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The Azzurri did not look remotely impressive in overcoming a shambles of an Ireland side, but then, the illustrious Iberians hardly covered themselves in glory either

 Mark Doyle
 Italy Expert Follow on

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It promised so much and yet it delivered so little. On paper, Euro 2012's Group C looked second only to Group B in terms of strength in depth and yet, of the four participants, only Croatia can walk away with the their heads head high.

The tragedy, in a sporting sense, is that Slaven Bilic's side are heading home because they at least played to their potential. The same cannot be said for either Italy or Spain, the two supposed heavyweights of the pool. As for Ireland, the hope was that they would be able to punch above their weight but, in the end, they were knocked out. Embarrassingly.

Italy have been even more disappointing, though. In all three games, they have played only in patches. That was somewhat excusable against reigning European and world champions Spain and a technically gifted Croatia side, but the Azzurri's performance against the Irish was shockingly poor. Indeed, Italy allowed themselves to be rattled by one of the weakest - if not the weakest - side to ever 'grace' the European Championship.

Admittedly, the Azzurri finally got to grips with Giovanni Trapattoni's troops around the half-hour mark and there can be no doubt that Antonio Cassano's opener had been coming, but after a bright start to the second period, the Nazionale lost their way again. They were not exactly hanging on before Mario Balotelli finally made the game safe late on but they looked desperately nervous in the closing stages. It is also worth noting that they did not kill the game off until the Irish had been reduced to 10 men.

 Sasa Ibrulj
 Croatia Expert
The Croatian nation are sad at their Euro 2012 exit, but they are proud of their team. Slaven Bilic's men may have had limited quality in their squad, but they gave Spain and Italy a real run for their money.

Croatia travelled to Poland and Ukraine with low expectations. Bilic was heavily criticized throughout the qualification campaign. But he leaves his post with the whole country behind him.

Croatia thrashed Ireland 3-1, enjoyed a perfect second half against Italy as they recovered from a goal down to draw 1-1, and made world and European champions Spain sweat until the last minute in their final group game. Had they taken their chances in Gdansk, Spain would now be going home.

Bilic has helped construct another great Croatian generation. Although they failed to go deep in this tournament, they once again charmed Europe and made their small country of just over four million people proud.
In addition, both of Italy's goals came from corners - a damning indictment of their lack of creativity and a clear sign that if Andrea Pirlo is not at the top of his game, as was the case in Poznan due to some intelligent pressing by the Irish, Italy will continue to struggle for goals.

And their lack of incision, let us remember, came against an Irish side that could not even defend set-pieces. As Goal.com Ireland expert Peter Staunton points out, "Ireland's Euro 2012 campaign has been a shambles from top to bottom.

"From the initial worries over shape and chance-concession in the final friendly against Hungary, Ireland have not looked the part. A team that was built on defensive redoubtableness has come apart at the seams.

"A bedrock of 14 games unbeaten, including 11 clean sheets, has counted for nothing in the tournament proper. Nine goals conceded, one scored and an utter disgrace on defending from set-pieces. All Ireland's strengths have been shown up as a weakness.

"They were meant to be tough to beat, at the very least, but they have been shown up to be second-rate and inferior. Statistically, they are now the joint-worst team ever to have appeared at a European Championship. The disgrace of 2012 is mercifully over."

As for Spain, well, they did ultimately go through as group winners but their progression has been painfully unconvincing. Indeed, Goal.com's Spain expert Ben Hayward is of the opinion that the defending champions can no longer be considered the side to beat in Poland and Ukraine.

"Vicente del Bosque’s side arguably played within themselves when they won the World Cup in South Africa two years ago and that feeling remains here after a group stage in which the holders flattered to deceive in two of their three matches," he muses.

"Spain dominated the possession in their opener but Italy created the best chances as Del Bosque’s false-nine experiment failed to completely convince despite Cesc Fabregas’ equalising goal.

"The 4-0 win over Ireland saw Spain closer to their brilliant best, but the quality of the opposition meant it was far from a true test for the men in red.

"And against Croatia on Monday, it was a frustrating performance from Del Bosque’s side as victory came late on and was barely deserved.

"In the knockout stages, the champions will need to do much, much better if they are to win a third major title in a row. Favourites? Not on this evidence."

Indeed, whereas Group D contenders England, France and Ukraine initially feared that they might be on the wrong side of the draw, not it seems that they have absolutely nothing to fear from either Spain or Italy.

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