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.

Three things we learned: Chelsea v. Southampton

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LONDON — Chelsea beat Southampton 2-0 in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley on Sunday, with the Blues setting up an FA Cup final clash with Manchester United on May 19.

Antonio Conte‘s side scored twice in the second half with Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata on the scoresheet against a sorry Saints outfit.

Here’s what we learned as Chelsea will set up a clash with Jose Mourinho.


GIROUD AN ELEGANT ASSASSIN

Olivier Giroud is quickly becoming a cult hero at Chelsea. The Frenchman dribbled delicately around three Southampton defenders and goalkeeper Alex McCarthy before prodding home to put his side ahead.

It was a elegant, yet clumsy, goal and summed up Giroud’s penchant for delivering goals of the highest difficulty.

Giroud has now been involved in 22 goals in 26 FA Cup appearances (15 goals, 7 assists) and the Frenchman is proving to be Chelsea’s first-choice central striker ahead of Alvaro Morata, although the Spaniard did grab a goal late on to wrap up the win.

Giroud has scored four goals in 13 appearances in all competitions since arriving from Arsenal in January but the way he holds the ball up and links with Eden Hazard is a huge plus for Conte. Giroud could also start up top with Morata if Chelsea tweak their system and at the age of 31 there is still plenty of life left in him and not just as a late sub, the role Conte earmarked for him.


COULD CONTE STAY…

Antonio Conte will likely still leave Chelsea at the end of the season but the Italian coach seems to badly want his time at Chelsea to end with a trophy.

But here’s a thought: if Chelsea beat Man United and somehow make it into the top four at Tottenham’s expense, will he remain in charge for the final year of his three-year contract?

The Blues cruised into the FA Cup final and looked fired up from the start as Eden Hazard pulled the strings and Giroud made a nuisance of himself.

Conte’s comments all season long suggest he will depart Chelsea this summer and seek a new project, but if he does so after winning the FA Cup (after being runners up last season) to go along with the PL title he won last season, and then finishing fifth, that’s not a bad two years in the PL.

The Italian will depart with his pride and reputation intact.


SOUTHAMPTON’S STRUGGLES

Saints are in the Premier League’s relegation zone for a reason and their total lack of confidence was clear for all to see at Wembley.

Mark Hughes‘ men have five games left to save themselves but it almost seems as if Saints’ players have resigned themselves to relegation from the Premier League despite sitting just four points from safety. One win in their last 21 PL games (that came against West Brom) tells the story of a side crumbling before our eyes.

After they shipped 12 goals in four Premier League, all of them defeats, Hughes has set Saints up in a 5-3-1-1 formation to try and make them tougher to break down.

It is working, at least defensively, with a 0-0 draw at Leicester on Thursday, but going forward they totally lack any cohesion and only created three real chances on Sunday as Shane Long made a hash of a great opportunity, Charlie Austin hit the post and Nathan Redmond tested Willy Caballero.

Saints are in a really bad place as they now have to find a way to stop themselves hurtling towards relegation. Their game at home against Bournemouth next weekend is a must win. Simple.

Chelsea joins Man Utd in FA Cup Final

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Chelsea will meet old pal Jose Mourinho in the FA Cup Final after beating Southampton 2-0 at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata scored the goals for Antonio Conte‘s men, whose date with Manchester United comes at the same venue on May 19.

Southampton will turn its attention back to the relegation battle, four points behind 17th place Swansea City.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Willian hit the cross bar with an early effort as Chelsea looked very much up for the semifinal.

Olivier Giroud had a 39th minute chance zip wide of the frame, as Chelsea posted nine of the first half’s 11 shot attempts while holding 60 percent possession.

Saints would have been happy to get to the locker room at nil-nil.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Twenty-eight seconds into the second half: That’s when Giroud scored, with Chelsea’s first long ball knocked down by Eden Hazard on the edge of the 18 and played to the Frenchman.

Giroud cut between two Saints defenders and goalkeeper Alex McCarthy to stab home with his right foot.

Hazard curled an effort of his own wide in the 48th minute.

Saints snapped to life, and Shane Long touched around Wily Caballero but too strong to equalize at Wembley.

Nathan Redmond forced a wild save out of Caballero in the 72nd minute, and nearly claimed the corner.

McCarthy tipped a Hazard shot over the bar minutes later.

Morata put it to bed on a cross from his in-tune assist man Cesar Azpilicueta.

The finish was thrilling nevertheless, with Charlie Austin hitting the far post and Saints getting a goal line clearance at the other end.

Wenger: Praise after exit announcement “more than I deserve”

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Arsene Wenger doesn’t seem like the type to go on a victory lap, but the Arsenal boss is handling his resignation and the accompanying praise with pure class.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 4-1 West Ham ]

Wenger announced the end of his long Arsenal tenure earlier this week, and has been met by heaps of praise from ex-players, fans, current Gunners, and even rivals.

The Frenchman addressed the plaudits following a 4-1 win over West Ham United at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday. From the BBC:

“I would like to thank everyone who has been very nice and kind and praised me more than I deserved it. I would like to say thank you everyone. It’s been a great period for me and I’m thankful for that.”

Arsenal punished West Ham after the Irons equalized through Marko Arnautovic, getting a lucky goal from Aaron Ramsey and two fine finishes from Alexandre Lacazette in the win.

“I was focused on winning the game. We just tried to be professional and do our job even when the circumstances are different. It was a good team spirit and good preparation for Thursday.

“I think we constructed patiently. We didn’t make big mistakes. First of all before winning a trophy, you need to get through the semi-finals. This is a good way to prepare – scoring goals against a strong West Ham team who have done well recently.”

Next up: A huge test in the UEFA Europa League semifinals, with Atletico Madrid visiting for Thursday’s first leg. Wenger rested several big names, and Atleti has just one win from its last four matches (including a Madrid Derby draw at the Bernabeu).

WATCH: Chelsea’s Giroud scores 27 seconds after halftime

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Southampton held firm against Chelsea’s challenge for 45 minutes of Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal at Wembley Stadium.

Well, 45 minutes and 27 seconds.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 4-1 West Ham ]

The first long ball of the second half saw Chelsea’s Eden Hazard leap to trap, and the Belgian played a quick ball forward to his striker.

That’s Olivier Giroud, who dribbled between two defenders and Saints goalkeeper Alex McCarthy to stab home with the outside of his right foot.