Five stories you need to know about
1. After spanking Ireland 4-0, just how good is Spain?
The Irish Times sadly wrote, “Grit and graft no match for grace” comparing Ireland’s 4-0 drubbing to a bullfight. "It was excruciating to watch through Irish eyes, a bit like having prime seats at the bullring, with Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and Xavi Hernandez leading the picadores and banderillas with a relentless flourish of deft flicks and touches that were at once mesmerizing, stinging and quietly fatal.”
The critical question is, how bad was Ireland? Even referee Pedro Proenca bullied the players, knocking down Keith Andrews with a “reducer.” Spanish newspaper El Mundo urged the victory be put into perspective: "Spain put on an exhibition of football against a rugby team." One wonders what the German coaching team thought about the Spanish performance as it analyzed game video.
2. Is Fernando Torres miraculously back?
The Spanish ditched their brief tactical dalliance with the “strikerless formation”, fielding much-maligned Chelsea forward Fernando Torres, who proceeded to score for the first time in a competitive international fixture since September 2010. Is the fallen icon back? Torres' first goal was that of a determined, hungry striker, stripping Richard Dunne and pounding the ball past a helpless Shay Given in the Irish net. Yet Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque was tempered in his praise, saying only “We trust Fernando Torres,” and “He played well, and he has scored.”
3. Can England “release the hounds”?
Coach Roy Hodgson has realized that keeping two banks of four players behind the ball at all times will not win him any matches. In an effort to change things, the English coach has elected to fling the lolloping Andy Carroll into battle against the Swedes. The often-ridiculed Liverpool striker has played just one competitive minute at this level, coming on as a substitute in the September 2011 qualifying victory over Wales. So it is unlikely that Hodgson has seen something he liked in that performance. The determining factor is Sweden’s susceptibility to the headed goal. Six of the past seven goals leaked by the Scandinavians have come from the air.
The English feel confident, but since 1988 they have played Sweden seven times in tournament play, losing twice and drawing five times. Sweden’s Anders Svensson suggested, "England think they are a bit better than they are. And we are a bit better than England think we are.”
In the other Group D game, co-host Ukraine attempts to continue its fairy tale against France. If it wins, it will advance.
4. Is Italy doomed?
Andrea Pirlo’s Italy dominated Croatia in the first half Thursday only to allow its opponent to tweak its formation, drag itself back into the game and earn a 1-1 tie. Now the Italians go into the final round knowing the tournament tiebreak dictates that no matter how many goals they lump past Ireland, a 2-2 draw between Spain and Croatia would see both of those teams advance at Italy’s expense.
Will that happen? The Italians, who are no strangers to match fixing, know it has before. In 2004, Denmark and Sweden earned a 2-2 draw that conveniently eliminated the Azzurri. Pirlo was discreet about the possibility when asked postgame. "They are two great teams, and they won’t do such a thing," he said.
5. Irish fans: all that is good about football
That Ireland became the first team to exit the tournament came as no surprise. Thursday night, the best Spanish players from Real Madrid and Barcelona thrashed the combined might of Wolves and Stoke City. The Irish were just happy to be there. A statement made by their ebullient fans In the last 15 minutes, their ebullient fans made a statement, as Gdansk rang out to the sound of "Fields of Athenry," a ballad recounting a tale from the Great Irish Famine.
The commentator on German television was so moved by the scene that he silenced his mic for the closing minutes of the game, leaving the sound of song to resonate for his viewers. A salute to all that is good about football.
If you encounter a story you would like to add to this feature, send me your idea on Twitter @rogbennett.