One of the world’s biggest sporting events is here. Atlanta Soccer news presents a preview of Group C – which includes Croatia, Italy, Ireland and defending European champion – and World Cup champion – Spain.
For Croatia, it’s been a tumultuous decade in the wake of the country’s football apex – a third-place finish at World Cup ’98. The team has undeniable talent, but has not been able to reach those heights in a major international tournament since.
The team will be eager to avenge the heartbreak of Euro 2008 that saw them fall on penalties to Turkey in one of the most remarkable finishes in recent history.
Jason deVos says:  The Croatians have limped their way into Euro 2012. A relatively poor qualifying campaign, where they only managed to finish second to Greece in a weak Group F, saw the Croats take on Turkey in the playoffs. They won the tie in the first leg, running out 3-0 victors in Istanbul, and sealed the deal with a 0-0 draw at home in Zagreb.
Player to Watch: Luka Modric is the only player of real pedigree in the Croatian squad, and he will be hard pressed to lead his team beyond the group stage. There is far too much quality in the Spanish and Italian ranks for the Croatians to be considered legitimate contenders for a place in the knockout stage, and like the Irish, I expect the Croats to be heading home early.
Euro 2012 Squad:
Goalkeepers: Stipe Pletikosa (Rostov), Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Ivan Kelava (Dinamo Zagreb.
Defenders: Domogoj Vida (Dinamo Zagreb), Vedran Corluka (Bayer Leverkusen), Josip Simunic (Dinamo Zagreb), Gordon Schildenfeld (Eintracht Frankfurt), Ivan Strinic (Dnipro), Danijel Pranjic (Bayern Munich), Jurica Buljat (Maccabi Haifa).
Midfielders: Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Tomislav Dujmovic (Real Zaragoza), Ognjen Vukojevic (Dynamo Kyiv), Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla), Luka Modric (Tottenham), Ivan Perisic (Borussia Dortmund), Niko Kranjcar (Tottenham), Milan Badelj (Dinamo Zagreb), Ivo Ilicevic (Hamburg).
Forwards: Ivica Olic (Bayern Munich), Nikica Jelavic (Everton), Mario Mandzukic (Wolfsburg), Eduardo da Silva (Shakhtar Donetsk).
Road to Euro 2012:
Group: F – Georgia, Greece, Israel, Latvia, Malta
Record: 7-2-1 (won aggregate play-off 3-0)
Key Match: Deadlocked at zeroes in the 90th minute on March 26, Georgian midfielder Jaba Kankava buried one into Croatia’s net from 10 metres out. The result brought the surprising Georgians to 2-0-3 through the first half of group play, but the inability of Croatia to score on the road left points on the table. A win in that game would have left Croatia ahead of Greece in the end.
Tournament History: 2008 – Quarter Final, 2004 – Qualified, 2000 – Did Not Qualify
Best Finish: Quarter Final (2008, 1996)
It has been a tough decade for Ireland since Robbie Keane’s iconic equalizer against Germany electrified the nation at the 2002 World Cup.
Since then, there’s been little to cheer about. After failing to make the two Euros and World Cups since – with an assist to Thierry Henry’s left hand – times have been tough, but perhaps the team’s Remembrance Day outburst in Talinn changed that.
Once Ireland went up 4-0 on Estonia in the qualifying play-off match, the return leg in Dublin was nothing short of a celebration match.
The team enters the tournament riding an emotional wave (perhaps that emotion is relief) unlike any they’ve experienced since 2002.
Jason deVos Says: The Republic of Ireland is always good value in any major tournament, as much for the good-natured spirit of their supporters as for their never-say-die attitude on the pitch. With few ‘star’ players in their ranks – the exception being an aging Robbie Keane – the Irish will rely on the experience of Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni to mark their course. Expect to see a 4-4-2 formation from Ireland coupled with a tireless work rate. Unfortunately, the lack of quality will likely see the Irish heading home after the group stage.
Player to Watch: Reigning Irish Player of the Year Kevin Doyle offers the side a scoring threat from the flank and another option beyond Keane if necessary. While few will be blown away by his four-goal output for Wolverhampton this season, he has netted 10 goals in 46 internationals over the past six years.
Euro 2012 Squad:
Goalkeepers: Shay Given (Aston Villa), Keiren Westwood (Sunderland), David Forde (Millwall).
Defenders: Richard Dunne (Aston Villa), John O’Shea (Sunderland), Sean St. Ledger (Leicester), Darren O’Dea (Celtic), Stephen Ward (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Stephen Kelly (Fulham), Paul McShane (Hull).
Midfielders: Glenn Whelan (Stoke), Darron Gibson (Everton), Keith Andrews (West Bromwich Albion), Paul Green (no club), Damien Duff (Fulham), Aiden McGeady (Spartak Moscow), Stephen Hunt (Wolverhampton Wanderers), James McClean (Sunderland).
Forwards: Robbie Keane (Los Angeles Galaxy), Kevin Doyle (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Shane Long (West Bromwich Albion), Simon Cox (West Bromwich Albion), Jon Walters (Stoke).
Road to Euro 2012:
Group: B – Andorra, Armenia, Macedonia, Russia, Slovakia
Record: 6-1-3 (won aggregate play-off 5-1)
Key Match: It’s rare that a goalless draw winds up being a key match, but with a chance to take a stranglehold on the group, Russia was unable to solve the Irish side in Moscow in early September. The draw went a long way to Ireland’s momentum, helping them surge ahead of Slovakia for good to hold second in the group and proved that the side could compete against Europe’s better sides.
Tournament History: 2008 – Did Not Qualify, 2004 – Did Not Qualify, 2006 – Did Not Qualify
Best Finish: Qualified (1988)
There is no nation more unpredictable in international soccer than Italy. Consider that over the last decade they have been World Cup champion and then – in defence of that crown – were held winless and eliminated in the first round four years later.
