The final countdown- groups at a glance 3

On the eve of the big kick-off, I will be taking a look at possibly one of the most difficult groups to predict group C. It is also the one closest to my heart because Ireland will be participating and I just can’t wait until Sunday. To kick things off I will begin with the World and European champions and number 1 rank Spain.

Spain will be going into this tournament as the rightful number 1 team in the World. They will be led by Vicente Del Bosque. He is a highly experienced and successful manager, notably with Real Madrid, leading them to European glory. Instills a great measure of calmness under pressure in this unique team. Surprisingly though, they are going into the tournament without the same fuss that followed them previously and this is probably due to the massive weight lifted off their shoulders following their recent success’. In the past they were always a highly fancied team and almost always went home early. But there is no fear of that happening now with the unbelievable talent coupled with a winning mentality. They can be mesmerising to watch at times they really are that good and their recent win at the UEFA U-21 championships means it doesn’t look like they will be stopping soon. Winners of this tournament in 1964 and reigning champions following their 2008 win. In a squad brimming with world-class talent all over the pitch, it is very difficult to pick out 3 to watch but nevertheless these are the players I will concentrate on. Andreas Iniesta is just one of many Barcelona players included in the squad and undoubtably one of the best in the World. Blessed with close control and vision to pick out defence splitting passes, he will wreak havoc on opposing teams alongside Xavi. Fernando Torres of current champions league holders Chelsea looks like he is about to explode again after almost 2 years off the boil. Scored in the 2008 final and his goal against Barcelona in the semi-final of the champions league might signal a resurgence. David Silva of money bags Manchester City is quality through and through. Close control, deft touch and a beautiful passer of the ball. He was the best player by far in England up until January and then went a bit quiet but we will be in for a treat if he is back on song this summer. Currently drifting from co-favourite with Germany to sole favourites at a price of 11/4. Many people’s idea of winners but not great value for a punt.

The second seed in this group are the Italians and they are surprisingly ranked 12th. This is because they are rarely outside the top 10 teams in the world. They will be led in by the highly respected Cesare Prandelli who came from Fiorentina where he finished up as their longest serving manager. Italy are well-known for their solid defensive style of play which makes them very hard to score against but at the same time seldom ever do they score highly in their matches. That said, it doesn’t prevent them from producing World class talent time after time and the current squad is no different, although a little more evenly spread. For a country that has been World champions on 4 occasions, it comes as a big surprise that they have only won this tournament once and that was back in 1968!. It can only be a matter of time before they put that right but when it will be is debatable. The following players I have chosen to highlight; Andrea Pirlo of Juventus is the bulldog in the heart of midfield and is very highly respected in Europe. He is a great passer of the ball and links excellently with the front men. He is a veteran of their 2006 World cup winning campaign. Mario Balotelli of money bags Manchester City can be frustrating at the best of times and carries a bad reputation but when he puts his mind to it, he is a serious player. Rarely ever smiles even when he scores, certainly for his club where he ended the season as a champion. That said he can be one of the stars of the tournament, but only if he applies himself. Danielle De Rossi of AS. Roma is the driving force of the team with an engine to match and blessed with skill. A vital cog in their set up and you could call him a stereotypical Italian attacker. On paper they should qualify from this group for the quarter-finals but in reality it’s not that simple as defeat in their opener against the Spanish could seriously hamper them. Most bookmakers price them at 16/1 and it’s not at all unreasonable to imagine them winning, therefore this represents the best value of the tournament in my opinion.

