Spain's midfielder Xavi Hernandez gives

Champions, titans, and … some other game: Sunday’s Euro 2012 playlist

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Spain, coming off their win at South Africa 2010, open their European title defense against Italy. And there’s another game, but I can’t remember who’s playing. While I figure that out, let’s talk about the main event, which just so happens to be the day’s first game (12:00 p.m. ET on ESPN).

No team has won three major championships in a row, but Spain’s on the brink. They took Euro 2008 (their first major title since 1964) and followed it by 1-0’ing their way to their first world title. Come Sunday, they’ll be without the leading scorer and best defender, but after a perfect qualifying cycle, many are still picking the world’s top-rated team to retain their title.

They’re the type of expectations people used to have of Italy, but not any more. After a disappointing Euro 2008 and failing to get out of their group in South Africa, Italy’s had to acclimatize to life as second-tier power. Cesare Prandelli replaced Marcelo Lippi with the hope that he’d usher in the next era of Italian soccer. Goalless since Nov. 11, Italy’s future’s still out of reach.

Much of the hype surrounding the match up is based on history. Spain’s the biggest name in international soccer right now, while Italy’s won five major titles hint there’s some, eternal, ever-lasting quality to their game. But that quality’s produced only one win in the last two major tournaments (in fairness, they’ve only lost twice, too). They did dominate their qualifying group, a group in which Estonia finished second.

Oh, and it turns out, the second game of the day is pretty darn good. In fact, there’s a chance it may be the more competitive of the two. Both Croatia and the Republic of Ireland have legitimate chances of coming out of this group.

It may not be the group of death, but Group C is might be the most difficult to predict.

I’ll have my picks in the live blog, which will go up later today. We’ll also have recaps, a day three review, and oh yeah: All your tournament information here.

For now, let’s get to your Euro 2012 Sunday playlist:

source:  Side 1: Things we’ve lost

1. No clue who I’ll miss more

Carles Puyol’s 99 caps would make him the most experienced player in Spain’s back line, in addition to its best. Having undergone knee surgery in May, Puyol moves to the stands to join David Villa (pictured, above), whose comeback from a December shin fracture couldn’t return him in time for Euro. His 51 goals is not only Spain’s all-time record, it’s 23 more than Spain’s next most-prolific scorer.

That scorer is Fernando Torres. If you haven’t heard, the Chelsea striker hasn’t been very good for some time now. He only scored six times in the English Premier League last season, and with Spain over the last 20 months, he’s only scored twice. This would be a significant problem for any team, but for Spain – a team that relied on Villa for five of their eight World Cup goals – it’s red alert.

At the back, only Gerard Pique will be starting in the same position he played in South Africa. Sergio Ramos moves from right back to the middle, Alvaro Arbeloa takes over on the right, while Jordi Alba has ascended to first choice left back.

The defense should be fine. The attack, though has never recovered from the changes Vicente del Bosque implemented after he took over for Luis Aragones (post-Euro 2008). He went to a double pivot, injecting Xabi Alonso into the team at the expense of David Silva. Silva’s back in the XI (thanks in part to Villa’s absence), but Spain’s still playing with fewer attackers than they should.

2. Hard to know how far we’ve come

Another major problem for Spain: Miles. How many miles have Barcelona’s stars – Xavi Hernández, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets – accumulated over the last five years? How about Alonso for Real Madrid? That’s Spain’s entire engine room.

Long club seasons with little rest. Deep runs in all competitions. A national team competing for everything it can. There’s a price to pay for that. It’s unclear whether Spain can put it off for another tournament.

source:  3. 4 to 3

Italy’s set to go three at the back, the only team in the tournament to try it. Daniele de Rossi (pictured, right), normally a deep lying midfielder, looks set to play with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. Christian Maggio and (surprisingly) Emanuele Giaccherini are set to start as wing backs.

The formation gives Prandelli three in men in the middle along with the ability to play five at the back (or have the wing backs track released fullbacks, when needed). Midfielder Andrea Pirlo will be relied upon to make the connections with forwards Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli, who will have their hands full dealing with Spain’s pressure while they wait for their packed in teammates to transition into attack.

