Spain come into the 2012 European Championship on the back of victories in the last two major international tournaments. Having finally thrown off the yolk of perennial underachievers at the international level, Vicente del Bosque’s squad arguably come into this tournament as favorites. The first steps towards victory will be in how they deal with their opponents in Group C.
Spain has drawn relatively modest competition in Group C; over the next two weeks they will face Italy, Croatia and Ireland in a bid to escape the group and proceed to the quarter-finals.
If there was ever a good time to face Italy it would be now. The team is coming off of a dismal showing at the 2010 World Cup, and injuries have forced last-minute tactical adjustments. Italian manager Cesare Prandelli will likely field an untested striking partnership of Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, neither of whom featured in the later stages of the season for their respective clubs. The team has underperformed, to be extremely generous, in their friendly tuneups before the tournament. Even more worrying: the unfolding domestic match-fixing scandal has already had an impact on Prandelli’s preparations, as Italian police raided the team’s training center in Tuscany just last week.
I have come to admire Croatian manager Slaven Bilic over the years, and his team will be a dark horse candidate to upset Italy and escape the group along with Spain. Much of this opportunity will be down to whether or not Luka Modric can rediscover his form in time to help the cause. Losing Bayern striker Ivica Olic to a last-minute injury will be quite a blow to overcome, however.
Ireland, managed by Italian veteran Giovanni Trapattoni, has one thing going for it in this group: they will not have to alter their play-style when they face possession teams like Spain and Italy. Ireland are a largely defensive counter-attacking side filled with second-tier EPL players. It will be a miracle if they get out of this group.
Spain have a realistic chance of winning this tournament, and their success will hinge on two factors: the extent to which del Bosque can tactically compensate for the loss of David Villa and Carles Puyol, and the ability of his players to refocus their mental and physical efforts after an exhausting season of club football. Spain’s greatest strength, beyond the sheer quality of the players, is the unity and shared tactical vision of the squad. This is a team that has thrived at an international level for many years; it is also full of players who enjoy a telepathic understanding between each other.
You’d have to be a fool to predict that anyone but Spain and Italy will get out of this group. However, the effect of the disarray in the Italian camp may mean that Croatia have a fighting chance of causing an upset and qualifying for the quarter-finals. For Spain, Euro2012 will begin in the elimination rounds.