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Euro 2012 Preview, Predictions: Croatia, Italy, Republic of Ireland, Spain

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Ah Euro 2012 Group C, containing the team most Americans dislike the most -- Italy -- much to the surprise of Hank Scorpio.

There's also some team in the mix called "Spain." Apparently they might be good at soccer, or something. Not really sure. That's what the cue cards are telling me.

Two other teams comprise this group, too.

SPAIN

I love 'em:

If you want to embrace the idea that Holland's "Total Football" of the 1970s with John Cruyff was the greatest thing to ever happen to organized sport, than you probably have to jizz all over Spain's current tika-taka possession system. ... That's a true man's man mustache on national team coach Vincente Del Bosque. ... 6-foot-5 striker Fernando Llorente is a fun name to say aloud, "Yourrrrentay." ... I wish I had a friend named Iker, not going to lie. ... Sergio Busquets is -- BY FAR -- the greatest soccer player in the annals of record history. If you don't appreciate his tactical genius, then my good sirs and madams, go watch NASCAR or Foxy Boxy since your heathen eyes aren't worthy to look upon his brilliance!

I hate 'em:

Rooting for Spain, in a sense, is like rooting for a Duke or North Carolina in college hoops. That or being a total front-runner. It amazes me with the amount of winning Spain has done since lifting the 2008 Euro trophy it hasn't caught any heat, since most successful teams tend to accrue some level of backlash. ... Fernando Torres is just the worst, Jerry, the worst! ... Oh wait, that title belongs to Sergio Ramos who doesn't sweat; he excretes "douche juice." ... The Spain/Barcelona bandwagon is more than filled. ... Again, Cesc Fabregas cries his way out of Arsenal to force a transfer to Barcelona and nobody blinks and eye.

Bottom line:

Spain are good and by winning this tournament, its ready to enter the pantheon of all-time legendary soccer sides next to Brazil 1970.

But is Spain good enough for three major tournaments in succession with essentially the same key players, sans Carlos/Carles Puyol in the center of defense?

For one, everyone on Earth has had six years to examine what Spain has been doing. The engine of Andres Iniesta and Xavi is still the core of this team and due to their success with Barcelona in 2011 they've logged massive amounts of high-level soccer without too many times to recharge. It's no wonder Iniesta is 28 with the hairline of a 48 year old.

Slightly apples-to-oranges, but Barcelona -- still the core of this team -- were pipped by Real Madrid in La Liga and Roberto Di Matteo's bunker mentality -- coupled with some sparkling counter-attack goals -- got Chelsea past Barca in the Champions League. Germany -- everyone's assumed opponent for Spain in the final -- just might know a thing or two about a) beating Barca via Mesut Ozill and Sami Khedira and b) scoring on the counter attack.

Spain -- like nearly every team at the Euro -- is dealing with an unsettled central defensive partnership with Europe's newest tactical "it boy" Javi Martinez possibly pairing with an out-of-form Gerard Pique, that or it's Ramos in the center -- yuck.

More than ever, heading into this tournament Spain is going to need more than its Boys from Barcelona to win it all again. Somebody like Santi Carzola -- out of the mix in South Africa -- or David Silva need to contribute to take some of the wear-and-tear from Xavi and Iniesta, since the games with Italy and Ireland figure to be defensive stalemates.

And the forward situation, without David Villa can Del Bosque trust Torres to lead the line? Or does he take the risk and go with the players who've had the better seasons in Llorente and Alvardo Negredo? Lionel Messi isn't walking through the door to win games with his individual genius, as he isn't from Spain.

Consider this, too, at Euro 2008 in the knockout stages Spain needed PKs to beat Italy, then it thumped Russia 3-0, before beating Germany 1-0 in the final. At the World Cup two years ago all four games in the knockout stages were 1-0 wins by Spain. Yes, the tika-taka style turns out to be more defensive than offensive since it keeps the ball from the opponents, but the margin for error Spain has is slim, especially without Villa ability to score.

Spain probably make the final, but it's hard to see the team winning it again unless it finds another gear.

ITALY

I love 'em:

(Cue Jay Leno voice) Have you hear of this Mario Balotelli kid? He's a bit eccentric, huh? 

I hate 'em:

C'mon. If you're an American following soccer and don't have a laundry list of reasons to dislike the Azzurri then you're doing it wrong, saying nothing of the Danielle de Rossi elbow to the face of Brian McBride in 2006, although he did apologize after the match. ... American athletes pose for photos like this, Italian athletes pose for photos like this. ... Two of my grandparents were born on "the boot" and I can't stand the team. ... Guidos and their female counterparts (plus the venereal diseases they carry) wearing the Azzurri shirt is one thing -- gross.

Bottom line:

Let's put it this way, when you can write a sentence that begins with, "If Mario Balotelli ... " and that's describes Italy's best hope at a major tournament, yikes. Realistically the Azzurri need the insane Manchester City player at his best, because the rest of the squad isn't very dynamic. Unless Andrea Pirlo is working some wizardry on free kicks, where is Italy getting goals?

