Group C was always seen as split between the perennial favorites (Italy and Spain) and the also-rans with hopes of becoming more (Croatia and Ireland). Everyone that looked at that group thought that the Italians and Spaniards would go through, the only question being who would finish first and gain the luxury of facing the Group D second place team rather than the winner. Well, almost everyone as I looked at that group and thought that the Italians were particularly weak this year (at least compared to previous years) and primed for an upset by one of the also-rans that could win with little possession due to strong defense and impressive special teams play. Two things were wrong with my assessment.
1. The Italians really aren't that bad this year. They may not win the tournament, but they are definitely better than I gave them credit for.
2. I chose the wrong also-ran. I thought Ireland would be defensively sound, scrappy, great in the air, and a tough team to get a result off of. That turned out to be Croatia instead and my predictions may suffer for it.
What's even more interesting is how the opening pairings of teams broke down perfectly to give us a glimpse into two different kinds of soccer: the game of well controlled breakouts, possession, and attacking might, versus the game of defense, grit, and aerial battles.
The Beautiful Game
The title isn't quite accurate as not everything was beautiful about Italy vs Spain, but it definitely showcased more on the ball talent and positional intelligence than the later game. Spain came out in a very strange formation (at least to those trying to predict what they'd do) that included zero out-and-out strikers. We're used to seeing a 4-5-1 (or a slight variation on it) from Spain with Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alanso, and Xavi holding down that middle of the field, but rather than using Fernando Torres or Fernando Llorente up front, coach Vincente Del Bosque decided to use Cesc Fabregas and David Silva in a similar position to the attacking midfielder who plays behind the striker... except there was no striker. I fully admit that I am not used to seeing this type of formation and I'll wait until Zonal Marking does a complete breakdown before I speak to it too much, but it was an interesting idea that both worked and didn't work.
Here is my biggest problem with Spain at this point: all of their movement is to position themselves for the short passes square and eventually look forward through the middle. I can't even tell you how many times I saw players on the wings running parallel to the ball rather than darting forward to open up space for a ball through, or at least to drag defenders with them. They didn't work combinations on the wing, they didn't show any interest in crossing (even low crosses targeting the foot that might work despite the height disadvantage), and everything was narrow up the middle. As numerous people said during the broadcast, it was too predictable. This Spain team is so talented on the ball that you understand why they always want it at their feet. The David Silva outside of the foot flick to a streaking Cesc Fabregas for the tying tally was a thing of beauty, one that you marvel at even on the third replay. But that has to be just one of the things they do rather than the only thing. As impressive as they were at times, they needed to show more variety because Italy was waiting for them, closing down the passing and shooting lanes through the middle and making Spain knock the ball around even more than perhaps they normally would.
Speaking of Italy... I wasn't expecting this. Not that I expected Italy to roll over and allow Spain to begin their back-to-back-to-back march, but I didn't think their defense could handle the Spanish attack. Instead Italy played the lanes very well and didn't let the short combinations through, consistently making players in the box lay it off, knock it wide, or reset the offense rather than putting shots on goal. The Italian attack was nothing to sneeze at either with Antonio Cassano having a fantastic match up front. Cassano mostly operated on the right side of attack, but he often showed creativity to free up other players as well as creating his own shot. The introduction of Antonio Di Natale only put more creativity into the squad and his goal, the opening goal of the match, was a thing of beauty. Andrea Pirlo played him in perfectly and Di Natale used a slight shoulder shrug to get Iker Casillas to drop to his right before the Italian opened up his body and curled the ball into the back post up and over Casillas. If it wasn't for Spain's immediate answer, you would have bet on Italy to carry the momentum through for a win. The moral is that while Spain played well, Italy knew how they would play and countered well. Each team played their own style and did so in fantastic fashion, if it was still short of perfection. Both have cause to celebrate as they have to like their chances in upcoming games now that the "toughest" match is out of the way.
The Effective Game
Not so fast before crowning one of the traditional powers the winner of this group, though. Croatia put on an impressive performance in their opening match against Ireland and showed why they still have to be overcome before the elimination rounds begin. I went into this match thinking that it would be a cagey defensive affair but Ireland would manage to put the clamps down with their defense and sneak a goal off a corner, set piece, or general cross into the box. They're powerful in the air and a good scramble team in the penalty area. However, Croatia proved to be even better. Not three minutes into the game the scoreboard was already moving as Mario Mandzukic put a header inside the right post to give Croatia the lead. I will say this and attempt not to draw the ire of the goaltending community while doing so: that's on Shay Given. I understand that he was slightly screened and I know that he didn't have the best view. But it was a fairly soft header that only made it in by the grace of Given's late jump. If that ball doesn't go in, we could be looking at a totally different game since Ireland's strength is playing from even or ahead.
With hindsight as our guide, however, maybe Given's lapse didn't change the face of things. Even after Ireland tied it up on a hard fought header (shoulder, really) from Sean St. Ledger, the game was always going Croatia's way. Both Mandzukic and Everton striker Nikica Jelavic were dangerous in the air, on the ball, wherever they seemed to be. The Croatian defense kept everything in front of them and battled well in the air. It should be noted that a team like Ireland is not terribly proficient at getting in behind the defense so maybe Spain or Italy will have more success there, but they did the job in this match keeping the Irish attack stymied and away from goal. After Jelavic's goal opened up the game at the end of the first half, Mandzukic had an even better header for a goal to put the game away for Croatia. The discipline of the Irish defense was shakier than I would have expected and it couldn't contend with the brilliant efforts of the two Croatian strikers. I'm not ready to overreact to this and put Croatia through to the next round, but if their defense can play like this against the big boys and the strikers can rise to the challenge, Spain and Italy are definitely going to have to fight for their results.
That's all for me today as the first day of Group C matches are in the books. Tune in tomorrow as I recap the unfathomable results of Group D after attempting to make it through my entire work day without any idea what is occurring. God bless DVR.