With the entirety of Euro 2012 expecting Italy to defeat Ireland, the Spain versus Croatia game would hold the greatest of significance tonight, for the winner would go through with the Azzurri, providing Ireland didn’t avoid defeat. The Irish had nothing to salvage but pride, but could still prove to be the Achilles Heel of the Italian side who had drawn both their opening games 1-1.
Italy had won just one of their last five meetings against Ireland, losing two and drawing as many and with Giovanni Trapattoni perhaps wishing to prove a point against his former employers, of which he did so poorly for, it was set to potentially be an equally frustrating night for Cesare Prandelli and his men.
However, with such a miserable tournament behind them so far, the Irish’s threat was going to be minimal. They had so far conceded 7 goals in 2 games and had attempted the fewest amount of passes in the whole competition, averaging just 311 attempts per game. So limited was their threat against Spain that they managed just six shots at Iker Casillas’ goal, with only two on target: a stark contrast to Shay Given’s goal that was peppered with 27 attempts throughout the 90 minutes, with Fernando Torres alone totaling more shots on target, 4, that the entire Ireland team.
“Spain just went up a notch after the break and carved us open on a number of occasions. No matter what your game is it doesn’t always work against them.”
It was a game in which Spain suffocated Ireland with possession, raking up a pass accuracy of 91% from a European record 860 passes. Aiden McGeady was the only player to come out of the clash with any real credit to his name, making 8 tackles against the tiki-taka kings: more than any other player of either side.
Spain, however, already had one foot in the door. Yet, so wide open was the door that Croatia and Ireland could sneak through first and shut it on them if Spain succumbed to defeat. They had so far conceded the fewest amount of goals in Euro 2012, 1, along with France, and with Gerard Pique in such glorious form, achieving a clearance success rate of 71% against Ireland, it looked as if their defence would take some beating. So well defended has Casillas’ goal been thus far that he only made seven touches of the ball during the game against Ireland, 4 of which were goal-kicks.
Going forward Spain had been unorthodox and predictable all in the space of 180 minutes: against Italy they chose to start without a striker and recorded a 1-1 draw, whilst against Ireland they dropped their scorer from the first game, Cesc Fabregas, for Fernando Torres and reverted to a variant of the 4-3-2-1 formation. David Silva had been their creator in a blessed midfield, making 80 attempts to pass against Ireland, completing 67 of them: but, it was his clinical nature in and around the box that was more threatening, scoring one and assisting twice against the Irish. Fernando Torres had recaptured his international form, too, scoring two in Spain’s last outing.
He is, though, blessed with the insurance of Barcelona pairing Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, who, between them, averaged a pass completion rate of 94% and made 229 passes in their side’s 4-0 demolition of Ireland. That was 2 men from 11 making over a quarter of Spain’s total passes that game.
If Croatia were going to threaten Spain’s progression through to the quarter finals they were going to have to rely on the supply of Luka Modric, who had a lower than average pass accuracy against the Italians of just 79%, and the firepower of Nikica Jelavic and Mario Mandzukic up front.
Again MayCauseOffence went with the terrestrial offering, but does stress that it does own access to digital channels and occasionally flicked over to the Italy versus Ireland game numerous times in the first half just to see if Ireland were still disastrously atrocious; or alternatively because Spain were boring me into submission as well as Croatia.
True to form, Spain sought out the opportunity to pass Croatia into a false sense of security (or tiredness, whatever came first) and did so in their usual pass pass pass pass pass…………………..manner. Croatia were, however, much better at observing the Spanish lesson in how to play football than Ireland were, who too often tried to get involved, leaving Spain the opportunity to score. Lining up in their azure blue kit, Spain seemingly lost some of the passion that comes with the redness of their home strip and seemed in no rush to score. They did this whilst still managing to have 7 shots on target in the first half and a further 3 more off target: they really were that deceiving that even MayCauseOffence as a viewer at home didn’t realize they were in the Croatian box before they had taken aim.