Considering the state of the squad, coach Cesare Prandelli couldn't leave Balotelli out. 

Problem with Balotelli, what's stopping him from sending a major "fuck you" to all the people in Italy who hate him -- take a guess why -- and getting himself sent off in the first minute of the first group match, pulling off his top to reveal a YOLO shirt and flipping everybody off and riding off the field in a pocket motorcylce? This isn't a joke? To Mario, yes, the games are a big joke, but couldn't you see him doing something just to spite all the racists in Italy who whistle and jeer him? The words "professional" and "Balotelli" do not go in the same sentence.

There's always the chance Italy, in spite of the massive match-fixing scandal, and potential Balotelli scandal which is waiting to happen pulls it together. Maybe Antonio Cassano, coming back from a mini-stroke, does something on the International level. Maybe Antonio di Natale pretends he's playing in Serie A and torches the nets. Maybe all the Juventus players like Claudio Marchiso in the squad carry over their winning ways and Italy uses its defensive play, cynical tactics and scratches its way into the knockouts.

It's shocking how much the level of talent in the Italian system has fallen off ... yet they were unbeaten in qualification.

Seems so easy now, on the eve of the tournament with a huge match-fixing scandal hovering over the country, to write off Italy yet do you really expect the squad to flop at two straight major tournaments? (Three if you count the 2009 Confederations Cup.)

(REPUBLIC OF) IRELAND

I love 'em:

Defender Sean St. Ledger, in some photos at least, appears to have a solid gut. Here at TOP we respect "cheeseburger lockers" of all nationalities. ... Hurling, much like Aussie Rules football, seems like it sure would be a lot of fun to play. ... "I took many a lump that day, but twas all in good fun." ... Guinness. ... Traveling Irish fans are allegedly quite jolly, so there's that.

I hate 'em:

Skipper Richard Dunne has the hollow expression of a contractor who'll gleefully charge you an extra 25 percent on a job. ... Two true "Americans" -- Bill the Butcher and Old Hoss Radbourn hate the Irish, so there's that. ... Never understood why Ireland had, for a stretch, advertising on its national team kit. 

Bottom line:

Whatever happens to the Republic at the Euro, major credit for this team to rebound from the Thierry Henry handball disgrace in the World Cup 2010 playoffs and respond by qualifying for the next major tournament -- its first since the 2002 World Cup.

Ireland, especially under old-school Italian head honcho Giovanni Trapattoni, are going to be an interesting test study. For one, they might be the only squad at the tournament using a standard, 4-4-2 missionary position of soccer. There's no mystery with this team, either, since Trapattoni has already named his starting XI to face Croatia.

Here's the crux of the argument for Ireland. People can talk up Aidy McGeady on the wing, or the strike partnership of Robbie Keane -- the world's oldest 31 year old -- and Shane Long, but is a central midfield of Stoke City's Glenn Whelan and recent free agent Keith Andrews enough to cope with the others in this group?

For whatever the reason I have this feeling Ireland, of all the 16 teams at the Euro, is going to try the hardest. Or at least its players seem like they're all so happy to represent their country and play at a major tournament that they'll give a massive effort.

The final group game with Ireland vs. Italy, with Trapattoni going against his home country probably decides second place here.

CROATIA

I love 'em:

Slaven Bilic is a rocker. The man has to rock. ... Little Luka Modric is as skilled a playmaker as there is at the Euro. ... Croatia might start a dude named Domagoj Vida, perhaps the tournament's best non-Dutch name. ... Vedran Corluka always has the appearance of a dude who's been chain-smoking for five days.

I hate 'em:

If you are a Serb or Bosniak you probably openly hate Croatia and have likely fought somebody at a tennis match because of it.

Bottom line:

Croatia looks like a team on the decline. Bilic has been around for a while and this is his last hurrah before going to manage Lokomotiv Moscow. There's a lot of alleged talent on paper here, from Ivan Rakitic to fat-faced Niko Kranjcar, yet it hasn't yielded all that much.

If Croatia has one thing to has its hat on, it's that Nikica Jelavic proved he could be a match winner all by himself at Everton in the Premier League when he moved over from Rangers. His form was as solid as any striker's heading into the close of the season, so if that carries over Croatia has a shot. Hell, if you did a draft of forwards from this group based on their current play you'd probably have to take Jelavic. He might not contribute much else, but he does find a way to score.

It's basically going to have to be Jelavic, too, since Ivca Olic is out of the tournament with an injury.

Problem for Croatia, in a group with possession-minded Spain and defense-first Italy and Ireland, does its midfield have enough bite to win the ball or break up plays to get chances for its creative players? Modric is going to have to play a very deep role, dropping further and further back, but not only that be fully authoritative leading the team.

Darijo Srna has gotten lots of positive press tournament the years and he's scored at a World Cup and Euro, but he's also going to need to have a massively impactful tournament -- if only on deadballs -- for Croatia to survive.

In a twist, Croatia has a decent amount of players who play in Ukraine, but their Group matches are in Poland, go figure.

Group winner: Spain
Runner up: Ireland

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