Who knows if it will work, but with de Rossi in defense, Italy will have one more player capable of holding the ball, preserving whatever possession they can keep from the Spaniards.

4. Mario

Mario Balotelli was controversially left off the 2010 World Cup squad. Controversy saw Balotelli leave Italy, and controversy followed him to Manchester City. Clearly, it’s hard to separate Marion Balotelli from controversy.

Here are a couple of uncontroversial things about Mario Balotelli: He’s as talented as anybody in this tournament, and Italy needs him. They have nobody in their squad that’s scored more than 10 international goals.

Whatever excuse Marcelo Lippi had for excluding Balotelli in 2010, it’s is gone. There are no more excuses.

source: Getty ImagesSide 2: B-sides and demos

5. Come and get me

Ireland is the easiest team in the tournament to predict, and coach Giovanni Trapattoni doesn’t bother hiding it. The Republic’s head coach didn’t bother naming a preliminary roster (going straight to the final team, which has since changed). He also revealed his starting lineup earlier this week.

Why? Because it doesn’t matter. Whatever combination of players Trapattoni uses will play the same way. It will be 4-4-2/4-4-1-1. They’ll sit very deep, stay compact, and value organization above opportunity.

Which is not to say that don’t value opportunity. They’re just very big on organization, which is why when they do get forward, it’s going to have to be on the backs of Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane (pictured, above). If the forwards can bring wide midfielders Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff into the play, so be it.

That, however, is all frosting for Ireland. They allowed only seven goals (in 10 games) in qualifying. They only scored 15. Their priorities are clear.

6. Deciding if I want to go

Slaven Bilic recently described his team’s propensity to sit deep and rely on the counter as a a necessity. The Croatian defense is slow, and the midfield can’t leave it exposed. With Luka Modric distributing from the middle, Croatia can rely on one of the world’s best passers to manage their transitions.

But how does that work against a team that don’t come get you? Trappatoni is not going to let Ireland get out of their game just because Croatia wants to play another. They’ll wait out Croatia, and when Bilic changes to go for the points, Ireland will hit them.

Croatia need to have a more progressive mindset from the get go. They will undoubtedly have been working on it this week, with Bilic having said he both expected a win and doesn’t see Ireland as a threat.

source: Getty Images7. My star is burning out

Croatia’s biggest concern isn’t their opponent. It’s the fitness of their star.

Luka Modric came into camp warn down by a demanding English Premier League season. Bilic has tried to nurse him back to health, holding him out of the teams’ two pre-tournament friendlies.

There many be no team as dependent on one player as Croatia. That includes Sweden, who have gotten results without Zlatan Ibrahimovic. While it’s possible Croatia could still get out of Group C without a fit Modric, there’s no way they can make a meaningful run.

8. Forgetting what we never knew

Spain and Italy are in big letters on top of the marquee. When you drive by, you don’t even see the small print at the bottom, though they may put on a better show.

No, Croatia and Ireland are unlikely to provide as much entertainment as their big name group-mates, but the game looks closer on paper. Where Spain could post a multi-goal result on Italy, the day’s second game is unlikely to be worse than a one-goal affair.

And beyond Sunday’s game, Croatia and Ireland each have a good chance of getting out of group. With Ireland’s style and discipline, it’s not hard to imagine them catching one team and getting to five points. On the other hand, Croatia is favored to beat Ireland, and they’ve never lost to Italy.

It’s a bit sad Italy’s been allowed to overshadow Croatia and Ireland. It’s unfair to Italy, putting excessive expectations on a decent team, and it certainly undersells the group’s “underdogs.”
ProSoccerTalk is doing its best to keep you up to date on what’s going on in Poland and Ukraine. Check out the site’s Euro 2012 page and look at the site’s previews, predictions, and coverage of all the events defining UEFA’s championship.

Welbeck’s Arsenal heroics complete “roller coaster” ride; Walcott proud

during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Leicester City at the Emirates Stadium.
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Danny Welbeck hadn’t played for Arsenal in 10 months. It took him 12 minutes to score a goal that could live in Gunners’ history.

