Straight from the dark heart of Italy
Italy are where they were in Portugal 2004, knowing that a win may not be enough in their final group game to ensure progress to the quarter-finals.
To maintain the momentum at these European Championships, the draw against Spain needed to be followed by a win over Croatia.
NEWS 14 Jun 2012 Tiring Italy let Croatia off the hook
Instead, Cesare Prandelli is staring at the nightmare scenario of exiting the tournament without losing a game. For the record, a 2-2 draw between Spain and Croatia will see them both through even if Italy overcome Ireland, as goals scored in the head-to-heads become decisive when the teams are level on points.
That distinct possibility was brought about by Prandelli getting what he had got right against Spain completely wrong against Croatia: the substitutions.
There would come a point in the second half at which the coach would need to turn to the bench, with the opposition pushing hard for an equaliser. But where grit and determination were needed in midfield, the coach went for some extra guile and brought on Riccardo Montolivo for Thiago Motta just after the hour-mark.
Rather than help Andrea Pirlo, who once again faded badly despite scoring a wonderful free-kick to put the Azzurri ahead midway through the first half, the new AC Milan man drifted out wide to the left to fill any gaps left by the hard-working Emanuele Giaccherini.
If the case for the defence was to halt Croatia’s dangerous exertions down the flanks, then a better option would have been Antonio Nocerino, who is more comfortable in that role and is used to supporting the attack with runs from deep as he does at Milan.
The right side of the Italy midfield was equally timid in getting forward or containing Croatia after the break, and with Prandelli knowing that only victory over Ireland will do, it must be time to introduce the pacy Ignazio Abate in place of the pedestrian Christian Maggio. The Napoli man left space for the cross that led to Mario Mandzukic’s equaliser, though Giorgio Chiellini was also culpable, allowing the striker to get behind him at the far post.
However, Prandelli’s biggest failing this time around was withdrawing Mario Balotelli. The striker had a couple of half chances in the first half, but after the break, even with his team-mates seeing little of the ball, the Manchester City man still seemed to have more energy than Antonio Cassano in getting beyond the defence.
Cassano had worked hard, but could not cope with the physical attentions of the Croatia defenders, while Balotelli looked at home taking on a robust defence – and would have probably presented the more direct Antonio Di Natale with at least one goalscoring chance.
When Balotelli’s number came up on 67 minutes, the player was visibly disappointed but knew that seniority had won out even if Cassano’s movement continued to hold up the ball in enclosed spaces in the left corner, leaving Di Natale even more isolated than Balotelli had been.
Prandelli mirrored the changes he had made against Spain by introducing Sebastian Giovinco for the tiring Cassano. But while defending had been the priority against the Spanish, a draw was never going to be enough in this encounter.
With Croatia forcing Maggio and Giaccherini back, Italy shape was more 5-3-2, which left the midfield unable to get a hold of the ball and feed the front-two.
It was a miracle of sorts that arguably the team’s best player on the day, Claudio Marchisio, could keep going to the end. The Juventus midfielder had expended enough energy for two matches and almost found the net in the first half, only to be denied twice in quick succession by goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa.
It will be interesting to see if Marchisio, and indeed the rest of the worn-out team, can recover in time and have the same influence against the Irish, who will play a style more akin to that of Croatia than Spain.
Prandelli will need Marchisio to drive forward, but more than anything the coach may have to shake things up from the start, rather than wait for events to dictate his tweaking or he could face the same fate as Giovanni Trapattoni in 2004.
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