John O'Shea will hope to have Irish eyes smiling, if he's fit enough.
This summers European Championships are only days away, and our slightly Sunderland slanted previews continue with dangerous looking Group C, as we've already covered Group A (here) and Group B (here).
Perhaps not the "Group Of Death" as that's clearly Group B, but certainly the "Group Of Nasty Graze" as Spain, Italy, Ireland and Croatia look to make it to the next round of the competition.
Could there be a surprise? Who should Sunderland be keeping an eye on, and who can we connect with in the group? Lets go have an investigate...
Spain - 5/2
The defending champions, favourites for this tournament and in all likelihood champions in wait this time around too. On a personal level, I have to say that I don't particularly like them, which is in the main fueled by envy. The Spanish squad is packed with quality to an almost sickening level. If they could enter a second side comprising the non-starters from their 23 and those left out, there's every chance it would be Spain vs Spain Reserves in the final this summer.
Not too many, if indeed any links to Sunderland to get excited by after the shocking exclusion, and over looking, of Arnau Riera from the squad, so we'll get right to the drooling over the talent available to them.
The main area however where Spain might have a weakness however is in attack. David Villa is ruled out of the tournament through injury, while Fernando Torres, who is expected to lead the line... well we all know that a few swallows don't make a summer despite his semi-return to form towards the end of the Premier League season.
Should it not work out for Torres, a statement which isn't exactly sticking our necks out, there's still Alvaro Negredo of Sevilla, Pedro of Barcelona and one of Europe's most wanted strikers, Bilbao hitman Fernando Llorente. Despite this, coach Vicente Del Bosque has faced criticism in some quarters for leaving out the goalscoring machine, Roberto Soldado.
All things considered though, they're still far and away the ones to beat. as sat behind them is a cast of familiar characters... Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Santi Cazorla, Juan Mata and many, many more which just sickens you to the core that they can be so well off.
Italy - 16/1
Oooh, you know what they say about Italy eh? Whenever there's a domestic crisis they do well on the international stage. Be prepared to hear that statement ad nauseum this summer as the game back home in Italy goes under the microscope yet again for match-fixing allegations.
The allegations are serious though, so much so they forced Cesare Prandelli to leave under-fire defender Domenico Criscito out of the squad. A squad which seems at two extremes. There's the vast experience of the likes of Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo, Giorgio Chiellini and Daniele De Rossi, but out side of those four there's nobody with more than 36 caps to their name.
There's a likelihood the starting lineup for the Italians could be quite inexperienced, something which was shown in the recent 3-0 spanking on home soil by Russia in preparation for the tournament. Players who could play a major part such as Thiago Motta, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Nocerino, all undoubtedly fine players, have less than 10 caps each.
Looking at them from a Sunderland perspective, there's little to no links between us (Stefano Santini anyone?), and not much we can really watch for. the vast majority of the side all play their trade with Italy's big guns, or a European one.
As for their chances, they'll get out of the group for sure, but I'm not overly convinced they'll get much further than that this time around, regardless of historical coincidences.
Still, here's Thiago Motta slapping Mario Balotelli for no apparent reason other than he probably deserves a one every now and then...
Republic Of Ireland - 100/1
From the Italian team, to the Italian manager as Giovanni Trapattoni's Republic Of Ireland make a welcome return to the international stage.
On paper the Irish seem a bit like a rag-tag bunch of misfits. Most the players are in their latter years or knocking about the mid-to-lower regions of the Premier League, but Trapattoni has molded them into a very tough to break down unit. A fact noted in their qualification which saw them come second to Russia, and only concede seven goals to put them in a play-off with Estonia who they comfortably dispatched.
For Sunderland fans, this really should be the team to watch, what with connections between the us and them going very, very deep. For starters we've got John O'Shea, Kieren Westwood and James McClean all in the squad. Paul McShane also creeps scarily into the squad after injury to Kevin Foley. Do we need to rattle on about how two of the all time club legends in Niall Quinn and Charlie Hurley are Irishmen? Or waffle on about the whole Drumaville thing? I think not. You're all well up on the clubs history.
For the rest of the squad there's not much to really keep an eye on from a transfer perspective. Perhaps only Aiden McGeady who has been heavily linked with a move to Wearside, so be good to see how he gets on. Especially if it's in tandem with James McClean as you'd think that would be what happens with us too.
As far as our involvement, watch for McClean popping up on the right of midfield as Trapattoni has been looking to play him form time to time, while we should also keep an eye on John O'Shea's fitness. Despite being named in the squad, he's rarely trained and not done much in the buildup games (so far) for the tournament.
All in all, I hope Ireland do well, but it's going to be one hell of an ask to get out the group. The best chance will be if they get a result against Italy and then keep them at bay. Good luck to them. A great bunch of fans too. Just listen to the noise as James McClean comes on for his debut in the video below...
Croatia - 60/1
Everybody's dark horse nearly every year. With reason too; only twenty years after gaining independence, the side boasts plenty of talent, and haven't been out of the world's top ten ranking since 2006, in the process jumping from 125th to 3rd in little over five years.
Most fans will be fully aware of the talent that the likes of Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar possess, while we got to know Nikica Jelavic far too well last season as he tore us apart on several occasions. Such is the strength of Slaven Bilic's squad, it's likely only Modric of those three will be a certain starter.
Again, like Spain and Italy, there's little Sunderland connection, so it's all our eggs in the Irish basket for this group, but there's a few to keep an eye on as far as the transfer front goes, and of those it's two we should know relatively well - Spurs duo Niko Kranjcar and Vedran Corluka.
Kranjcar has been linked in the past, and is known to be looking for pastures new. He possesses the type of midfield creation and craft we're so badly lacking, while Corluka hasn't played all that much but is a quality player and a right back of his quality would be on our wishlist.
Some more under the radar ones to watch would be Milan Badelj (in action in the video below), Dinamo Zagreb's young playmaker and it's understood that former Arsenal striker Eduardo could be looking for a return to England. His fox-in-the-box style of play could fit in with us very well.
Croatia's chances are only slightly better than Ireland's for my money, and at 60/1, while still huge odds, should be a little higher. It's a tough group to get out of, and despite the world ranking they have might have a little difficulty overcoming Italy and Spain's quality plus Ireland's underdog attitude and team ethic.