Overview: Spain, the defending World Cup and European Champions don’t intend to give up their crown without a fight. Injuries to striker David Villa and defenseman Carlos Puyol will hurt Spain's chances, but they have plenty of depth. Without a true rival in the group, this is clearly Spain's to lose. Italy is a shell of the team who won the World Cup back in 2006. They've replaced aging stars with unproven young talent, but haven't seen overwhelmingly positive results. Losses at home to the USA and to Russia in the last six months show how vulnerable they are. Fans hope the Azzurri won't be as embarrassing as 2010's World Cup, when they exited in the group stage. Surprisingly it’s the defense that hasn’t been up to the usual Italian quality. With that in mind, the Italians might have to play a more attacking style, which means we could see a lot of our favorite nut case, Mario Balotelli. Croatia always seems to have a level of danger in these tournaments. They'll lean heavily on star Luka Modric to create offensive opportunities although Modric appears to be worn out from a tough club season at Tottenham. This team could finish anywhere from second to fourth in the group and it wouldn't be surprising. Ireland looks to make their band of fans happy by taking advantage of an opportunity. After Spain, the second team to advance out of the group stage is up for grabs. Ireland will look to do so by relying on their veteran side and some luck.
Favorite's Chances: With their trophy cabinet full, it's hard to imagine a situation in which Spain doesn't advance to the final. All talk that the players won’t get along because they play for rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga is nonsense. They've been the best team in the world for four years now. What's amazing is the players who get left on the bench. Names like Cesc Fàbregas, Juan Mata, and Fernando Llorente seem likely to start the game from a far, but those are quite the players to have available after your starting 11. The names (Fernando Torres, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Ramos, etc.) you’ve gotten to know the last four years are still around and coach Vicente Del Bosque believes in loyalty. That’s why someone like Torres will likely get the start despite his poor recent form. If there’s any weakness this team has, it might be at defense with the loss of Puyol. Gerard Piqué had a poor year at Barcelona (part of the reason they didn’t win the La Liga or the Champions League), so he’ll have to bounce back or someone else will have to step up. With strong offensive teams like Germany and Netherlands looming later in the tournament, all Spain needs is one bad defensive game to be sent home.
Group Sleeper: Both Ireland and Croatia have a chance of advancing out of the group, but I don't think either of them has a chance to win it because of Spain. If I had to choose a horse in the race between the two, I'd lean towards Ireland. Ireland's going to be playing an extremely defensive style and will need to score on counter attacks and set pieces. (Here we have another team follows the Chelsea Champions League model of playing.) It’s not good for Ireland that its best three players (Robbie Keane, Damian Duff, and Shea Given) were the team’s best three players 10 years ago. Coach Giovanni Trapattoni has a typically Italian tough and defensive style. Their margin of error is very slim, especially because they don’t have a marquee player to carry the team. If Ireland beats Croatia in their first game, they’ll have the positive momentum they need to earn the necessary results in their final two games.
Player to Watch: There are so many players on the Spanish team to focus on, but the key man is Fernando Torres. To say his form over the last two years was poor would be an understatement. As mentioned earlier, coach Del Bosque favors the players who have won the two previous trophies, so Torres will get the start up top for Spain. David Villa would be starting over Torres if he wasn’t hurt, but Spain doesn’t have that luxury. Spain’s reserve strikers don’t have nearly as much experience as Torres, so it’s his spot to lose. Torres might be feeling a little better about himself after finishing his club season with some positive results, but his leash won’t be that long. The crazy thing is he’s only 28 years old. One can’t imagine a player losing his skills so early in his career.
Betting Suggestions: It’s Spain’s group to lose, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some plays to be made. Here are my picks for what to look at:
- Spain to reach the semifinals (-181)
- Croatia to finish fourth in Group C (+190)
- Italy/Spain Over 2.5 goals (+120)