Third batch of quarter finalist were decided yesterday as juggernauts Spain and Italy advance past their group stage. Tense affairs for both games which still could have ended very differently for at least one team, had Croatia been able to find the equaliser in the dying minutes of their match against Spain. That never materialised and any fears of that match finishing in a gentlemen’s agreement of a 2-2 draw didn’t come to fruition either.
It’s hard to argue that the two better quality sides of the group have managed to progressed to the next stage of the championship. Croatia are a decent side who on their day could have sprung up a surprise. Slaven Bilic will look back at his international career as coach of Croatia with much pride having taken them back among the above average class. In the end, they just could not match the class that Vicente del Bosque’s team had. While Spain were able to call on the talent of Cesc Fabregas to change the game, the combined substitutions of Jelavic and Eduardo could not be compared to the Spaniard’s talents.
The former Arsenal man (gets a little nausea) again sits on the bench and again comes of it to produce something tangible for his national side. If there’s an award for best player in the international matches coming off the bench, Fabregas would win it hands down. He was the one that found Iniesta ghosting into space behind the Croatia’s defence that set up the winning goal.
Just like Ronaldo the day before for Portugal, Balotelli came to life for Italy in their deciding group game. A spectacular overhead/bicycle goal with half his back facing Shay Given, volleyed venomously straight from Pirlo’s corner kick. That sealed a 2 goal victory for Italy that also stamped their spot to the next stage of the championship. For the first time at Poland/Ukraine, the Manchester City striker had to take up a spot on the bench and he responded well to the challenge thrown to him by Prandelli.
Despite knowing what was needed to make sure of their progress, it was strange that Prandelli decided to start with 2 rather defensive types in the centre of midfield. One of de Rossi or Motta would have been sufficient to provide Pirlo the protection he needs. Also the change of formation back to 4 at the back was also strange. Thought Italy could have easily overpowered Ireland’s midfield with 5 across the middle. Rather pointedly is the performance of Pirlo in this game. Less influential than he had been in the first two games. Signs that his body is finding it hard to recuperate and play at the same level for so many games in so few days. Prandelli will be hoping there’s enough time between now the next game for his midfield maestro to recover.
Moving on to tonight’s game. The final group games of the championship and it’s Group D. France and England are the two leading in the table and both looks favourite to progress through. Of the two, France’s game looks the easier one. You can tell by Laurent Blanc looking likely to make a few changes to refresh his side. Not necessarily at the risk of lowering the quality of the sides that he has put out thus far. Fact is, Sweden are out of the championship and has little to play for other than pride. Ireland made it difficult for Italy last night and there’s no guarantee it won’t happen again tonight.
Blanc will have select his battles carefully. A draw will see them go through, a win should ensure that they avoid Spain in the quarters. He also knows that he can’t risk some of his key players getting an injury in this game. Giroud, Valbuena, M’Vila and possibly Koscielny could get a chance tonight. Except for Giroud, the others are at the same level if not better than those that they are replacing in Benzema, Menez, Diarra and Mexes/Rami. At least it gives us the opportunity to see some of these players who are linked to Arsenal, in action.
As for England, he knows he has to go for the win tonight and will boosted by the return of one player. Wayne Rooney will finally get to make his bow in this championship after serving his suspension and he should come straight back into the starting line-up. That should mean Ashley Young drops back into the left midfield/winger role but the bigger question mark is on the opposite flank. Is the grafter James Milner needed in a like where Hodgson is chasing for the win or is their hero from the Sweden game given a chance?
The hero is none other than Theo Walcott. The caveat of all this is that Walcott seemed to be nursing some injury and is qualification enough to risk his health. It won’t be any good to England if they go through to the knockout phase but couldn’t use the service of Walcott. Of course injury is unpredictable, if Walcott is fit, he’ll play. The Ukraine are rather straight forward. If England sacrifice Lescott following Shevchenko and Parker constantly shifting to the left to help Cole cover Yamalenko, then England probably only need to worry about scoring. Like yesterday, I’m not expecting the smaller teams to spring any surprises.
Enjoy the games tonight.