We’re halfway through the 32 players to watch in the Polish and Ukrainian European Championships and this sees us into Group C which contains the first of two British interests as the Republic of Ireland see their first Euro tournament for 24 years having been drawn against the holders, Spain and the 1968 winners in Italy along with Croatia who, as always, will prove a big threat.
SPAIN Pedro, Fernando Llorente
Manager: Vincente del Bosque
Spain are the current holders of the European Championships and the favourites for the championships in Poland and Ukraine. You can point to the influx of stars such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Fernando Torres and the like but two players that have been shining lights in the Spanish La Liga have been Barcelona’s Pedro and especially Athletic Bilbao’s Fernando Llorente.
Llorente came into the spotlight throughout Bilbao’s stunning Europa League contest in which the Spaniard rattled in a couple against Manchester United in the earlier knockout stages – a European campaign which ended in heartbreak in the final. Whilst Llorente might find it tough finding a place in the squad ahead of Torres, Pedro has been gaining some plaudits in the past couple of seasons at the Camp Nou and will be very much in contention for their opening group match against Italy on Sunday the 10th in Gdansk.
ITALY Sebastian Giovinco, Mario Balotelli
Manager: Cesare Prandelli
Had Italy won their penalty shootout against Spain in 2008’s quarter final tie then the shape of international football could be entirely different. Italy suffered a horrific World Cup in which they failed to get out of a simple group containing Slovakia, Paraguay and New Zealand. This time out a few new fresh faces and more experience will be blended into the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon.
Sebastian Giovinco, the ex-Juventus now Parma forward, is a shoe-in to start alongside Mario Balotelli and after some excellent football from both men, they could easily go far in the competition should the right Italy side show up. As a likely opponent for England in the quarter final, Balotelli will want to upset some of his teammates in the process of going all the way to final in Kiev.
IRELAND James McClean, Aiden McGeady
Manager: Giovanni Trapattoni
This is Ireland’s first major tournament in ten years since their second round exit from the World Cup in Japan and South Korea in which they were beaten on penalties by Spain. They narrowly avoided qualifying for South Africa two years ago thanks to Thierry Henry’s handball.
A talent that will excite Giovanni Trapattoni is the young James McClean who has made a name for himself in the second half of the season for Sunderland and his performances for the club got him probably one of the final places on the plane. Should injuries and suspensions rule teammates out expect McClean to pick out some more performances from out of nowhere. Aiden McGeady has vast experience and has flair down the wing that Ireland will need to overcome the likes of Croatia and Italy if they are to join Spain in the quarter finals.
CROATIA Dario Srna, Ivica Olic
Manager: Slaven Bilic
Croatia usually come good when it comes to major tournaments. Having failed to make the previous World Cup but making the Euro 2008 quarter finals, Croatia are a dangerous side, a side that Ireland and Italy should be wary of. Indeed Spain will have to be on their toes to see the likes of Eduardo and Ivica Olic off after their undefeated 2008 campaign, losing only on penalties to Turkey.
Whilst ex-Arsenal forward, Eduardo is the obvious danger for their Group C opponents, don’t rule out Bayern striker and experienced tournament player, Ivica Olic to put in a shift at the tournament. Dario Srna, the Croatian captain will be a threat either down the wing or from a defensive position and the flexible captain will push his team along.