At long, long  last we come to my country, Ireland and I can’t fully explain how excited I am to be able to cheer them on again at the finals of a major tournament. The country is currently managed by the charming Giovanni Trapatoni, a man with success and experience in abundance. He stepped in in 2008 and guided the team to the World cup play-offs after going through the group which contained World champions at the time and his home country, Italy. What happened against France in the play-off was bitter to swallow as it was so clear to see Thierry Henry blatantly handled the ball to control it before setting up William Gallas to equalize. But it proved to everyone back home that he was the man to do the job after years of stagnation, calamity and bad decision making by the FAI. Finally, they seem to have put things right and the completion of the new national stadium, the Aviva Stadium has been the springboard to future success coupled with “Trap’s” know how. But it was actually our away form that got us into the play-offs after 4 wins and 1 draw from 5 games which included only 1 goal conceded. The stand out performance was the point gained in Russia, where an outstanding display by the defence and especially by Richard Dunne and  Shay Given proved how hard we are to beat. The blend of experience and youth coming through means we should qualify for more tournaments in future, whereas before hand we went 10 years since our last appearance in a finals, the World cup in 2002. These games will be only our second following our debut in 1988, where a good team led by Jack Charlton made the World open their eyes . An historic win against England and a battling draw against the Soviet Union was followed by a heart breaking loss to the Netherlands who eventually won the tournament. That was 24 years ago and the 2012 vintage have similar qualities, but in their own way. My 3 to watch include Aiden McGeady who plays for Spartak Moscow. He is probably the most technically gifted Irish player since Liam Brady back in the 80s. He is a very tricky winger and works tirelessly for the team. A great crosser of the ball and could make a big name for himself here. Robbie Keane of LA Galaxy is a living legend for the Irish team. Usually plays up front on his own and works his socks off. By far the record scorer and has nearly 60 international goals to his name which included 7 in qualifying. This could be his swan song on the big stage as he is 31 now, so will want to impress. Finally we have Richard Dunne marshalling the defence and we are fortunate to have him fit as there was a doubt about him being ready. One of the best defenders coming into the tournament and will not let us down. His presence along with Shay Given in goal will be an inspiration to all around due to his heroics. He would literally throw himself under a bus for the cause and that is the sort of spirit that will be visible in abundance with this team. We know we won’t win EURO 2012 (OR WILL WE?) but just to know we will be their and fighting as hard as we can makes it all worth while. This is why we are at a general price of 80/1 and I might just have a little flutter on that. COME ON YOU BOYS IN GREEN!

The final team in the group is Croatia, who are one of the youngest teams in international football following the break up of the former Yugoslavia. Managed by Slaven Bilic, who has proved himself to be a fine leader in his time in the job. They are currently ranked 8 in the World. Another nation to embrace stylish football, they exploded onto the scene when reaching the quarter-finals of EURO 1996 after being in existence for only 5 years. That was the Croatia of Davor Suker and co. who topped that 2 years later finishing 3rd at the World cup of 1998. They equalled their 1996 performance at the last European championship, proving they were no flash in the pan. The current squad though, are a little less experienced and their opener against Ireland will be a key to whether they have a chance of progressing but the omens are not good in this situation because in the 6 games the 2 nations have played, Croatia have only won once. They qualified for these finals via the play-offs and will also bring a large colourful following with them. These are the 3 players who I will pick to highlight. Nikica Jelavic who only joined Everton recently, has proven to be an instant hit, scoring 9 in 13 matches and is coming here at the top of his game. He has great control and links superbly with the rest of the team and could be one of the players to watch closely at these finals. Luka Modric of Tottenham is undoubtedly one of the most technically gifted players in Europe. He is also very hard working and scores some breathtaking goals. Dario Srna is the Croatian captain and the driving force behind the team. A powerful and precise winger who leads by example, he is a fine crosser of the ball and no doubt his team-mates have the ability to take advantage as he assisted in 6 goals in the qualifying. Croatia are another team who are ranked highly in the world but outrageously priced by the bookies, in this case a massive 50/1, therefore another value bet for anybody who takes it up.

