Spain rout serves as friendly reminder
Fernando Torres scored twice, opening up the affair after only four minutes, while David Silva and Cesc Fabregas added insult. The Irish became the first team to be eliminated Thursday and can only take comfort in one thing: it could have been far worse.
Croatia put Italy on the brink of an early exit, when a late goal from Mario Mandzukic turned a winning performance from the Azzurri into a 1-1 draw. Italy were cleary the better team for much of the match but a late mistake by Giorgio Chiellini cost them in the end.
Italy must now win their final game against Ireland and hope for help from either Croatia or Spain. More damaging is the fact that the Azzurri are now staring at their third straight early exit from a tournament in a row: they were ousted in the group stages of both the 2009 Confederations Cup and the 2010 World Cup.
Thursday’s late game in Gdansk lived down to the sleepy, rainy day. Ireland were poor, yes, but Spain were so overwhelming that the match became one of world champions’ soporific displays of passing and passing that has proved so deadly on the biggest stages.
Ireland was neither fast nor good enough to get hold of the ball. Spain, not even bothered to change through different gears, just bopped the ball about around them. Making matters worse, when Ireland did manage possession, the Irish just gave the ball directly back to their tormentors.
The final result was far from a surprise. Anyone who watched the Irish get ripped by Croatia earlier in the week knew they were a team with a lot of pluck and little talent. What was shocking was how little Spain declined to force the issue, content simply to dominate knowing the goals would eventually come.
Steven Ward was a liability all night long for the Republic, but Alvaro Arbeloa took it easy on him, choosing to stay back a bit more than he might have. Richard Dunne was very exploitable and yet David Silva was happy to stay in first gear. Silva set up two goals and looked far more involved and confident than he had in the opener against Italy.
But also credit manager Vincent del Bosque’s change in tactics. In the group opener, Spain fielded a strange 4-6-0 formation, with Cesc Fabregas supposedly the lone striker. It didn’t work, and ‘El Nino’ Torres got the start from the whistle. Torres repaid his manager’s faith about as quickly as anyone could and fully deserved both his goals.
The goal of the night came from Fabregas, who broke into space near right at the end line, then turned and fired between keeper Shay Given, an Irish defender and to the far post. Cesc’s shot ricocheted off the woodwork and landed behind the despairing Aston Villa man. The former Arsenal captain gave a muted celebration for what was in truth an exclamation point on Spain’s performance.
Italy are left searching for answers after a game in which they did almost everything right. This is not a vintage Azzurri side, but they dominated much of this game and took influential midfielder Luka Modric right out of the equation. And yet, they turned three points into one with an uncharacteristic defensive mistake.
Mario Mandzukic was the man, beating the usually resolute Italian defense at the far post, to catch a searching long ball from Ivan Strinic that Chiellini simply gazed at without action. Mandzukic then thumped a close-range drive off the near post and beyond Italian keeper Gianluigi Buffon to earn Croatia a valuable point.
It was the third goal of the tournament for Mandzukic, which gave Croatia a reward for turning around a match that had been dominated by the Azzurri in the opening half. Displaying a much tighter defense in midfield after the interval, Croatia closed down the space Italy had been able to exploit, but did not look like beating Buffon until Strinic's cross eluded Chiellini. Heads went down, and when Andrea Pirlo stalked off the field, a Croat jersey slung over his shoulder, he had the look of a man leaving the world stage for good.
This is tragic because it was his wonderful free kick that had opened the scoring for the Italians. Italy displayed real speed of ball movement and excellent understanding between their midfield and forward lines. Only strong goalkeeping from Stipe Pletikosa prevented the Croatians from a larger deficit.
But as the game grew longer, the wide-open spaces of the first 45 minutes disappeared, and for the second straight game the Italians seemed to tire and lost their vivacity. While they had answers for Croatia’s attack, they had no answers for fatigue.
The result left Group C wide open heading into the final games on Monday. Italy, with two points, finishes against Ireland while the Croatians face the defending World and European champions. Both Spain and Croatia have four points and might both advance should they play a draw. Italy needs both a win and some goals to play on.