Two very contrasting games yesterday.
First, Italy and Spain served up a minor classic. Spain went in without a conventional striker, but not in a Craig Levein manner. That wasn't what hampered them so much as a lack of width which was only addressed with the introduction of Jesus Navas in the second half. A substitution by Cesare Prandelli provided the spur. Moments after Mario Balotelli has dallied when one-on-one with Iker Casillas long enough for Sergio Ramos to get back and make the tackle, Balotelli was withdrawn for Antonio di Natale. With almost his first touch, he controlled a borderline sexual through ball from Andrea Pirlo, opened his body up and passed it past Casillas and inside the far post. Just brilliant. As was the immediate response: a sumptuous reverse ball from David Silva met by Cesc Fabregas for the equaliser. Italy were happy to cede possession for long periods, but Spain didn't do enough with it. They had chances, a couple falling to the shadow of the striker that Fernando Torres. Once he was denied by a brilliant bit of defending from Gianluigi Buffon, but the other Torres - good Torres - wouldn't have given him the chance. It's just kind of sad now.
Ireland qualified by setting up for 0-0 and hoping to snatch one on the break. That's fine until you go behind in the third minute which is what happened against Croatia. Mario Mandzukic looped a 15-yard header towards goal and it appeared to go in slow motion into the bottom corner. Yes, Shay Given was unsighted, but he took an age to get across and duly missed it. Sean St Ledger got goal-side at a free-kick to equalise, and there it should have been back to plan A. Again, that was ruined soon after as a horror bit of defending saw the ball break to Nikica Jelavic six yards out. The second half was more routine and it was 3-1 three minutes into it as a Mandzukic shot came back off the post and went in off Given's face. It wasn't one of Given's finest games, but Mandzukic has some cheek for claiming it as his goal. Ireland now have a problem. They have to win games, so getting James McClean involved is imperative. Play Robbie Keane up front, Damien Duff in behind with McClean and Aiden McGeady wide. That still allows for Trappatoni's beloved twin holding midfielders and they may as well be hung for sheep and lambs. There's no glory in going down as meekly as they did yesterday. For Croatia, Ivan Perisic did his claims for more game time at Borussia Dortmund no harm at all. He was quite excellent. Also top marks to Slaven Bilic for mating a suit with a beanie hat. Fashion maverick.
Group D gets underway today with England against France in the early game and co-hosts Ukraine taking on Sweden.