Usually in major tournaments there is an obvious big-ticket game that is scheduled and a game that isn't going to draw eyeballs on the same day. Usually, the less significant game is played earlier and the more significant game is played later. Everyone from the teams themselves, to the event holders, to the television networks wants this to be the case. They all want the big game in primetime. Someone in Poland didn't get the memo.
Ireland and Croatia are playing the late game in Euro 2012 on Sunday, after Spain and Italy contest the early Group C match. This does not make a whole lot of sense to anyone, but it's a thing anyway. Ireland-Croatia is the undercard, and it's after the main event. Brilliant.
Ireland managed to get a pretty fantastic draw in qualifying. They finished second in a qualifying group with Russia, edging out mighty Armenia to get to the playoffs. In the playoffs, they drew Estonia, who had no business making a Euro 2012 qualifying playoff. Ireland were bad in a friendly against Hungary before this tournament. There's no reason that Ireland should be able to beat Croatia.
But then again, as easy as their road to this tournament was -- at least relative to most of the other 15 teams -- they still do better than they should over and over again. They probably shouldn't have been able to hang with France in their 2010 World Cup qualifier, they shouldn't have been competitive against Russia and they shouldn't have been significantly better than Slovakia. But they were, mostly because Giovanni Trappatoni's tactics work. When you have a team full of mid-level Premiership and high-level Championship players, it's probably a good idea to emphasize organization and athleticism while forcing opponents into a direct and somewhat dirty game.
Croatia likes to play on the ground quite a bit more than Ireland, but they can play that game if they have to. Luka Modric is about 5'5", 106 pounds, but he finds a way to not get the tar beaten out of him every week with Tottenham Hotspur and keep ticking. Modric will be protected by a tough defensive midfielder in Tomislav Djumovic, and Croatia also boasts a couple of physical strikers.
It sounds like a cliche, but this one is going to be all about set pieces and capitalizing on mistakes for Ireland. They don't have the technical quality of Croatia and they're not going to have a lot of the ball. Croatia aren't spectacular at the back, however, and their strikers don't have superb goal rates. It's very possible that Croatia could completely dominate the game and lose 1-0.
After this game, Darijo Srna will still be the best player you've never heard of
Darijo Srna's been the captain of Croatia and Shakhar Donetsk for a pretty long time. He's led Shakhtar to the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League and he also captained them to a UEFA Cup win. He was one of the best players on Croatia's surprisingly good Euro 2008 team. And yet, he's still a pretty anonymous guy in the English-speaking footy-loving world. And after this game, he'll still be the best player you've never heard of. Know why? Because we all know you're going shopping after Spain-Italy and skipping out on this. Don't lie.
There is no explanation for the enigma that is Robbie Keane
Seriously, Robbie Keane isn't actually good anymore. He's terrible for the Los Angeles Galaxy. But somehow, some way, the guy keeps scoring goals for Ireland. He's the country's leading scorer by a ridiculous margin and he'll probably score a garbage goal in this game, even though he generally looks useless on the pitch these days. There's no question that Shane Long, Kevin Doyle and Jonathan Walters are all better than him, but he's going to start anyway, and he's probably going to justify his spot in the lineup even though he's not very good at this point in his career.
Projected Ireland Lineup (4-4-2): Stipe Pletikosa; Domangoj Vida, Josip Simunic, Gordon Schildenfeld, Vedran Corluka; Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric, Tomislav Dujmovic, Darijo Srna; Mario Mandzukic, Nicika Jelavic
Projected Croatia Lineup (4-4-2): Shay Given; Stephen Ward, Richard Dunne, Sean St. Ledger, John O'Shea; Aiden McGeady, Glenn Whelan, Keith Andrews, Damien Duff; Robbie Keane, Kevin Doyle
Monty the Psychic Metal Disk says: Ireland have talented strikers and are good at getting the ball to them in a direct fashion. Croatia can say the same, but they also have Luka Modric. 2-1 Croatia.
Game Date/Time: Sunday, 2:45 p.m. ET, 8:45 p.m. local
Venue: Municipal Stadium, Poznan, Poland
TV: ESPN (U.S. - English), ESPN Deportes (U.S. - Spanish), ITV 1 (U.K.), TSN 2 (Canada)
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