Spain are the best team in the world. Full stop. The current holders of the Euro Trophy and World Cup seem unstoppable with the amount of excellence they have in their squad, so much so that only Xavi and Iniesta are guaranteed places in the starting XI (excluding defenders and goalkeeper). But can Spain really carry this momentum into the Euro 2012 to win their third title in four years? Luckily for the Spanish, most football pundits now expect the wonderkids of Germany to be victorious in the tournament come July 1st, which has perhaps taken a small amount of pressure off Del Bosque's side. In a group that contained Litchenstein, Lithuania, Scotland and Czech Republic, Spain were rarely challenged throughout the qualifying phase (apart from a 3-2 win at Hampden Park against the Scots, where a late Fernando Llorente goal spared any blushes). It was in the friendlies against stronger teams were Spain began to struggle. They played four friendlies against sides in the top twelve (rankings correct as of June 10th) and lost every single one of them, conceding eleven goals in the process. This seems to suggest that the defence of 2008 and 2010 that frustrated many a striker is beginning to show cracks. Nevertheless, they are more than capable of controlling a game, proved during the recent friendly against China where they had no less than 79% of the possession. It would be one of the all-time greatest upsets if Spain fail to progress past the group stages, so surely they are destined to play in the quarter finals... right?
World champions six years ago, one might have expected the Azzurri to progress to dizzying heights in international football. Unfortunately, this hasn't been the case. Crashing out in the quarter finals in Euro 2008 and then being humiliated during the last World Cup has shown that 2006 was probably the peak for the ageing Italian side. Luckily for them, manager Cesare Prandelli decided to wade in to save the sinking ship, and he has done a pretty good job of doing so. A successful qualifying campaign that has seen them concede the fewest amount of goals out of any team in Europe (2) whilst the introduction of new players who don't require a zimmer frame to access the pitch has shown that the national side is moving onwards and upwards. There are some major concerns however. The latest Italy match fixing scandal has meant that a dark cloud has descended over the national side, as their reputation has yet again been tarnished by certain individuals in the Italian league. On the field, Italy have lost their last three friendlies, the most recent one being a 3-0 defeat to fellow Euro 2012 participants Russia. Whatever problems they face, at least they are now in a better position than the disastrous outfit of 2010. As long as the tight defence can be maintained, progression from this group won't seem too difficult.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND
A team that once languished in international wilderness, the Republic Of Ireland have been rejuvenated by Giovanni Trapattoni since his arrival after Euro 2008 (which they failed to qualify for). Cruelly denied the chance to compete in the 2010 World Cup courtesy of the hand of Thierry, the Irish will no doubt be hungry to make up for opportunities missed two years ago. Unbeaten in 14 games coming into the tournament, including a shock 2-0 over group opponents Italy, it seems that the luck of the Irish is finally showing. They missed out on top spot during qualifying after too many draws, but hammered Estonia 5-1 over two legs to progress to the group stages. Their key player here is probably Robbie Keane who, despite the fact he is now in his thirties, hit seven goals during the pre-tournament campaign (only Klass-Jan Huntelaar and Miroslav Klose scored more). But apart from him, like Croatia, the Irish also lack quality of players (particularly in midfield) which allows other teams to dominate the game. Hopefully the experience of the Irish squad will help them in this group, and they might be able to pull off a cheeky second placed finish. Then again, maybe they won't...
Like Italy, Croatia have also managed to turn their fortunes around after a miserable 2010, where they did not even qualify for the group stages of the tournament. This was not as easy as it was supposed to be though. After being denied automatic qualification when they dropped points against Greece and lowly ranked Georgia, they secured their place through a 3-0 aggregate win against Turkey. Slaven Bilic's side are infact the highest rank team in the competition to have competed in the play offs, suggesting that preparations for the tournament were not exactly smooth, and one win in the last four friendlies against average opposition has only confirmed this. It is infact hard to see where the strengths are in the Croatian side. Apart from Luka Modric and possibly Niko Kranjcar (top scorer throughout qualifying), the team lacks a top quality match winner who can make their mark upon a game. The loss of Olic to injury was inconvenient for the national team, but the emergence of on-form Nikica Jelavic could bolster moral, despite the Everton striker not scoring an international goal since August 2010. Overall, I feel that this Croatian side lacks the quality in order to progress past this group.
3. Republic Of Ireland