Another day of European Championship action has come and gone, and it seems as though the pre-tournament focus on Group C – labelled 'the group of death' – was entirely justified after two engrossing fixtures on Sunday.
Two of the tournament big boys went head to head in Sunday’s first encounter as Italy went up against reigning champions Spain in Gdansk, with both sides relatively happy to play out a 1-1 draw.
The game drew attention not only for the quality of the football on display – it was by far the most technically spectacular game fans have been treated to thus far – but for the formations deployed by Spain boss Vicente Del Bosque and Italy manager Cesare Prandelli.
After a few weeks of controversy and scandal Italy found solace in a system they helped pioneer, namely the 3-5-2, deploying a sweeper-style defender in Daniele de Rossi and two flying wing-backs in Christian Maggio and Emanuele Giaccherini, who was making his international debut as a left wing-back.
Spain meanwhile, in the absence of David Villa went for a team packed with playmaking midfielders but no recognised strikers, with Cesc Fabregas and David Silva deployed as nominal, interchangeable front men.
Spain appeared to lack urgency early on, moving the ball laterally through Xabi Alonso and Xavi but failing to find runners willing to break through the Italian back line, with Cesc Fabregas and David Silva both lacking the instinct of out and out strikers.
More so than the lack of an out and out striker the reigning champions were lacking their usual tempo and directness in the final third, while Italy appeared comfortable dealing with the pace of the game early on, all the while looking to spring forward at speed.
For the most part they did that very well indeed, with Maggio showing early intent to bomb forward while the attacking pair Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano pressed well to ensure Spain found it difficult to settle on the ball.
While David Silva spurned a couple of half chances early on and Andres Iniesta looked dangerous, it was the Italians show should have gone ahead in the first half, with Cassano dragging his effort wide before Marchisio tested Iker Casillas with a stinging shot.
Thiago Motta spurned what was at that point the best chance of the half when he placed his free header too close to Casillas, although the Real Madrid shotstopper deserved his fair share of credit for producing a good reaction save.
Italy were finishing the half stronger, with Andrea Pirlo pinging long balls to release his team-mates at pace, but when a clear cut opportunity fell to Balotelli he couldn’t produce the goods.
Having done well to rob Sergio Ramos and keep the ball in play, Balotelli bore down on goal but took an age to get his shot away, with his dawdling eventually allowing Ramos to get back and make the tackle.
The second half began at a much higher tempo with Spain looking decidedly more threatening, while Italy appeared buoyed by their first half performance and were also looking dangerous.
Balotelli was soon withdrawn with Antonio di Natale taking his place, and the Udinese man made an instant impact as he notched the game’s first goal.
Pirlo skipped past two Spanish midfielder before his perfectly weighted ball released Di Natale, who placed his shot expertly beyond the sprawling Casillas.
While Italy were good value for their lead the goal seemed to shock Spain into life, and they brought the scores level almost immediately with an equally sublime goal.
Italy’s previously immaculate defence, led by the superb De Rossi, was found wanting for once as Fabregas found a huge hole to run into through the middle, with the Barcelona man finishing having being found well by Silva.
That set up a frantic finish, with Fernando Torres entering the fray, and the Chelsea striker looked as though he had carried his poor club form over to international level.
Almost immediately he had the chance to put his side in the lead for the first time as he raced through only for Gianluigi Buffon to smother the danger, while later his attempted lob drifted despairingly over the Italian bar.
Ultimately a point proved to be a fair result for both sides who will have been happy to walk away from their first game of the tournament unbeaten with games against Croatia and the Republic of Ireland to come.
The draw ended Spain’s run of 14 consecutive competitive wins that stretched back to their opening game defeat against Switzerland at the 2010 World Cup.
While Group C’s first game offered a fascinating insight into the two of the most technically astute sides in world football, unfortunately the same cannot be said of the Republic of Ireland and their encounter against Croatia.
While the Irish have been praised for their robust, resolute defending and watertight resilience that helped ensure their place in Euro 2012, it was ultimately their limitations which meant they went down 3-1 to Slavan Billic’s superior side.
Under Giovanni Trapattoni, Ireland’s plan has always been to absorb pressure and look to find the net from set pieces or on the break; unfortunately they were poor in dealing with Croatia’s attacking intent and were hugely undermined by conceding a disastrously early goal.
Mario Mandzukic put his side ahead inside the first three minutes as his header eluded the grasp of Shay Given, with every single doubt over his fitness before the game flooding to the surface as the Aston Villa man scrambled in vain while the Wolfsburg forward’s seemingly innocuous effort found the net.
Ireland responded well to going behind and were soon level thanks to an unlikely source, with Sean St Ledger, who went the entire season without scoring for Leicester, finding the back of the net with a neat back post header.
That was about as good as it got for the Irish as Croatia landing a devastating blow in the stroke of half time, with the in-form Nikica Jelavic scoring with a well-taken chip to put his side back ahead after Luka Modric's deflected drive found its way through to the 26-year-old.
The second half began in a similar fashion to the first, namely with Croatia scoring incredibly early on. It was Mandzukic who scored with his head once more to land what should be a deadly blow to Irish hopes of qualifying as his effort came off the post, hit Given on the head and bounced into the net.
Ireland tried to muster a response but found their limitations meant they failed to break Croatia down, with long balls being regulary pumped forward with very little invention.
Keith Andrews should have done better with his free header late on, while Robbie Keane in particular was adamant, and rightly so, that Ireland should have had a penalty with around 25 minutes remaining.
But in truth the scorline was a fair reflection of how the game played out, and with games against Italy and Spain to come, it would appear Ireland’s chances of qualifying for the knockout stages are effectively over almost as soon as they begun.
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