Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Day Eleven

Croatia 0 Spain 1

Italy 2 Ireland 0


For some teams, the end of the group phase presents a challenging problem of stats and psychology. Croatia, for instance, had a tricky problem going into the Spain game.  They knew Italy would probably beat Ireland, so containing Spain was never going to be enough, as a 0-0 would see them eliminated. 1-1, on the other hand, would very likely see them through.

This meant that a single Spanish goal would effectively be irrelevant. A second Spanish goal, though, would actually count for something, as a 2-1 defeat would put Croatia out.

So they made a plan, to contain Spain in the first half and get at them in the second, by which time Spain were statistically less likely to have enough time to score twice. It's exactly what anyone else would have done in their position, but it meant the first half of Croatia v Spain was by some margin the dullest half so far. This is a sort of compliment to Croatia - to make Spain boring is really quite an achievement - but it's also 45 minutes of our lives we'll never get back.

There were two games, of course, and both were televised, but unfortuntely this was the one with the greatest number of permutations hanging on it, so your diligent reporter was kind of stuck with it. Both teams seemed afraid of losing. Spain had most of the possession, as you'd expect, but the knowledge that they would be through if they didn't concede may have hung heavily on them.

Here's my first half notes. After 26 minutes Mandzukic was tackled right on the edge of the box. It could easily have been a foul, and therefore could easily have been a penalty, but in the end it was given as a corner.

That was it. Nothing else of any note happened, except that after half an hour we heard that Italy were a goal up against Ireland. They showed us the goal, in a highlights box in the top left corner of the screen. It was a routine goal, but a goal nonetheless. As things stood, Italy were top, Spain were second and Croatia were out.

Oh yes, and David Villa. You may have wondered where he is. His tibia is all better now, nurse having adequately kissed it in the oxygen tent, but he was laid up with it so long he failed a pre-tournament fitness test. The commentator was clearly missing him, as he managed to say his name instead of David Silva several times. That commentating error was the other first half highlight. You may scoff, but it was all over Twitter.

The Barcelona player I was missing was Messi. Yes, he's Argentinian, but he seems Spanish, and you have to admit he'd be a good fit for their team. Frankly, if they can pick Catalans I don't see why they can't pick anyone.

Things picked up a bit in the second half, and in the 59th minute Croatia had their best chance of the game. A Spanish attack broke down, and Modric skipped past the covering midfielder to find himself in space. He held it up long enough for the surprised looking Croatian forward line to catch up with him, then crossed to Rakitic, whose header was just kept out by Casillas. He should have headed it down, but instead it came at a convenient height for the keeper.

Bosquet decided he needed to make a change. He took Torres off, and brought on Navas of Sevilla. Croatia, not to be outdone, brought on Jelavic. They were out if things stayed as they were, and according to their plan it was time to have a bit of a go.

Silva went off for Fabregas. Twitter folk with no grasp of statistics suggested that they should be bringing on a striker, but in the real world with all the atoms in it the laws of probability were swinging the balance of the game. Spain were through as long as they didn't concede, and given that nobody knew what order group D was going to finish in it didn't really matter who was first and who was second.

So every time Croatia broke, Spain were quickly back in numbers. Croatia, meanwhile, brought on Eduardo, who had a stonewall penalty turned down when Arbeloa pulled him down from a corner with a move accurately analysed by Alan Hansen as a judo throw. Arbeloa managed to do it at an angle where all the officials were unsighted, which I guess is a kind of footballing skill in itself.

Three minutes from time, Spain scored. Fabregas lobbed the ball over the Croatian back line to Iniesta, who wasn't offside, although Navas was. Both players were clear. Navas held back behind Iniesta, who passed across to him, and he tapped it into an empty net. It should be offside, but according to the actual rules it isn't.

What no-one in the stadium seemed to realise, neither commentators nor Croatian fans, was that it only mattered for Spain. Croatia were still in the same position. If they scored, they went through, if they didn't they were out.

Meanwhile we heard that Balotelli had scored to double Italy's lead. That didn't matter either. Croatia could still go through with a goal. They got a free kick, and even the keeper went up for it. The referee whistled for a Croatian infringement in the Spanish box, and that was it.

In the end, and after all the calculations, every country in the group ended up with a different points total. Spain had 7 points, Italy 5, Croatia 4 and Ireland 0.

It was harsh on Croatia, who had beaten Ireland, got a draw out of Italy and only just lost to Spain. It was only harsh on Ireland in the sense that the fans probably deserved a better team, but you can only select the players you have. Spain and Italy, meanwhile, lie in wait for the top two from England's group.

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