EUROPE >Coming of age stories to be written in tough Euro group

ZAGREB / ROME / DUBLIN - Agence France-Presse

Spain’s Jordi Alba, Italy’s Mario Balotelli, Croatia’s Nikica Jelavic and Irish James McClean all want to show they are ready to shine on the biggest level in one of the toughest groups of the European Football Championship

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At first, Alba was a left-winger rather than a full-back, but injuries forced Valencia coach Unai Emery to start him in defense and he has since developed into an outstanding modern full-back.

At first, Alba was a left-winger rather than a full-back, but injuries forced Valencia coach Unai Emery to start him in defense and he has since developed into an outstanding modern full-back.

Jordi Alba (Spain)

The left-back position became a problem for Spain after its 2010 World Cup triumph, but Valencia’s Jordi Alba has emerged as the leading candidate to start there for La Roja in Poland and Ukraine.

The problems began when veteran Joan Capdevila, now 34, chose to leave Villarreal for Benfica last summer and lost his place in the national squad as a result.

The reliable Alvaro Arbeloa filled in at first, but he is better-suited to playing at right-back and so instead the Spain coach turned to Alba.

He duly seized his chance with a superb display in the 3-1 win over Scotland in Alicante last October that allowed La Roja to end their qualifying campaign with a perfect eight wins from eight games.
He set up the opening goal that night for David Silva and was a constant source of danger down the flank.

Since then, Alba has started in friendlies against England and Venezuela, and in the latter match he set up one of three goals for his Valencia colleague Roberto Soldado.

At first, Alba was a left-winger rather than a full-back, but injuries forced Valencia coach Unai Emery to start him in defense and he has since developed into an outstanding modern full-back.

“Jordi Alba has been playing well for a top Spanish side. He is someone who links up well with his teammates, gets forward, has excellent technique and defends correctly. We have confidence in him,” says Del Bosque.

Valencia’s financial problems mean it is set to lose Alba this summer and Barcelona is known to have been working on a deal to buy him for some time.

“Every young kid dreams of playing for Barça,” he said earlier this year.

Euro 2012 is his chance to prove himself on the international stage.

James McClean (Republic of Ireland)

Just six months ago James McClean was languishing in Sunderland’s reserve team but now the

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Republic of Ireland winger plans to cap a fairytale rise by stealing the spotlight at Euro 2012.

McClean’s surprise call-up to Ireland’s Euro squad has given the 23-year-old an unexpected chance to share the same stage as stars like Xavi, Andrea Pirlo and Luka Modric and he has no intention of wasting the opportunity.

McClean will have to compete with experienced campaigners like Damien Duff, Stephen Hunt and Aiden McGeady for a place in Trapattoni’s team but he has no doubts he can make an impact in group stage clashes against Spain, Croatia and Italy.

“I’m happ to be in the squad. But I’m not going to be here just to make up the numbers,” he said.
The Derry-born youngster has already demonstrated his determination by ignoring a barrage of abuse in his native Northern Ireland triggered by his decision to represent the Republic despite playing for the north at junior level. His first start came in a 1-0 win over Manchester City on Jan. 1 and he has not missed a game since, contributing six goals to Sunderland’s steady revival.

Trapattoni’s assistant Marco Tardelli admits there is every chance he could force his way into the starting line-up.

“He wants to work because he knows he needs to learn many things,” Tardelli said. “He is strong physically and I think he will be a good player but maybe it is possible also this time.”

Mario Balotelli (Italy)

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Mario Balotelli, the temperamental and mercurial Manchester City striker, will have an important role to play for Italy at this year’s Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine.

With Villareal forward Giuseppe Rossi ruled out through injury, the 21-year-old is very likely to get the nod up front over AC Milan’s Antonio Cassano in coach Cesare Prandelli’s starting line-up. But Prandelli knows he is taking a risk in picking Balotelli, as Italy seeks to bounce back from a disappointing World Cup two years ago and a quarterfinal defeat to eventual winners Spain at the last European championships four years ago.

Whether it was lighting fireworks and setting fire to his bathroom or kicking Tottenham’s Scott Parker in the head, Balotelli’s haphazard behavior both on and off the pitch have been well-documented.
And with already one combustible character in the form of Cassano, it might seem reckless to bring along another potentially more explosive element in Balotelli. But Prandelli will need all his man-management skills to guide both through the tournament without incident.

Balotelli - instantly recognisable due his idiosyncratic haircut - also exudes a relaxed, care-free attitude, often giving the impression that he has no interest in the sport that pays him handsomely.
On the one hand he refuses to celebrate goals and shows no nerves even in pressure-cooker situations.

For all that, few deny that Balotelli is a great athlete, can shoot with searing power and has an effortless ability to play the beautiful game.

This Jekyll and Hyde character could either be Italy’s hero or their worst nightmare in June. The only way to find out which is to wait and see.

Nikica Jelavic (Croatia)

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Croatian striker Nikica Jelavic is looking to finally translate his potent club scoring form onto the international stage at his first major finals at Euro 2012.

At 26, the Everton star has seen his value and star rise relatively late in comparison to many of the other established strikers at the tournament but he is desperate to silence critics who claim he struggles at the highest level. With just two goals in 18 appearances for the national side, he has much to prove with Italy, Spain and the Irish are Croatia’s opponents in Group C.

“As a striker you like to face the best defenses because it is only against them that you can truly test yourself,” said Jelavic.

“This is what faces us and myself at the Euro and I am keen to show there that I have what it takes at international level to succeed.”

Rangers came calling in 2010 and Jelavic paid duly with 30 goals in 45 matches.

The cash-strapped Scottish giants had to offload the prolific striker to Everton for 5.5 million pounds in January and Jelavic scored 11 goals since the move.

“It is good to have someone up there we know we can rely on and if there are chances made he will put the ball in,” said teammate Leon Osman in April. “I think the opposition are a bit scared of him and sometimes it releases space for other players in the team.”

It is hard to imagine him failing to transfer this form into the Euro, with players such as playmaker Luka Modric creating chances for him.


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