling the match with his passing. Pirlo specifically was the story of the first half as he was given all sorts of space in which to operate. His passing was immaculate as always and his free kick goal in the 39th minute felt like the accumulation of Italian effort rather than a one-off special teams type of situation. It was a beautiful goal that appeared to set Italy down the path to victory.
However, no one informed Croatia of this fatalism and the second half turned out to be a different story entirely. Luka Modric pressed further up the field and this did two important things: it pushed him into the attack more rather than leaving him sitting back as the string-puller and it got him right on top of Pirlo. Not coincidentally, Pirlo's influence was greatly diminished and it was Croatia who was dictating play instead, working the ball well in possession as well as dashing forward after turnovers. The goal was a nice one, coming off a deep cross from Ivan Stinic on the left flank. Striker Mario Mandzukic brought it down nicely (I thought this was a mistake at first because it didn't seem he'd have time to finish if it wasn't a one touch, but that's why he has three goals in the Euros) and finished off the near post to beat Gianluigi Buffon and bring Croatia level. As play-by-play announcer Derek Rae said as the game continued after the goal, Croatia would be happy with a point from the match but they were always the more likely to score. Slaven Bilic has made great decisions as manager and though a win would have played them through, Croatia has to be proud of where they sit in the group. They will still have to finish strong against Spain, however, and that may prove to be quite difficult.
Ireland vs Spain
Let's talk about Fernando Torres, shall we? To get this out of the way, he's not the Fernando Torres he was during his days in Liverpool. Then he was a world class striker, now he's not. At least not presently. That doesn't mean he has lost that ability completely, but he's no longer in form. Case of the yips, lost in a different system, lack of confidence, whatever you want to say. All of that being said, he's been so consistently dogged in the press for not being THAT Fernando Torres we forget that he's still, well, Fernando Torres. Even when he was struggling to find playing time at Chelsea as well as struggling to find his scoring touch, he was still an important player. His movement was outstanding, he work on the wing was valuable, and he was contributing even if he wasn't exactly himself. Let's also not forget that Chelsea went much more defensive under Roberto Di Matteo and Torres was often left out of the side in favor of a bigger target man whose hold up play was better (Didier Drogba). That's not an insult to insult to Torres, but a matter of picking a player for a system. The point I mean to prove with all of this is that while Torres hasn't been Torres, it isn't like he's forgotten how to play soccer. You can understand why he'd be happy to prove himself once given the duty of starting at striker for Spain.
He certainly made the most of his opportunity, scoring twice and generally looking like the world beater he once was, terrorizing defenses and threatening to do more damage every time he touched the ball. This is the kind of thing that we (and I use that inclusive pronoun with a certain amount of hopefulness) as soccer commentators have to be wary of when writing players off or targeting them with our snark. There is the high potential that, guess what, they're still professional soccer players and they can prove us wrong. And hey, that's part of writing about sports. You're never going to be correct 100% of the time and on occasion, you're going to be very wrong. Hell, I picked Ireland to surprise people and come out of Group C and they're the first team to be eliminated. But even if this is an eventuality, we can still do better than ignoring when we have our wrongness thrown back in our face. Torres did that to a lot of people yesterday and I hope they'll have the decency to admit it.
One more thing: I said previously on this blog that I didn't think Spain had the stamina to make it all the way through this tournament. Too many games over the last four years, too much pressure, too many variables. But with an in form Torres bringing that energy back to the squad? Damn. I'm not sure anymore.
Here's how we stand after two rounds in Group C
Spain - 4 Points
Croatia - 4 Points
Italy - 2 Points
Ireland - 0 Points (eliminated)
While it looks like Spain and Croatia are in the driver's seat, they play each other in the last round while Italy gets to try to advance with a match against Ireland. Truly, anything can still happen and as Michael Cox of Zonal Marking said, we could realistically see a 5-5-5-0 group with goal differential meaning the world. I hate to say it Croatia fans, but I don't see that happening and I see you suffering for it. Spain has all the momentum and reason to put everything into their last match to grab the win and the group. Italy should beat Ireland that that would be enough to put them through. I really am sorry as I've liked watching Croatia in this tournament, but hey, who knows? I could easily be proven wrong.