My predictions for this group are as follows;

Group winners: Spain

Group runners-up: Ireland

3rd place: Italy

Wooden spoon: Croatia

You will have to forgive me if you think I’m being over optimistic regarding Ireland’s chances and think they have no chance here at all but when you are looking at a group containing your own country, you tend to see things a little different. I’ve watched them over the last few years and in 3 games against Italy in that time we are unbeaten and won once in Italy so yes I definitely think we have a good chance of making the quarter-finals

Come on you boys in green

The time is nearly upon us, the anticipation is reaching fever pitch and after what was without doubt the most absorbing, exciting and thoroughly unforgettable English premier leagues EVER! has come and gone, we can all focus our passions on our home countries as the UEFA European nations cup is almost upon us. For the sports fans upon us we are being spoiled for choice this year. With the fine league season that has just ended, the EURO 2012 finals and the Olympics which are being staged just across the water, the women in our lives who just can’t get their head’s around what all the fuss is will surely be well deserving of that extra loving gesture (or 2 or 3 or…). As an Irish man who has had to endure 10 years of barren summers, usually 3 months from May to August doing cold turkey waiting for the next season to start and no international tournament to cheer on has been hard to take. And so it is that our boys will be heading to Poland/Ukraine for the football banquet with the big boys and every pub, house, street, and maybe the odd dog or horse will be donned in the green white and orangeI was only a small boy in 1988 when the Republic qualified for their first ever major football finals. The memories I will never forget. From the day Ray Houghton’s bullet header to beat the auld enemy England in Stuttgart, Ireland were put on the footballing map after a decade of also rans who had some quite talented players playing from all the big clubs in England. Paul Mcgrath, David O’leary, Mick McCarthy, Ronnie Whelan, Ray Houghton, Liam Brady and Packie Bonner. It was only a matter of time we would reach a tournament and in stepped the man who would eventually take us there, Jack Charlton. A no-nonsense man who was a very successful player with the great Leeds United team of the 60s and 70s and brother of the legendary Bobby. His first game in charge was a defeat against Wales in Dublin, something that wouldn’t happen again for another 7 years.

Getting back to the 1988 tournament, after beating England the team faced a then mighty Soviet Union and matched them all over the park and a 1-1 draw was well deserved and who will ever forget Ronnie Whelan’s stunning bicycle kick from outside the box to beat the Russian ‘keeper who was regarded as the best in the world at the time. The world stood up and paid attention now. Italia ’90 was probably the greatest footballing achievement in our nations history, having reached the quarter finals only to be beaten by the host nation in their backyard 0-1. Don’t get me wrong Ireland never played pretty football but it got us results. “Put ’em under pressure” was the buzz word of the day. All we cared about was getting to the finals, what style of football got us there didn’t matter.

Our next foray into the international scene was USA ’94 and after opening our account by beating the Italians (who eventually went on to the final) with a stunning volley from 25 yards scored by none other than Ray Houghton, the team stagnated and ran out of ideas in the sweltering heat of Florida in the summer. They wilted and were put out of their misery by the Dutch in the second round. After failing to qualify for England ’96 by way of losing to the Dutch again in the play offs, Jack finally threw his hat in after bringing us as far as he could with an ageing squad that needed total revamping. He stepped down to a heroes departure and a gracious nation for what he achieved with so little. Mick McCarthy was the new man at the helm and his tenure got off to a reasonable start having the unenvious task off overhauling the entire team. He came close to qualifying for France ’98 but again the play-off door was slammed shut in our face’s. The same again in 2000 amid scenes of violence, bullying and thuggery in Turkey (haven’t we seen that before?). But finally after 8 years in the wilderness we reached the finals in Japan/Korea and who will ever forget the Saipan-Keane -McCarthy saga. After coming through a group that contained Portugal and Holland where we finally got revenge for previous heart- break Ireland were again being noticed on the world stage and especially with a player of Roy Keane’s calibre. What happened in that dressing room is a story for another day. Considering the distractions the players had to bear, they played some attractive football and came out of a group containing Cameroon and Germany only to go on and be defeated by Spain who were totally outplayed and outclassed and finally won through on penalties. Ireland came home with heads held high thinking what might have been. But considering the massive effect and divide in society caused by the Saipan melee, the writing was on the wall for Mick McCarthy and he was quite unfortunate to be forced to hand his resignation in.

