GNIEWINO, Poland: Italy have hardly had the ideal preparation for Euro 2012 with poor results against the backdrop of a match-fixing scandal at home leaving Ireland and Croatia nurturing hopes of getting out of Group C with favourites Spain.
Croatia are actually ranked eighth in the world by FIFA, four places higher than Italy, while 18th-placed Ireland’s Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni and captain Robbie Keane are among the most experienced and wily practitioners of the game.
Spain meanwhile are favourites to retain their continental title, which would make them the first nation to winback-to-back European Championships with a World Cup in between.
They have the strength-in-depth to cope without record scorer David Villa and inspirational centre back Carles Puyol, who are out injured, in the pressure of a major tournament.
Marshalled by the peerless Xavi in midfield and boasting the likes of Andres Iniesta, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas and captain Iker Casillas, Spain seem certain to progress.
Italy, on the other hand, are mired in yet another domestic match-fixing scandal which has robbed them of Domenico Criscito after the defender was placed under investigation by police.
They lost their last three warm-up matches including a demoralising 3-0 defeat by Russia in their last friendly.
They may draw strength in adversity and it is always dangerous to underestimate a wounded beast, especially one with the pedigree of the 2000 finalists, but they face a struggle.
Croatia are optimistic about their chances, pinning a lot of their hopes on in-form striker Nikica Jelavic who ended the season with a bang at English Premier League side Everton.
“He’s one of the reasons we are very confident,” Croatia coach Slaven Bilic told the UEFA website. “He’s on top form and he made a major impact very suddenly. His progress is unbelievable. He is one of our greatest assets.”
“I don’t have any headaches,” Bilic added as he prepares his players for Sunday’s Group C opener against the Irish in Poznan after the group heavyweights Spain and Italy clash in .
“I still have a few options for the team – let’s call them plan A, B and C – and I will pick one of those options one hour before the match,” he added.
“Whichever option I pick I am sure it will be a good one.”
Trapattoni, meanwhile, is proud of Ireland’s direct, tough-tackling style of play, one which the Spanish have expressed admiration for at their training base in Poland this week.
Irish strength in defence might help them pull off the kind of backs-to-the-wall success Switzerland managed against
Spain in their opening match at the 2010 World Cup.
“We have our own style of football,” Trapattoni said on UEFA.com. “We are not a Latin team, not a team that plays technically superior to other teams,” he added.
“We are a team that has its own characteristics, which I like very much – very direct and precise.”
Spain fullback Alvaro Arbeloa, who knows many of the Irish players from his time at Liverpool, said on Wednesday the world and European champions will not underestimate group rivals.
“For me Croatia and Ireland are both really good teams with good players and you never know what can happen,” the Real Madrid man told a news conference.
“I know Ireland very well and physically they are really, really strong and are always fighting,” he added. “For Italy and for us it will be difficult.” – Reuters
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