GDANSK, Poland -- Three thoughts on Spain's 4-0 victory against Ireland, which left Croatia atop the Group C standings (4 points), followed by Spain (4, second via tie-breaker), Italy (2) and eliminated Ireland (0).
1. Fernando Torres got off the mark. Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque finally decided to put a forward in his starting lineup, and the much-maligned Torres wasted no time by stealing the ball from Richard Dunne in the box and blasting a shot past Shay Given in the fourth minute. El Niño struck again in the 70th minute to complete a well-earned double. For a player whose confidence has been shaky for the past two years for club and country, Torres can use the start and his goals as a springboard in a tournament where Spain (the reigning World Cup and Euro champion) hopes to make history by being the first national team ever to win three straight major tournaments. Spain has been deep everywhere lately except at center forward. If Torres gets hot, look out.
2. Italy won't be happy now. The Spanish victory created what I find to be a very unfair situation: Both Spain and Croatia now have an incentive to play to a 2-2 "gentleman's tie" in the final group game, which would send both teams through to the quarterfinals and eliminate Italy no matter what the Italians do in their final group game against Ireland (even if Italy wins to tie Croatia and Spain on five points). The reason? Unlike in the World Cup, the European Championship uses a different tiebreaking system that prioritizes head-to-head results over goal differential. The same thing happened to Italy in Euro 2004, when Denmark and Sweden played to a 2-2 tie and advanced at Italy's expense. Granted, Italy deserves some blame for squandering leads in its first two games, and it's certainly possible that Spain and Croatia won't go for a 2-2, which would give Spain first place in the group. But let's be clear: such a scenario shouldn't exist in the first place.
3. UEFA needs to reconsider the decision to switch to a 24-team tournament at Euro 2016. Ireland deserves plenty of credit just for qualifying for Euro 2012, and no fan support in the world is more fun than the Green Army, a friendly group that has traveled to Poland in huge numbers. But the fact is that Ireland has been the worst team at Euro 2012, putting up scant resistance in heavy losses to Croatia and Spain. It's a reminder that UEFA should think twice about going forward with its plan to switch the Euro from a 16-team to a 24-team tournament in 2016. The beauty of the Euro is that it's the most competitive major tournament in global soccer, more so even than the World Cup. Watering down this great event may generate more money for UEFA, but it will also make the games less competitive, less interesting and less pressure-packed, with teams that finish third in the group stage likely to advance to the knockout rounds. No thanks.
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