Ireland, too, were lining up in a previously unseen strip for the Euros, ditching the green that had served them so well against Croatia and Spain and choosing to adorn a nice white shirt instead. It hadn’t changed Shay Given’s approach to the game, though, for he was still continuing his goalkeeping strike. One such example was his pretend catch from a long-range strike from Antonio Cassano, which he spilled out for a corner. Another example was his attempt to join in with a Mexican Wave as Cassano then headed home the subsequent corner, with the ball literally bouncing off his uncoordinated arm.
Croatia’s fans undoubtedly appreciated Given’s efforts, because it at least meant their side would have to try and intervene in the Spain versus Spain game, because as things now stood Croatia were heading home. Heading home, MayCauseOffence hastens to add, despite currently boasting a better scoreline against the Irish, drawing with Italy and drawing with Spain. Croatia had even scored more goals than Italy going into the last game and still had with Cassano scoring. MayCauseOffence was confused by UEFA’s qualification rules. As it stood at half-time, however, that was how it was heading: Italy and Spain through, Croatia and Ireland out.
Italy began their second-half showing against Trapattoni’s men in the same vein at which the first-half ended: with the Italian’s dominating and Ireland looking rather laboured. Italy almost instantly scored from the restart, with Cassano being denied his second of the game and within three minutes of the second forty-five commencing Italy had racked up 2 shots and three crosses. Richard Dunne and Sean St. Ledger were again being made to earn their wage at the heart of defence.
As the second-half progressed and the scores remained the same (Spain 0-0 Croatia, Italy 1-0 Ireland), MayCauseOffence was increasingly feeling a sense of injustice on behalf of the Croats, who, as it stood, would still be going out. Normally MayCauseOffence would revel in another’s misery and ill-fortune, but UEFA’s qualification rules if teams were level on points were so infuriating and nonsensical that even Mr. MCO couldn’t bring himself to jab Slaven Bilic from afar.
Fortunately it did look as if the stalemate would be broken between Croatia and Spain, though, and surprisingly it was the former that was appearing most likely to strike first. Tottenham midfielder Luka Modric whipped in a delicious ball from the right, which Ivan Rakitic powerfully met in the air: however, the headed effort lacked any significant deviation and was left for Iker Casillas to make look better than it was.
Spain’s manager Vicente Bel Bosque chose to replace Fernando Torres with Jesus Navas just shy of 60 minutes and it marked a shift back to the dominance of the Spaniards, which Bilic quickly counteracted with a double attacking substitution. Nikica Jelavic replaced Domagoj Vida and Ivan Perisic came on for Danijel Pranjic. Croatia were fighting fire with fire and it was their only real choice, with Italy still holding their one-goal lead over Ireland.
It was the Spanish change that proved to be the masterstroke, however. With just three minutes left, Andres Iniesta passed across goal, having tempted Stipe Pletikosa off of his line, to the oncoming Jesus Navas, who emphatically released the tension of the thousands of Spanish fans inside the PGE Arena in Gdansk, thumping the ball high into the unguarded net.
Similarly, Mario Balotelli made Italy’s progression certain in the dying stages, with a well-struck strike from inside the box across the goal and into the top left-hand corner to double his side’s lead just a minute after Keith Andrews had been dismissed for Ireland; Italy 2-0 Ireland.
“You’d drop it anyway, Shay!”
The scores meant that Spain would be progressing, rightfully, in first place and Italy through as runners-up. In the end, despite it being different for much of the game, the right teams progressed and in the right order. At 0-0 between Spain and Croatia and Italy 1-0 Ireland, Italy were going through in first place according to the BBC’s television coverage, despite having scored 2 goals fewer than Spain and beating Ireland by 3 fewer, too. In similar ill-logic Croatia were going home despite being joint on points with Italy, having drawn with them 1-1, beaten Ireland by a greater margin and had score more goals along the way.
Thankfully, Croatia’s defeat to Spain meant they went home on points difference and now Spain will face the runners-up of Group D, which is decided tomorrow, whilst Italy will face that group’s winners.