Madrid, June 5 (IANS) On paper it looks that two countries among title holder Spain, Italy and Croatia should qualify from Group C in the European Championships -- however, anyone who writes off the influence of the Republic of Ireland is probably making a mistake.
World Champions Spain have to be favourites to win the Group: Vicente Del Bosque's side travel to Poland as reigning world and European champions and have more or less maintained the backbone of those successful team and just importantly they have maintained their style, Xinhua reports.
Del Bosque has lost all-time top scorer, David Villa and inspirational central defender Carles Puyol to injury, but Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos and goalkeeper Iker Casillas are all still there and they have been joined by young talents such as Javi Martinez, who can play in both central defence and midfield.
There are questions over the freshness of some players after a long season, while given the poor form of striker Fernando Torres, Fernando Llorente may lead the attack, giving Spain power in the air, at the expense of speed.
If Torres doesn't return to his best, Spain's attack could lack experience, although players such as Cesc Fabrigas and Iniesta can always be relied on for goals from midfield.
And the possible problem for Spanish team is that they can be slow starters in major competitions. Spain lost their opening game of the 2010 World Cup to Switzerland although they will kick off the defence of their 2008 title with Italy.
The Italians are another side that sometimes needs time to click into gear and both sides will go into the opening match knowing that defeat could be potentially fatal with Croatia favourites to start their campaign with a win against the Republic of Ireland.
Croatia coach Slavan Bilic travels to the European Championships with a side built around talented Tottenham Hotspurs midfielder Luka Modric and which contains a mix of youth and experience and a clear preference for fast passing football.
Four years ago Croatia won all three of their group matches and if they are able to repeat that feat either Spain or Italy are heading home before time.
And with Croatia ranked eighth in the world, one place above the Italians, that could hardly be classed as a surprise.
Italy are a slightly unknown quantity under coach Cesare Prandelli, qualifying without too many problems from a relatively straightforward group without provoking too much enthusiasm among their fans.
They will be tough in defence, but could struggle to score goals and former defender Christian Panucci has already admitted that Italy have few chances of winning the European Championships, but a side with the mercurial talents of Mario Balotelli is capable of producing excellent performances.
Obviously Balotelli is key to his side and Manchester City striker could be decisive either way. If he maintains his focus he can be a match-winner, but if he loses his calm, he is equally capable of leaving his side with 10 men.
Recent friendlies have seen Italy beat Spain and lose to Ireland, which reflects the doubts hanging over them and defeat to Spain in the opener will leave them with an uphill struggle.
Meanwhile the Republic of Ireland travel as the outsiders in their first appearance in the final stages of the tournament since 1988. Giovanni Trapattoni's side may not have the glamour of their rivals and may contain some players from the second tier of the English leagues, but with an experienced defence and a fine goalkeeper in Shay Given, they are capable of springing a surprise.
That surprise could be a narrow 1-0 win, but with Spain and Italy playing the first game and the Spanish playing the Croatians in the second, all it would need is a draw against Croatia or against Italy and the group could be turned on its head.
It's unlikely that Ireland will make it out of the group, but over 90 minutes they could well decide which sides do make it into the quarter-final stage ... and which side falls by the wayside.