Euro 2012 Day 7: Spain's win sets the stage for thrilling Group C finish
The most celebrated aspect of this tournament has been -- no, not Mario Gomez's hair -- the fact that matches are so fiercely competitive. Even on a day when Republic of Ireland was beaten 4-0 by Spain (so soundly that it could have lost 10-0 and still been happy with a few saves from Shay Given) and was robbed of any remaining delusions about qualifying for the knockout stages, Group C has kept to the script. It set up a final day in which any combination of Spain, Croatia and Italy can progress.
Italy sits in third, with two points garnered from an opening draw with Spain and today's tie with Croatia -- a game of two halves if there ever was one. The Italians comfortably dominated the first period and led at the half after an Andrea Pirlo free kick. However, Croatia, which had not lost to Italy in five matches, was in markedly finer form after the break. Mario Mandzukic's equalizer (which came on one of the few crosses that the Italian defense didn't manage to head away) gave Croatia four points in the group, level with Spain.
It means that if the two sides draw on Monday, and Italy also defeats Ireland, all three sides will be tied with five points. In that case only the results between these three would be taken in to consideration. If that doesn't separate the cluster, goal differential will come in to play. And if that doesn't work, goals scored against one another will be used. The craziest scenario would occur if Croatia and Spain draw 2-2. In that event, Italy could beat Ireland 36-0 and still go home.
It is exactly the situation that Italy faced in Group C at Euro 2004, when a late Antonio Cassano goal beat Bulgaria in the final group game. The Azzurri then watched as a late Mattias Jonson goal helped Sweden draw 2-2 with Denmark in the group's other game. The Italians were furious at the result, which had attracted a huge number of bets (so many that exact score odds came right in to 7/2), but allegations of match fixing made by members of the Italy camp, including Gianluigi Buffon, were denied all around. "Anyone who saw the game knows no one tried for that result," said Danish manager Morten Olsen.
Most likely the talk surrounding the impact of that particular result attracted hardened and novice punters alike, though Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni, the man in charge of Italy in 2004, was wary. "A certain doubt arises," he cautioned. Directly after the final whistle of his team's impressive performance today, however, Spain coach Vicente del Bosque promised that he would play to beat Croatia on Monday, rather than settling for a result that would see both sides through at Italy's expense. We should be set for quite a Group C finale.
There were six to choose from today, and a real variety too, but my pick is the David Silva goal that ruined Ireland's second-half plans before they even begun. Granted, the chance was presented to him on a silver platter when Given punched a Fernando Torres shot to him. But when the ball reached Silva, three defenders were positioning themselves between him and the goal. Silva looked to go right, then switched back to his left and rolled the ball casually through the legs of one -- if not two -- Irish defenders and into the bottom left corner of the net. It couldn't have been done any more coolly if he had stopped to comb his hair before riding back to the halfway line on a Harley.
859 -- the number of passes completed by Spain against Republic of Ireland, setting a new European Championship record.
It's back to Group D on Friday, where leader Ukraine takes on France in the earlier kickoff in Donetsk. If Ukraine wins, it will secure a place in the quarterfinals with a game to spare. The French need the points to allay fears of a third consecutive group stage exit from a major tournament, and manager Laurent Blanc is determined that his side will be better than against England. "If you play like that against a superb team, it's over," he said. Yann M'Vila is fit again and pushing for a place, and Florent Malouda looks most susceptible to get the hook.
In the day's second match, England faces Sweden -- the former's final game without the suspended Wayne Rooney. Sweden needs to get some points, but there are real concerns that Zlatan Ibrahimovic will not be fit to play a full match, having struggled with a thigh injury in training. Still, Sebastian Larsson remains confident: "Most people would say England are favorites and that's fine by us."