Cesare Prandelli replaced Marcello Lippi as head coach after the 2010 World Cup and will be leading his team into an international competition for the first time. While Lippi was criticized for not selecting younger players for the last World Cup, Prandelli has been able to use a mix of both the old guard and next wave of Italian talent to secure their place in the tournament.
Jason deVos Says: Stingy defending is par for the course for the Italians and Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli will anchor their backline with the veteran Buffon taking his customary place between the posts.
While Andrea Pirlo will be the man who runs the midfield for the Azzuri, coach Cesare Prandelli has some questions to answer in attack with Giuseppe Rossi ruled out through injury, while Antonio Cassano has only recently returned from a lengthy absence due to heart problems.
Still, the Italians should have enough to reach the knockout phase.
Player to Watch: Forward Antonio Cassano was in great form for the Italian squad during qualifying. He led the team with six goals including the first in their 2-1 comeback victory in the group opener against Estonia. He was not chosen as a member of the 2010 World Cup team but will be counted on as Italy’s main offensive threat at Euro 2012.
Also, although he only has seven international caps, striker Mario Balotelli has been an integral part of Manchester City’s first-place season thus far in the English Premier League. If he gets a chance, he could score at will on lesser opposition.
Euro 2012 Squad: 
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Salvatore Sirigu (Paris Saint-Germain), Morgan De Sanctis (Napoli).
Defenders: Cristian Maggio (Napoli), Ignazio Abate (AC Milan), Federico Balzaretti (Palermo), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Angelo Ogbonna (Torino).
Midfielders: Andrea Pirlo (Juventus), Claudio Marchisio (Juventus), Emanuele Giaccherini (Juventus), Daniele De Rossi (Roma), Thiago Motta (Paris Saint-Germain), Antonio Nocerino (AC Milan), Riccardo Montolivo (Fiorentina), Alessandro Diamanti (Bologna).
Strikers: Antonio Cassano (AC Milan), Mario Balotelli (Manchester City), Sebastian Giovinco (Parma), Antonio Di Natale (Udinese), Fabio Borini (Roma).
Road to Euro 2012:
Group: C – Estonia, Faroe Islands, Northern Ireland, Serbia, Slovenia
Record: 8-0-2
Key Match: On Sept. 3 Italy opened their qualification in Estonia. They gave up the opening goal in the 31st minute and went into the half down a goal. Leading scorer Antonio Cassano and Leonardo Bonucci scored in the 60th and 63rd minutes respectively to steal the win for the Italians. Not only would they never trail again at any point in qualifying but over the next nine games they would concede just one other goal. Italy was awarded a 3-0 victory in their home game against Serbia after the game abandoned after six minutes due to crowd trouble with the traveling Serbian fans.
Tournament History: 2008 – Quarter-Finals, 2004 – Group Stage, 2000 – Second Place
Best Finish: Champions (1968)
It would be easy to think the defending European and World champion Spaniards would be a slam dunk to win this tournament given how they’ve changed their reputation from chronic choke artists to world beaters over the past four years. But consider this: no defending European Champion has made it past the Quarter Finals in defence of their crown since The Netherlands in 1992.
Spain is, however, an experienced side. But everyone’s always gunning for the guys on top. The Dutch and German teams will certainly be looking for revenge after losing in the World Cup and Euro Final matches respectively and Italy certainly won’t forget the penalty-kick thriller that saw tem exit the 2008 tournament.
Jason deVos says: Spain is the defending champion, and one of the favourites to lift the trophy in 2012. Unfortunately, David Villa is still recovering from a broken leg and might miss the tournament, while Carlos Puyol is ruled out of the tournament for certain after having knee surgery. That being said, coach Vicente Del Bosque has a wealth of options, with the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Pique, Casillas, Silva, Mata and Fabregas to choose from. Spain should have enough to win the group, but Italy will certainly feel confident of giving them a run for their money.
Player to Watch: The next great hope up front for Spain may rest in 24-year-old striker Pedro. Living in the shadow of Argentine wizard Lionel Messi in Barcelona, he may not have impressive raw numbers, but at the end of the 2010 World Cup, Pedro had become del Bosque’s number-one choice alongside David Villa after former golden-boy Fernando Torres struggled. He should get the opportunity to shine, whether or not he’s ready to break out.
Euro 2012 Squad:
Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), Pepe Reina (Liverpool), Victor Valdes (Barcelona).
Defenders: Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Alvaro Arbeloa (Real Madrid), Raul Albiol (Real Madrid), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Jordi Alba (Valencia), Juanfran Torres (Atletico Madrid).
Midfielders: Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Xavi Hernandez (Barcelona), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), Javi Martinez (Athletic Bilbao), Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid), Cesc Fabregas (Barcelona), Juan Mata (Chelsea), Santi Cazorla (Malaga).
Forwards: David Silva (Manchester City), Fernando Llorente (Athletic Bilbao), Fernando Torres (Chelsea), Jesus Navas (Sevilla), Pedro Rodriguez (Barcelona), Alvaro Negredo (Sevilla).
Road to Euro 2012:
Group: I – Czech Republic, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Scotland
Record: 8-0-0
Key Match: The defending Champs weren’t troubled much during their perfect group stage, but the one team that was capable of providing the biggest scare was Scotland. After taking a 2-0 lead in the 55th minute of the team’s October 12, 2010 game in Glasgow, the Spaniards conceded soon after on a goal by Steven Naismith. They soon found themselves on even ground after a Gerard Pique own-goal. Fernando Llorente was able to put the game away in the 79th.
Tournament History: 2008 – Champions, 2004 – Qualified, 2000 – Quarter Final
Best Finish: Champions (2008, 1964)