And so it was 10 years of stagnation. Back into the footballing wilderness, the uncertainty, the calamities. We plummeted down the world rankings and it was a dark period in the FAI’s history. A new stadium was needed and a new direction also. After a lot of plans for a national stadium, Eircom park being one considered and the now infamous “Bertie Bowl” named after the then Irish premier Bertie Ahern, thought was given to opening up the fantastic arena that is Croke park, but that was still a raw issue and some time away. The final decision was made on demolishing the world famous Landsdowne Road and building a brand new stadium-The Aviva Stadium, for which I had the honour of working there as a steward for some time.It took around 4 years to complete while in the meantime a decision had to be made as to where Ireland would play their home games in both rugby and football. An historic vote was taken to open up Croke Park to “foreign sports” as they were known. This was an old rule dating back to British occupation of the whole of the island of Ireland and was a law of defiance which stood for over 100 years. Unanimously it was over-ruled and the famous ground was used for several home internationals and was given world wide recognition which in normal circumstances wouldn’t have been possible. While we were waiting on our brand new stadium, a new man was appointed to take the team into the future. Giovanni Trappatoni was the man chosen in a time when Italian bosses were all the rage. He came with a CV. of achievement as long as your arm but he also came with bus pass, a term often used for those over 65. But who were we to oppose his appointment after some below standard managers, with all respect due, that came before. His style of play was typically Italian. Very defensive and only attacking at opportunistic moments which in turn produced very little goals, but also produced a lot of clean sheets. They were proving a hard team to beat while at the same time having to bring a lot of youngsters through who showed a lot of potential in all honesty. In qualification for South Africa 2010, a tournament which in the end proved a party you could cope with missing out on, he lead Ireland to unbeaten group runners up in a group containing world champions Italy. A fine performance considering the amount of young talent that needed brooding. And who can forget the play-off against the French. A spirited effort in Dublin ended in a 0-1 defeat meaning we had a mountain to climb. And climb that mountain they did with one of the finest ever displays by an Irish team. We won the game 1-0 and unsurprisingly after pulverising the French in front of their own support. But we were dealt a cruel blow when the infamous handball incident by Thierry Henry which was so clearly visible lead to us losing in yet another play-off

     

After feeling so cheated by the devious tactics employed by the French the whole of the nation was behind “Trap” as he is affectionately known now. And this time we had our own new stadium to host the nations of the world. The Aviva Stadium is a beautiful modern stadium with ease of access to but during the group qualifying we seemed to be our own worse enemy dropping silly points at home that we should quite easily have taken. The 2-3 home defeat by Russia still stands as the only  home group defeat suffered under his reign. But it was our away record that was our strength, 4 wins and 1 draw from 5 and conceding only 1 is form form the top draw. The draw we got in Russia cannot be taken lightly. Ireland were blitzed from the off. Shot after shot went wide, was saved expertly by Shay Given or Richard Dunne threw himself in font of several rasping efforts and had the war wounds to show for it. This was the game that won us a chance at yet another play-off. This time no prisoners were taken and again it was the away form that done us proud. A magnificent 4-0 win in Estonia rendered the 2nd leg pointless and the boys in green were at last on their way to the big time again. 10 years since our last big bash and 24 years since our last European adventure.

We know we don’t expect miracles and playing in a group containing Croatia, Italy and World/European champions Spain we won’t lose touch with reality. One thing is for sure we’re a team that will prove tough to beat. A group of hungry, young, talented individuals who will work their socks off for themselves and their manager will fear no-one. “Trap” has proven himself as a manager for well over 30 years and considering Greece won on 2004 as 100/1 outsiders and Denmark were recalled from their holiday’s at the last minute in 1992 to win as under-dogs of the same nature, miracles can and do happen. We will enjoy the “craic” and I know other supporters will enjoy it with us so come on you boys in green let’s get this party started, we’ve been waiting 10 years to have one. Best of luck to all the fans around Europe, I think this will be a much better spectacle than South Africa 2010 and without the vuvuzuelas.