Straight from the dark heart of Italy
Never bet against Italy confounding the odds when it is least expected. This was certainly the case in Gdansk, where not only did they keep holders Spain at bay – they did so in a confident manner.
NEWS Sun 10 Jun: Spain escape with a point after Italian job
Cesare Prandelli arrived in Poland with the shadow of an ever-developing investigation into a betting scandal, which had engulfed Domenico Criscito and Leonardo Bonucci, hanging over the squad. Meanwhile a less-than-satisfactory on-pitch build-up had seen a friendly against Luxembourg postponed due to an earthquake back home followed by a 3-0 drubbing by Russia on the eve of the competition.
The coach was then left with a defensive headache when Andrea Barzagli suffered a calf injury, leaving the Azzurri looking porous in what had promised to be a watertight Juventus backline.
However, Prandelli has become used making do with what resources he has at hand. Using the only positive note of Luis Enrique’s time at AS Roma, Daniele De Rossi was dropped back from midfield into the centre of defence, flanked by Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini.
At Roma, De Rossi had played in a back four of sorts, but parked solidly in the middle against a Spanish team bent on walking the ball into the net, he kept Italy in the game in the first half with timely interceptions – and as confidence grew, so his quick and decisive passing helped open space for the wide players in the five-man midfield.
Prandelli had claimed that De Rossi could develop into a modern-day Franz Beckenbauer but in truth his more robust style draws closer comparisons to Javier Mascherano, especially when it comes to driving forward to bring the midfield into the game.
It wasn't as if Italy lost that competitiveness in the middle, where Thiago Motta and Claudio Marchisio were encouraged to pressure the opposition as high up the pitch as they could, leaving Andrea Pirlo to sit further back – although Serie A’s player of the year-elect was less effective having to wait for the action to come to him, rather than being the focal point as he had been all season with the champions.
Another Juve man, Emanuuele Giaccherini, who only four seasons ago had been playing in Serie C, and Christian Maggio worked diligently along the flanks – only to suffer when Spain brought on Jesus Navas and Andres Iniesta began to carry the ball forward into dangerous areas.
None shall pass: Italy get it together at the back
However, this was no rearguard performance of old. Rather it highlighted Prandelli’s ability to mould together the various tactics employed in Serie A this season, beginning with Juve’s power base but then morphing into Napoli’s fast-breaking counter-attack – and it is getting men forward into goalscoring positions where Italy could really spring a surprise on the opposition to come in this tournament.
The starting front two of Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli were willing runners in the first half and the latter demonstrated that he had taken the coach’s orders to make life difficult for the Spanish backline by robbing Sergio Ramos of the ball near the touchline. Sadly, the Manchester City man was then much too casual when left one on one with Iker Casillas, which enabled Ramos to scamper back and make a decisive tackle.
When Prandelli saw that his starters in attack were fading both mentally and physically – not surprising considering that both Cassano and Balotelli had seen little playing time for their clubs – he immediately went to the bench, and this was where further dividends were to be found.
Antonio Di Natale, with his first touch, took his chance in the manner he had been all season with Udinese and at the same time wiped out his torment at missing one of the penalties in the quarter-final defeat to Spain at Euro 2008. Totò, who had flattered to deceive at international level in the past, nearly found a second when Cassano’s replacement Sebastian Giovinco picked him out with a perfectly weighted chipped cross, but he could only stretch to put his volley wide.
Spain had equalised by then and were turning up the pressure, but this new iron-willed Italy never wilted. As Prandelli pointed out on the eve of the encounter, pessimism motivates the national side – and few would bet against them leaving some more nations feeling blue along the way this month.
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