Almost there. With less than 24 hours before the big kick-off tomorrow, we turns our attentions to Group C as we forge ahead with our group-by-group rundown. Analysing the results, lineups and injury worries, we reflect on each nation’s respective performances and look for potential signs of starting XIs as the tension begins to mount:
Slaven Bilic’s side played just a couple of friendlies over the last few weeks. The Croatia boss handed some of his fringe players a chance to shine in the 3-1 win over Estonia on May 25 before a 1-1 draw with Norway at the beginning of this month ended their warm-up preparations.
Vedran Corluka, Ognjen Vukojevic and Nikola Kalinic are grabbed the goals in the Estonia win, though only Corluka is expected to stand a chance of a role in Bilic’s starting XI of that trio. The Norwegian game saw Eduardo climb off the bench to head his side in front from a Darijo Srna cross, but Bilic’s men conceded a late equaliser in stoppage time and have now failed to return a clean sheet in each of their last three matches.
Just when we were beginning to get our heads round the backline options, reports in the national press yesterday suggest Bilic is now considering changes ahead of the opener with Republic of Ireland. Fantasy managers are now in two minds whether to gamble on Croatia’s assets, with suggestions that Darijo Srna could be shifted from midfield to right-back and Danijel Pranjic could oust Ivan Strinic at left-back.
Srna is classified as a midfielder in the McDonald’s game and, priced at 7.5, doesn’t come cheap. Regardless of his spot-kick duties and share of set-pieces, rumours of a role in the back-four may well be enough to see us look elsewhere – if he stays in midfield, Domagoj Vida is expected to fill in at right-back, with Corluka at centre-half. The news on Strinic is particularly frustrating – he is priced at just 4.0 and looked a solid cut-price option, having started both friendlies; Pranjic holds far less appeal, coming in at 6.0 in comparison. Much depends on how attack-minded Bilic wants to be, really – clearly, there’s enough doubt to make many of Croatia’s assets a gamble.
The doubts continue all the way through the side. In central midfield, Luka Modric is nailed-on, despite missing both friendlies with fitness issues. Tomislav Dujmovic should partner the Spurs man, though Bilic could also field Ivan Rakitic there; the latter, however, is also vying with Dortmund’s Ivan Perisic for a place on the left. Up front, Eduardo’s goal against Norway brings him into contention – Nikica Jelavic is still a favourite to start, though the former Arsenal man could oust Mario Mandzukic (classified as a midfielder and priced at 6.0) from the starting XI now. In short, headaches all round, then.
Likely Starting XI: Pletikosa; Vida, Corluka, Schildenfeld, Strinic; Srna, Modric, Dujmovic, Rakitic; Jelavic, Mandzukic.
Cesare Prandelli’s preparations have been disrupted by volcanic eruptions and match-fixing allegations. The friendly against Luxembourg, scheduled for May 29, was cancelled due to the former, while Domenico Criscito has been omitted from the squad in order to clear his name after being caught up in a betting scandal.
It left the Italians with just one friendly to play – a 3-0 defeat to Russia last Friday night. Prandelli started with a 4-3-1-2 formation before changing to a 4-3-3 midway through the second half but the manner of defeat has left him reassessing his options ahead of Saturday’s opener with Spain.
Put bluntly, Italy’s starting formation against the Spaniards is anyone’s guess. Reports have suggested Prandelli has tinkered with his backline and trialled a 3-5-2 in training, with Daniel De Rossi as part of the back-three. The Roma man has played there previously but always as part of a back-four – whether the manager feels he can risk a three man defence against the defending champions is perhaps debatable.
An injury to Andrea Barzagli also puts question marks against this – Prandelli would feel more comfortable with him alongside Juventus team mates Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, though a back three would perhaps afford full-backs Christian Maggio and Federico Balzaretti the chance to play on the right and left of a five-man midfield respectively. A move to 3-5-2 could also mean that 7.0 priced Riccardo Montolivo – who has been playing in the hole behind a front two – loses out in the starting XI, though either way it seems likely that Prandelli will lead with Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli up top, with the likes of Antonio Di Natale and Sebastiano Giovinco afforded roles as impact subs.
