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

Oh the pain ouch

It is really only now that I am getting over one of sorry the most heartbreaking moments I’ve ever experienced in my life. The English football premier league season 2011-12 was without doubt the most exciting, dramatic and mind boggling seasons ever. From the unusually high scoring games to the emergence of a certain team from Manchester and it’s not United, we were in for a roller coaster ride from the off. Manchester City had gone 44 years without winning the league and us red supporters took great satisfaction from this. But there was definitely something different about this bunch. Even though they appeared to implode around March and allow United take an 8 point lead with 6 games to go, they kept plugging away and suddenly it was Man. United’s complacency that came back to bite them in the bum.

And after all the twists and turns it all boiled down to the final day. Man. City hosted QPR. the team with the worst away record in the premier league. They surely couldn’t fail this time. I’ve never experienced such anxiety, stress, worry and excitement all at one go and when United took the lead after about 20 mins. we were temporarily top. But just before half time the inevitable, Man. City scored and it was back in their hands. But you couldn’t have wrote or even dreamt of what would happen in the second half. First of all QPR. equalized to the utter joy of us of a red persuassion. And then the unthinkable they actually took the lead and now we were really starting to dream. City would need 2 to wrestle it back. Boy them 20 minutes were agony. The longer it went on it should have felt better but it got worse. Nails being bitten, heads in hands. Were we actually going to rob them in the most callamotous ways? Believe me it would have utterly destroyed City fans if they did. And then added time. There was 3 at United’s game and 5 at City and they were still losing. All I was thinking off was the idiots who got tattoes on their arms proclaiming champions. I really thought we were going to rob them. So just moments before Man. United got the win they needed Man. City equalized. I prayed, begged, would have sold my soul to the devil for the game to end there and then. And as our game ended I turned over to watch the last minutes of City’s game and within 15 seconds of switching over they scored! Absolute devestation, pain, destruction. We were so close to winning it and so an ending to a sporting occasion never witnessed before unfolded. I fell to the floor in self pity like a little child and hid my tears. I didn’t know what else to do. The bad memory will live forever but the raw pain is just beginning to subside. Manchester United have done this to so many others on so many different occasions I suppose it was bound to happen to us. But whatever team you follow you will never forget that day for the rest of your life. Football, bloody hell! Roll on Euro 2012              Image