Hard to believe that group play's on its final day and we're almost ready to move on to the knockout stages, with only two matches left before we turn to the quarterfinals. Monday promised the potential for some surprises in the top three, but in the end it was the two teams most had picked moving on, and Croatia joining Ireland on the way out. Last up is Group D and England, where there's again a chance for three of the four sides in the group to make their way through.
Croatia 0, Spain 1
ESP: Navas 88'
We didn't think this would be a lame duck fixture, with both sides threatened with elimination depending on how the other result turned out. In the end it very much was, however, not for lack of trying, but mostly down to a prototypically Spanish style of play that left Croatia with few opportunities. A penalty shout denied and two chances in the second half could have been good enough for three points and passage into the knockout rounds, but both were saved well by Iker Casillas, and they couldn't muster anything in the final minutes as Spain eventually found their goal to kill off the match. Jesus Navas pounced to poke home the winner from close range, giving Vicente del Bosque's squad their second win in the group and securing their spot on top where they're set to face the Group D runners-up. It wasn't pretty, but it was quintessential Spain---possession and passing recycled endlessly, with patience proving to be their most important virtue. Plus, Iker Casillas.
Italy 2, Ireland 0
ITA: Cassano 35', Balotelli 90'
Things were a fair bit easier for Italy, who took a first half lead and polished things off with a late Mario Balotelli strike. The Irish were actually halfway decent in the early going, pressuring the Italian defense and creating more chances than it seemed they'd been able to in their losses to Spain and Croatia. Italy gradually took the match over, though, and Antonio Cassano's header nudged them ahead ten minutes before halftime. The Irish threatened for a period in the second, as they found a way forward in between spells of scrambling to keep Italy from extending their lead. Keith Andrews, who'd later be sent off after receiving a second yellow, had the pick of the chances with an arrowed strike that Gigi Buffon did well to save, and late on Mario Balotelli sealed the win from an Andrea Pirlo corner.
For today’s matches:
Sweden v. France
7:45PM BST/2:45PM EST
Group D's lined up very similarly to Group C, in that there's only one side out of contention and there's not necessarily a clear-cut favorite among the three teams that could advance. The French are maybe as close to a favorite as there is in the group, unless you ask Martin Samuel or Henry Winter, in which case chompchomp this bacon triple butter burger with donuts as buns is delicious and John Terry is like Jesus, God, and Buddha wrapped in a pissy-looking Englishman's body. Anyway, France need a win to ensure that they'll be playing past the day's end, and since Zlatan doesn't give a shit who wins, I wouldn't be surprised if Sweden found themselves overrun early.
Ukraine v. England
7:45PM BST/2:45PM EST
The Ukraine's carrying the banner for the host nations, sitting only a point behind England and France and seemingly well-positioned to cause an upset in pushing England out of a qualification spot. Also, flying to the moon or something. There's questions about Andriy Shevchenko's fitness, but with one magical storyline under his belt already, it wouldn't be too far-fetched if he worked his way into the match and managed a chance or two. Oleh Blokhin was quick to point out that Shevchenko's not the only player worth watching in his squad, and Andriy Voronin's been impressive up front despite not finding the net. So mostly Shevchenko.
Johnson Terry Lescott Cole
Milner Gerrard Parker Young
The big question for Roy Hodgson is which of Andy Carroll or Danny Welbeck he leaves out in favor of the returning Wayne Rooney. For selfish reasons it'd be nice to see Carroll get another start, as he mostly continued that effective form he showed for Liverpool down the stretch and did most of the work up front that neither Welbeck nor Ashley Young could manage against France. It doesn't seem like Young or James Milner will miss out, leaving one of Carroll or Welbeck on the bench, and Theo Walcott, who etched his name into England lore for getting a deflection and then running fast, possibly left out in favor of Milner and Young.
England have a chance to finish top of the group and avoid a quarterfinal matchup with Spain, but they'll need to avoid Hodgson's natural impulse to ease off in attack if they want to bump France out of the top spot. It's worth going after, though, as I'm not sure many consider England favorites against a Spanish side that's capable of classing them off the park. Of course, actually ensuring progression is the most important thing for Hodgson and company, and they've hardly made things easy thus far. If they can build off their strengths over the past few matches---most of which involves the Liverpool contigent---and limit the types of lapses that saw them throw away two consecutive 1-0 leads, they should move into the quarterfinals. But then again, it's England, so who knows.