Likely Starting XI: Buffon; Maggio, Bonucci, Chiellini, Balzaretti; De Rossi, Pirlo, Marchisio, Montolivo; Cassano, Balotelli.
Republic of Ireland
Giovanni Trapattoni’s side played a couple of friendlies over the last fortnight. The Irish resilience at the back was highlighted by a clean sheet in both matches, as they saw off Bosnia 1-0 before scraping a goalless draw against Hungary.
Aiden McGeady was the chief creator in qualifying – the former Celtic man provided more assists than any team mate and continued in the same vein, by setting up Shane Long to notch against the Bosnians. While they’ve failed to impress going forward, the Irish are difficult to break down and are currently on a 14 match unbeaten run, which has harvested 11 clean sheets; intriguingly, this stretch of games also includes a 2-0 win over Italy and a 0-0 draw with Croatia last summer. Shay Given, Stephen Ward and Shaun St Ledger all offer strong value at just 4.5 in the McDonald’s game if they can maintain their form at the back.
Prior to the Hungary game, Trapattoni revealed his starting XI would be the same as the team to face Croatia in the opener but back-tracked a little post-match. The Ireland boss feels his side may need an extra body in the midfield area but, rather than changes players, he could simply shift Robbie Keane deeper and operate with a 4-5-1, though he could even bring in a more combative player such as Darron Gibson and allow Keane a lone role up top, with Kevin Doyle dropping to the bench. Shay Given has been bothered with a knee problem in recent weeks but the Irish camp have no worries over his starting role next Sunday.
Likely Starting XI: Given; O’Shea, Dunne, St Ledger, Ward; Duff, Whelan, Andrews, McGeady; Keane, Doyle.
The defending champions won all three of their warm-up games over the past couple of weeks. Vicente Del Bosque’s side saw off Serbia 2-0, before hammering South Korea 4-1 and mustering a 1-0 win over China last weekend.
Del Bosque rested his Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao contingent for the first two games, in light of their late arrival due to Spanish Cup Final duties. Adrian was the most impressive player in the Serbia game, providing a goal and assist, but failed to make the final 23; Santi Cazorla slotted home a spot-kick after the former had been fouled in the box. Cazorla’s set-piece duties saw him net in the win over South Korea, too, with Fernando Torres, Alvaro Negredo and a Xabi Alonso penalty completing the scoring. Del Bosque introduced his Barca players for the final game and it was Andres Iniesta, on as a second half sub, who proved the difference, setting up David Silva for the only goal of the game.
With Carlos Puyol out due to a knee injury, Sergio Ramos will move into the heart of defence, which is likely to see Alvaro Arbeloa start at right-back. On the opposite flank, Jordi Alba is the favourite for the left-back role and, priced at 6.5 in the McDonald’s game, affords Fantasy managers the cheapest route into the champions’ backline. The midfield three should be straightforward; perhaps the only issue is that by fielding Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso together, Del Bosque tends to play Xavi further forward, where many feel he is less effective – the (albeit unlikely) more attacking alternative would be to drop one of Busquets or Alonso and play Xavi deeper, with Andres Iniesta or even Cesc Fabregas making up the midfield three.
Iniesta, however, is expected to feature on the left of the front three instead, though Cazorla has started all of Spain’s friendlies and is likely to come into contention, even if it’s from the bench; priced at 7.0, he’s an intriguing option, though game time is far from guaranteed. David Silva seems to have cemented a role on the right, which perhaps only leave the lone forward position as the real issue – Fernando Llorente failed to feature in any of the friendlies, while Torres and Negredo have taken turns in leading the line over the trio of matches and returned a goal apiece.
Likely Starting XI: Casillas; Arbeloa, Ramos, Pique, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Alonso; Silva, Torres, Iniesta.