Tuesday 21 November 2017

Group rivals united in their missing links

Not every Euro 2012 squad has Ireland's settled look to it, writes George Edwards

Giovanni Trapattoni stole a march on his fellow Group C coaches last week and, in so doing, discovered that his obstinacy can have its upsides.

On the day Trapattoni named his 23-man Republic of Ireland squad, Spain coach Vicente del Bosque received a phone call from a journalist telling him Carles Puyol needs knee surgery and is likely to miss the tournament. Del Bosque was shocked and upset that Spain will be without, as he put it, "the soul of our team".

Puyol's arthroscopy, which took place yesterday, has a six-week recovery period, by which time the quarter-finals will be under way.

Puyol will join his teammates at that point of the tournament, and be invited to lift the trophy if they win it.

The next day, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli told an Italian newspaper that he had solved his team's striking crisis, though his intimated solution -- putting his faith in four forwards, all of whom have question marks against their name -- was far from convincing. Prandelli names a 30-man preliminary squad this afternoon.

There were confirmations, not revelations, at Slaven Bilic's squad announcement on Thursday, chief among them the news that he would stand down after the tournament.

Besiktas and Lokomotiv Moscow already want him, while his former 1998 World Cup team-mate Igor Stimac has made a public play to replace him.

Injuries can hit at any time but of all the Group C teams, Trapattoni's looks the most settled, the most secure. Bilic is worried that his centre-backs lack form and fitness. Dejan Lovren and Josip Simunic have missed chunks of the season, Domagoj Vida is inexperienced and erratic, and Gordon Schildenfeld has only been playing in the German second division. That's why Vedran Corluka may yet play in the middle.

Up front, Bilic likes the movement and defensive work of Ivica Olic but is finding it hard to ignore the claims of Everton's in-form Nikica Jelavic, more of a back-to-goal classic number nine, who may start against Ireland.

"We're more dangerous when we play with two men up front," said Bilic, "but they have to be the first line of our defence and come deep for the ball, taunt the opposing defence with sprints and open up space for others to exploit." That's not Jelavic's natural game.

Prandelli would love to have anyone in form up front. The Italy coach has known for months that Antonio Cassano and Giuseppe Rossi would be doubtful to make his squad. Rossi recently suffered a second ligament tear in the last six months and is definitely out, while Cassano, top scorer in qualifying, is back after suffering a stroke last October, but far from full fitness. He's only completed 90 minutes once in six games since returning, and that was in an easy 4-1 win at Siena.

Prandelli suggested to Corriere dello Sport that he would pick Cassano, as well as Mario Balotelli (who has not played in the five weeks since his red card for Arsenal), Fabio Borini (one cap, and no goals in his last nine Roma games) and Antonio di Natale (34 years old, prolific in Serie A, but not played for Italy since the 2010 World Cup).

Prandelli's recent trips to watch mid-table Bologna play are the surest sign he is worried about goals. He has been watching 29-year-old Alessandro Diamanti, a combustible deep-lying forward who spent one season at West Ham and whose only previous Italy appearance was 18 months ago. "Things are serious if Prandelli is thinking of Diamanti because of a lack of creativity and fitness before a big tournament," said Lorenzo Amuso of Sky Italia. "It means something is very wrong."

Prandelli has other work to do: choosing between Leo Bonucci or Andrea Barzagli to partner Giorgio Chiellini at centre-back; and returning Daniele de Rossi to his best form, and position.

The Roma captain dropped his level after signing a long-term Roma deal in the spring, and he has spent five of the last seven matches playing at centre-half.

That idea, to drop a midfielder into defence, could be how Del Bosque solves the Puyol dilemma. Europa League finalists Athletic Bilbao have done just that with Javi Martinez, and he is now a contender to partner Gerard Pique in the middle.

The alternative is that Sergio Ramos moves across from right-back, reprising his central role with Real Madrid, and Alvaro Arbeloa slots in on the right.

Pique has had a tough season: coach Pep Guardiola, annoyed by his growing list of endorsement contracts, nightclub appearances with girlfriend Shakira and a car accident, dropped him.

Pique and Shakira have now split up and the player, who missed the losses to Real Madird in La Liga and Chelsea in the Champions League, wants to disprove his critics and show he can still perform without Puyol.

Spain is also waiting for Del Bosque to name his forwards in his preliminary squad, out next Thursday. David Villa has not played since breaking his leg last December, but Del Bosque wants to wait until the last possible moment to decide on his fitness.

He will make the long list. Of the others, Fernando Llorente, Roberto Soldado, David Silva and Juan Mata seem certainties, while only one of Fernando Torres, Pedro Rodriguez, Iker Muniain and Adrian Lopez might join them.

"I know that I'm going to disappoint some players with my final decision, but I will use my heart and my head to pick what I think are the right ones," Del Bosque said.

Even Raul, coming to the end of a prolific two-year stint at Schalke, was pushed for a recall by the Madrid-based media. "He is selectable," said Del Bosque diplomatically. Raul made his coach's job easier and ruled himself out of contention.

Del Bosque came in for some criticism after some poor friendly results last year against Italy (1-2), England (0-1) and Costa Rica (2-2). "Spain seems bored of itself, weighed down by the lack of motivation that sometimes happens after great successes," said David Gistau of El Mundo. "The team approaches the Euros having lost a great deal of their intimidating aura."

That will suit the coach, who has always tried to play down expectations before a tournament. That may change once he names his squad, but as the first game on June 10 nears, Trapattoni's dogmatic stance in sticking by his best 11 is an antidote to the selection dilemmas of the other three coaches.

Not long now to find out whether that approach works.

Sunday Indo Sport

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