It may not be as utterly ruthless as the competition’s group of death, but Group C is another tricky one, with several permutations that would surprise, but not necessarily shock. It’s also similar in terms being packed with an abundance of goalkeeping talent. Here’s the run through:
Whilst they’re littered with famous names further up the pitch, Croatia lack a goalkeeper of international renown.
There is no doubt however about Slaven Bilic’s first choice however and that honour goes to Stipe Pletikosa (33). The vastly experienced custodian will most likely reach the 100 cap mark in the next 12 months and he has been the pick since the 2006 World Cup. His reflexes, agility and speed are all strong points. Early on in his career, he was considered vulnerable under the high ball. He has improved this area of his game, but doesn’t command the aerial battles with the confidence you’d expect of a 6′ 4″ keeper.
Another issue could be his tendency to parry rather than catch. It’s not a fatal flaw – especially since he has the happy knack of directing his saves away from danger – but you’d rather a keeper who catches the ball and takes command when the option is available. His club career has largely been one of almost breaking into Europe’s elite, but falling short. He had a loan spell at Tottenham but didn’t feature in the league. He was close to a move to Celtic, but it fell through and now he’s playing for Rostov in the Russian Premier League.
All of Croatia will be praying for Pletikosa’s good health, but that’s more down to the inexperience behind him than a lack of ability. Danijel Subašić is the second choice and he’s a talented young goalkeeper. His strong suits are agility, reflexes and bravery in one on one situations. Other than minimal international experience, there’s little else that would overly concern you. Plus he takes a mean free kick, going very Rogerio Ceni for Monaco earlier this season. He won’t get dibs on one for the international team, but it’s nice trick to have in your locker.
Ivan Kelava is the ‘one for the future’ of the three. The 24-year-old has yet to make his senior international debut and despite being very talented and capable, many will be hoping he’s not called into duty over the next couple of weeks.
Shay Given’s injury problems has dominated Ireland’s build-up to Euro 2012. At 36, age does seem to be catching up with him a bit, but equally I think these problems can be traced back to that season he spent on the bench behind Joe Hart. Later on in a career, a goalkeeper’s body gets used to taking a certain amongst of abuse. When that stops for a while, it’s hard to restart it and I think that explains the variety and frequency of Shay’s niggles. He’s still a quality keeper however and his lack of aerial presence is compensated for by the fact his defenders know they have to deal with vast majority of the crosses themselves. Some see it as a weakness, but having played with Richard Dunne for so long, I think it’s a strength and there have been relatively few mix-ups down through the years.
Keiren Westwood is the man who will step in should Given’s injuries flare up at the tournament. He’s agile and got great reflexes, they only issue is a lack of experience at the highest level. He’s slowly but surely building that up at Sunderland.
David Forde of Millwall is the third choice option. He’s been a regular in Trapattoni squads for the last twelve months and if called upon, shouldn’t have too many problems. He has been known to make the odd poor decision during this club career, but he’s far from a calamity keeper and will no doubt add to his haul of two caps in the future.
With the Italy camp in apparent crisis, one constant is the rock-solid presence of Gianluigi Buffon. He struggled with injury in the aftermath of the 2010 World Cup, but got a full season under his belt and was immense as Juventus claimed their first league title since 2003. You know what you’re going to get with Gigi. He offers leadership, calmness, agility and authority. There may be an occasional mistake, but he bounces back strongly every time and he truly is one of the all time greats of goalkeeping. With 114 caps to his name, the captain is a huge part of the team and if they’re to defy the gloomy predictions with an extended run in the tournament, he’ll need to be at his best.
Morgan De Sanctis is second in command, but has limited experience of international football. He has been in Buffon’s shadow for much of his career and at the age of 35 has just 5 caps to his name. He’s a good keeper however and if called upon will perform well. He has the tendency to do something ill-advised on occasion, but by and large he’s dependable and does the basics with authority.
Salvatore Sirigu is the eventual successor to Buffon. The 25 year old joined Paris Saint Germain last summer and became a firm favourite with the club’s vocal support. His ability and reactions are top quality and his air of calm authority does have a similarity to the great Buffon. He’s unlikely to see any game time at Euro 2012, but his time will come at future tournaments.
For the third tournament in a row, Spain go into it with the strongest goalkeeping division – possibly of all time. Rarely has there been such and abundance of riches to choose from. In Casillas, Reina and Valdes they have three goalkeepers who would walk into most international teams, but beyond that there are another two or three high quality keepers who are knocking on the door to get into the squad; David de Gea and Diego Lopez being the two most obvious candidates.
There’s not much more hyperbole you can heap on Iker Casillas. He is the best in the world. I’ve said it before, he’s not perfect, but he rarely makes mistakes and when he does, he almost instantly makes amends. His command and control of his penalty is a hugely under-rated weapon for Spain. He cleans up with such authority, it often slips by unnoticed, but in doing so, he stamps out potential danger with the minimum of fuss.
Pepe Reina wasn’t at his best for large parts of the season at Liverpool. What was happening in front of him didn’t help. Erratic defending and Jekyll and Hyde performances elsewhere on the team made life very difficult, but Reina contributed superbly. If called upon, Spain should have no fears. He very presence in the squad ensures Casillas can’t take anything for granted and that’s no doubt partially why San Iker has maintained such high standards for the national team.
Victor Valdes is a curious player. At times it looks like his ball skills wouldn’t look out of place in the Barcelona midfield, but then he does something poorly judged in the course of his goalkeeping duties to make you question him. He’s the perfect goalkeeper for the Barcelona system, operating as auxiliary sweeper and passing the ball around with accuracy. The national team role is different and that’s why he’s at the bottom of the pecking order. When it comes to the bread and butter stuff of goalkeeping, Valdes isn’t bad, just not as good as the two ahead of him. Still though, he’s not a bad third choice goalie to have in any squad.