Lackluster Spain returns to square one
Spain coasted into the European quarters Monday night, despite a half-speed, lackluster performance that will raise new questions about this team’s fitness and desire. Looking sluggish and weary, Spain got a 1-0 win over Croatia courtesy of a late goal by Jesus Navas.
In Poznan, Italy routed a poor Ireland side 2-0 thanks to goals from Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli. Ireland had Keith Andrews sent off but they were truly undone by the dreadful goalkeeping of Shay Given, as the Irish goalkeeper needlessly conceded the corner kick that led to Italy’s winning goal.
It’s difficult to say much about the slog in Gdansk other than it was a slog. Dull for almost the entire 90 minutes, Croatia only fashioned one true chance and Spain seemed more interested in preserving their legs than going forward.
To be fair, Croatia defended superbly against a Spanish midfield that passes with dizzying ease. But, realistically needing a win from kickoff to book their place, the Croats also failed to show the verve and intent one might have thought a team in their position should muster. Much of that was due to the fact that Spain rarely allowed them to have the ball, and also due to their own odd, lumbering patience when they had ball possession.
Luka Modric initially looked a threat out wide and Spain did look a team that could be beaten in the air – something whomever they face next will take note of. Yes the Croats also looked very predictable, with Modric needing to create and Dario Srna being kept too far back to make any positive contribution.
When Croatia’s chance came, they fluffed it. Modric's cross, put brilliantly on to Ivan Rakitic, was headed right at Spain's Iker Casillas. A foot or two in either direction, and we would have had a game.
Super substitute, Jesus Navas, got the winner – unneeded as Spain would have qualified with a draw – when he and Iniesta beat the offside trap. Iniesta then fed Navas around a despairing Stipe Pletikosa.
There was a moment when things might have changed. Mario Mandzukic was brought down by Sergio Ramos a half hour into the match, in the box. Ramos clearly raked the man with his studs, and any other night, that would have been a penalty. Unfortunately for Croatia, Monday was not the night.
In Dontesk, Italy took their time but finally broke down some early Irish resistance. Sadly, it was the Irish who allowed them in with snakebit keeper Given gifting them the winner.
It was another unforced error from Given, the veteran keeper either fooled by the swerve on Cassano's shot or simply taking his eye off the ball. He looked aghast as the ball bobbled off his arms, chest and around the post. Cassano met an Andrea Pirlo corner at the near post, getting enough power behind his header to see it glance off Given and down over the line before Damien Duff's futile attempt to clear the line.
Although Sean St. Ledger had a big night as a shot blocker, Ireland's defense was again cut open repeatedly to smithereens. The Italians seemed able to attack John O'Shea whenever they wished, and only the fact that the Irish had plenty of bodies in the penalty area kept the game close to the finish.
Ireland's one strong spell, 10 minutes from the finishm, gave their loyal supporters something to sing about. Nonetheless, they once again had no real attacking plan except to throw crosses into the box. Their lack of any recognizable playmaker meant they were never able to seriously worry the Italians.
Balotelli came on as a substitute Monday night and his goal will be remembered as one of the tourney’s best. It came when the Manchester City man held off O'Shea and somehow managed to shoot over his own shoulder with his back to goal. It was a sweet strike that made the match safe and added one more piece to the growing legend of a player so often as brilliant as he is unpredictable.
The Irish join the Netherlands in exiting Euro 2012 without a point. Whether this tournament was the swan song for the long-serving Given and striker Robbie Keane – who made no impact at all – is probably question number one in the wake of this failed campaign.