[ WATCH: The incredible late winner at the Emirates ]

Welbeck’s headed turn of a Mesut Ozil free kick deep into stoppage time lifted the Gunners to within two points of the Premier League’s first slot in a 2-1 win over Leicester City at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.

A September setback meant knee surgery for Welbeck, and an even longer spell on the sidelines for the embattled Englishman.

All that helped Sunday’s goal felt even more massive.

From Sky Sports:

“Dying seconds, we kept pushing, had chance after chance. I missed the first opportunity and tried to make amends. It is important and the most important thing is to get the win. It has been a roller-coaster for me, a difficult moment and my family and friends know what I have been through.

Welbeck’s Arsenal and England teammate Theo Walcott, who scored the Gunners’ other goal, was pretty happy for his striker.

“This man hasn’t played for nine months and to get into the mix like that, special players come into into big games. That could be massive.”

He said it. Could Arsenal’s Manchester United import be the man who scored the biggest goal of a title run?

VIDEO: Watch Welbeck score incredible late winner for Arsenal

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Danny Welbeck is now an Arsenal legend.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

The England international hasn’t featured in a Premier League game since last April due to injury and came on for the final stages with Arsenal and Leicester drawing 1-1.

Then, this happened.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 2-1 Leicester – Gunners snatch win ]

In the 95th minute Mesut Ozil whipped in an inch-perfect cross and Welbeck glanced home to sent the Emirates wild.

Click play on the video above to relive what will go down as perhaps the moment of the season so far with Leicester’s lead at the top of the Premier League now cut to just two points and Arsenal breathing down their necks.

Scenes at the Emirates. Scenes.

Three things we learned from Arsenal’s dramatic late win vs. Leicester City

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On Sunday Arsenal beat Leicester City 2-1 at the Emirates Stadium with Danny Welbeck‘s stunning stoppage time winner sealing a massive win for the Gunners and reducing Leicester’s lead at the top to just two points.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

After Jamie Vardy had given Leicester a controversial lead via a penalty kick he won, a red card for Danny Simpson early in the second half turned the tide of this match and Theo Walcott‘s equalizer set up the dramatic finale Welbeck delivered.

Stunning. Here’s what we learned from a sensational clash in north London.

GUNNERS GRIND OUT

They did it. They actually did it. So many times in the past Arsenal have been in this situation at a crucial time of the season and they’ve blown it. Not on Sunday.

On Valentine’s Day the Gunners broke the hearts of Leicester’s fans with Welbeck glancing a header into the far corner with the final attack of the game. It was what Arsenal deserved as they forced the issue from the start and were unlucky to go behind after Vardy’s skulduggery to win and then score a penalty kick. Wenger made the right subs at the right time with both Walcott and Welbeck jumping off the bench to net huge goals in what is a pivotal 10-day spell. Heading into a two-week break in the Premier League calendar, the momentum is now with Arsenal and Leicester’s hearts will be heavy instead of fluttering. Moments like Welbeck’s 95th minute are exactly why you end up winning the PL title. True champions have a never say die attitude and despite missing chances and coming up against an in-form Kasper Schmeichel, the Gunners dug deep and ground what could be a season defining win. They still remain two points off first-place Leicester but it is surely now advantage Arsenal in the title race.


DIVING VARDY SUCKS ARSENAL IN

The major moment which shaped this game arrived in the 44th minute. It all started on the edge of Leicester’s own box — as does most of their best attacking play — as Ozil looked to be clearly fouled by Wes Morgan but referee Martin Atkinson waved played on and Arsenal’s player hesitated for a second too long. The brilliant N'Golo Kante (more on him below) broke free down the right and Laurent Koscielny fouled him but Atkinson waved play on. Jamie Vardy then latched onto the ball and suckered both Nacho Monreal and Atkinson in as he flicked the ball past the Arsenal left back and dragged his left leg into Monreal’s body. Call it what you want: clever, cheating. Vardy knew what he was doing and it’s not the first time he’s done it this season.

