Another intriguing day at Euro 2012, with a well-played first match and---at least by the standards of the first three days----a high-scoring nightcap to round things off. We'll get our first look at England and its contingent of Liverpool players, which means we'll also be encouraged to collectively lower our expectations because that's the best way forward for the pride of a nation. I think.
Spain 1, Italy 1
ESP: Fabregas 64'
ITA: Di Natale 61'
The hour before kickoff was tremendous, as we learned that Vicente del Bosque decided the best way to score goals was without any of his forwards, and Cesare Prandelli had indeed shifted Daniele De Rossi to defense and opted for a 352 that proved a success. The actual match was just as good, as Italy were by far the better side for most of the first half, with Spain's midfield 9 happy to overlap and overrun one another to the point of futility. Antonio Di Natale replaced Mario Balotelli on 56 minutes and gave Italy the lead five minutes later after a terrific through ball from Andrea Pirlo, but Spain pieced together the equalizer three minutes later, giving Cesc Fabregas his only moment on influence in drawing level. Aside from another chance for Di Natale that proved an inch too far, Spain very well could (and probably should) have won it over the last twenty minutes, with the profligacy of Fernando Torres the difference as Italy gained an important point in Group C.
Ireland 1, Croatia 3
IRE: St. Ledger 19'
CRO: Mandžukić 3' 49', Jelavić 43'
The enthusiasm of the Irish supporters made this one a sentimental favorite, but inside five minutes it all went wrong. Man of the match Mario Mandžukić recovered after slipping briefly to push a header past a wrong-footed Shay Given, and Everton hero Nikica Jelavić retook the lead for Croatia after Sean St. Ledger had leveled the match at one-all with a well-taken header. Slaven Bilić's squad were dominant the rest of the way, with Mandžukić extending the lead four minutes after the restart, and the only real Irish chance of note coming when Robbie Keane was taken down just inside the Croatia penalty area. That was waved off by Björn Kuipers, though, and Ireland couldn't find a way back as they finished the night as the only side in the group without a point.
For today's matches:
France v. England
5:00PM BST/12:00PM EST
We'll be extending this one a little bit given the number of Liverpool players in the squad---might be far-fetched to see more than two, but there's a chance that four of the six names included by Roy Hodgson could play a significant part. Most have been quick to point out that Liverpool's league position isn't necessarily deserving of having so many players in the national squad, although those people pretty much all support Premier League sides that have maybe one or two Englishmen in their starting eleven, so you know, whatever.
France have sort of recovered from their mutiny in South Africa two years ago, but expectations are much lower than they've been heading into major competition. There's undeniable talent in the squad Laurent Blanc's selected, with many of the names recognizable across the continent, and a handful of players that have experienced plenty of success on the continent for both club and country.
They've got few fitness problems to worry about, with Yann M'Vila, who's been strongly linked to Arsenal, expected to be available after recovering from an ankle injury, and all of the big names in attack---Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema, and Samir Nasri---fit for inclusion. The midfield and defense aren't as spectacular even if M'Vila is ready, but Yohan Cabaye's coming off a good season for Newcastle and Florent Malouda, Patrice Evra, Philip Mexes, and Hugo Lloris are all well-seasoned.
As for England:
Johnson Terry Lescott Cole
Milner Gerrard Parker Downing
It might not be in the cards for Andy Carroll, but with the inimitable Roy Hodgson in charge and aimless hoofing guaranteed, ALL BETS ARE OFF. Expect England to play with two banks of four and launch the ball forward from their own half, which will be a really effective and courageous strategy. Or it'll be shit, completely bypassing Steven Gerrard, who'll be forced to try to do too much and actually do quite little, and negating any sort of threat that could be created with the talent that's in the squad.
Listen, Jamie Carragher's got confidence in Hodgson's approach, which is basically the only type of endorsement you need to know that it might not be very pretty on the England side of things. Hodgson's been downplaying expectations since he took the post, and that's somehow been turned into a major strength. It's not. England might win tomorrow, and the nation will celebrate as if they've found the cure for terminal illness, but in reality their best chance is if France blow a gasket in defense or a moment of individual brilliance from one of England's very gifted squad members wins it. But right, Glory of '66 and everything.
Ukraine v. Sweden
7:45PM BST/2:45PM EST
BBC One/ESPN, ESPN3.com
There's a few questions in terms of personnel on both sides, with Andriy Shevchenko available in the Ukranian attack and Johan Elmander, who only recently rejoined training for the Swedes, a possibility to join Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front. There's obviously the pressure of being a host nation for the Ukranians, but they've also got to contend with the fact that this is their first ever appearance as a sovereign nation in a European championship, and they'll be facing a side that some have tipped to be a surprise entry in the knockout stages. If the co-hosts can harness and sustain the same energy that lifted Poland early against Greece, it should make for a captivating affair in Kyiv.