Three teams will fight to progress out of Group C tonight as Spain take on Croatia and Italy face Ireland. Spain has the upper hand needing only a draw to qualify, while the Italians may not advance even with a win.
Spain and Croatia are set to square off tonight in a match that may also decide the fate of Italy, who play Ireland at the same time. A draw with four goals or more, regardless of what result Italy achieve against Ireland, would knock the Italians out of the tournament.
Meanwhile, Italy face their former coach, Ireland's Giovanni Trapattoni. Italy has not managed to defeat the Irish since he took over, but tonight they're likely try hard to do just that: Ireland has already been eliminated, but is expected to look to leave one last mark on the tournament.
Croatia and Spain are the deciders
Spain want to close out their final group stage match with a win. They have the momentum coming off of a 4-0 victory against Ireland, where forward Fernando Torres silenced critics with two goals.
"We said before tonight that we had two games left and that we wanted to win both," said Spanish Coach Vicente Del Bosque after his side's victory on Thursday. "In a tournament like this you can never let your guard down."
While a draw would ensure qualification for the Spanish, Croatia need at least a 2-2 draw or an Italian loss to Ireland to go through. Croatian coach Slaven Bilic understands that he has a tough task ahead of him.
"I hope luck will be on our side too, though our players also need to play the match of their lives," he said. With the dangerous striking pair of Mario Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic, that may just be possible. Mandzukic has three goals already this tournament while Jelavic scored nine goals in 10 games for English Premier League side Everton after moving there in January.
"We are still in a realistic position to go through and we have a chance," said Bilic, who is leaving Croatia to coach Lokomotiv Moscow after the tournament. "We need to remain confident."
The match will be officiated by Germany's Wolfgang Stark. He has seen his fair share of controversy in the past, but the 14-year international veteran is considered a top referee by UEFA. He oversaw this year's Europa League Final between Athletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao.
All to play for in Poznan
Though historically successful against the Irish, a defeat is not impossible. Fans will no doubt remember that 18 years ago to the day, Ireland defeated Italy 1-0 at the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
Few changes are expected for the Irish lineup. "You have to back the guys that got us here," said Trapattoni, who at 73 is the oldest coach to ever make an appearance at a European Championship. "I'm proud of them and you could see by the way the Irish supporters were cheering that they have the support of the public."
There will be some positives for the already eliminated Irish, who will want to give a strong showing in their final match of the tournament. Fulham winger Damien Duff will wear the captain's armband as he looks to become only the fifth player to achieve 100 caps for Ireland.
In Trapattoni, Italian Coach Cesare Prandelli is facing his former coach and mentor. He played under the Ireland coach at Juventus, and still has enormous respect for him. "He is an extraordinary person to me," said Prandelli. "I grew up with him."
Prandelli is expected to alter his lineup for tonight's match. He has achieved some success with a largely experimental 3-5-2 formation, but Italy have struggled to score goals. Prandelli may shift the Daniele De Rossi from defense into midfield against Ireland in a more traditional 4-4-2 formation to improve his team's passing going forward.
Unfortunately for Italy, they can only do so much to secure a spot in the quarterfinals. A win will put them on five points for the group, but UEFA's coefficient system would have Italy eliminated with anything greater than a 2-2 draw in the Spain-Croatia game.
Rumors of a pact between Spain and Croatia, who would both benefit from a draw, have been strongly denied by both sides. Though Italian captain and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, when asked about the seemingly beneficial draws that began piling up towards the end of last season's Serie A campaign in Italy, said, "two injured birds are better than one dead."
Italy fell victim to similar circumstances at the 2004 European Championship. They went undefeated in the group stage, including a victory in their last game against Bulgaria. A 2-2 draw between Sweden and Denmark, however, sent the Azzurri home early. Italy's coach at the time? Giovanni Trapattoni.
Author: David Raish
Editor: Matt Zuvela