He slammed home the spot kick to make it 1-0 and although you could fault Monreal for initially sticking his leg out, Vardy looked to go over. The crux of this debate should revolve around why no free kick was given for Morgan clambering over Ozil. That would have stopped the trademark lightning-quick counter that has become the lifeblood of Leciester’s remarkable rise to the top of the PL this season. Riyad Mahrez went down in the opening five minutes of the second half in a similar fashion as he bamboozled Monreal with his slick moves and felt a clip on his knee so went down. Atkinson didn’t fall for it this time.

Walcott equalized and Welbeck grabbed the dagger in Leicester’s heart at the end and perhaps it was what the Foxes deserved after the way they took the lead. Vardy dived. Justice prevailed.


KANTE MAKES FOXES TICK

N’Golo Kante didn’t deserve to be on the losing team. He is not a holding midfielder. He is a machine. Kante had 47 touches in the first half and was absolutely all over the pitch. He broke down Arsenal’s attacks and after Christian Fuchs struggled to cope with the pace of both Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Hector Bellerin early on, Kante shuffled over and shut down the left flank. He is the undisputed heartbeat of Leicester’s team. Sure, Vardy provides the pace and Mahrez the trickery but the industry and grit comes from the tiny midfielder signed from Caen in the summer for what now looks like a paltry $8 million. Even when Leicester were reduced to 10-men he was the driving force, the only man who could had the energy to get on the ball and drive forward in support of Vardy. It was a monumental display from the man who was plying his trade in the lower tiers of French soccer until recently. Now, he looks like one of the most complete central midfielders in the PL.

Arsenal 2-1 Leicester City: Welbeck’s storybook winner beats 10-man Foxes

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  • Leicester plays 40 mins with 10 men
  • Vardy bests Monreal to win PK
  • Walcott finds equalizer to save point
  • Welbeck wins at absolute death

Danny Welbeck‘s goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time propelled Arsenal to a stunning come-from-behind win and denied valiant 10-man Leicester City of a point at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.

It was Welbeck’s first game in 10 months, and the substitute needed just 12 minutes to head home Mesut Ozil’s free kick and push Arsenal to all three points. Theo Walcott also scored for the Gunners.

[ RELATED: Three things | Watch Welbeck’s goal ]

Jamie Vardy won and converted a first half penalty (WATCH), but Danny Simpson picked up a pair of second-half yellow cards to drop the leaders to 10 men for 36 minutes.

The loss cuts into Leicester’s table lead, with Arsenal moving within two points of the Foxes. Spurs and Man City play later today.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Arsenal earned a quick corner to open the action, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain‘s hard, curling offering was headed just wide by Alexis Sanchez.

The quarter-hour mark was big on action, as Aaron Ramsey found himself racing for a loose ball with Leicester keeper Kaspar Schmeichel, who won the race with a sliding clearance. At the other end, Petr Cech slid to keep Jamie Vardy’s header from crossing the goal line.

Olivier Giroud has a headed goal correctly ruled offside in the 33rd minute.

And then, just before halftime, Martin Atkinson whistled Nacho Monreal‘s block of a Jamie Vardy run in the box. Arsenal felt aggrieved by the decision, but it would’ve been hard to see anything nefarious from Vardy in real-time, if at all.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The complexion of the match changed in the 55th minute when Danny Simpson picked up his second yellow card of the half. There was no doubt he was pulling on Giroud’s arm, and a caution-heavy affair found an ejection.

The move meant Marcin Wasilewski would sub in for Riyad Mahrez, and the Foxes’ attacking idea dipped significantly.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14: Theo Walcott of Arsenal celebrates after scoring his team's first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Leicester City at Emirates Stadium on February 14, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Giroud then laid off a Hector Bellerin cross for Walcott, who deftly maneuvered to push a shot past Schmeichel. 1-1 with 20 minutes to play. Game on.

Arsenal had plenty of chances to take the lead, and their failures to finish weren’t just down to Leicester’s discipline.

Schmeichel made a huge right-hand save on Giroud in the 88th minute, extending to his right to deny the Frenchman. But Welbeck flicked Ozil’s free kick home to make it 2-1 with moments to play.