EURO 2012

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New-look Italy aims to silence critics

FRESH CYCLE
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli (L) will rely on City striker Mario Balotelli (R) this summer.
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James Horncastle

James Horncastle is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who specializes in coverage of the European game. His work has been prominently featured in The Guardian, FourFourTwo, and The Blizzard.

   
 

As Cesc Fabregas stared down Gianluigi Buffon ahead of his decisive penalty in the shootout between Spain and Italy at the quarterfinal stage of Euro 2008, he could not have imagined the turn of events that would follow his kick.

If he missed, Spain’s characterization as the great underachievers in the narrative of international football would remain intact. If he scored, he would flip the script. Fabregas made no mistake.

That goal changed everything. Spain went on to become European and then World Cup champions in 2010. Past disappointments, inferiority complexes were all eclipsed by glory.

The cycle of dominance that began in earnest with that penalty lasts to this day. And so perhaps no one would take more pleasure in ending it than Italy when the teams meet again in Gdansk on Sunday.

Confidence in their ability to do so is not exactly high. After Italy’s 3-0 defeat to Russia in their final warm-up game a week ago, La Gazzetta dello Sport wrote: “If you’re going to Poland, don’t book beyond June 18, the last day of the group stages.”

Reasons for pessimism abound; overshadowed by scandal; depleted by injury, winless in their last three matches and goalless too. The “us against the world” mentality has worked in their favor in 1982 and 2006, but adversity is not a necessary prerequisite for this team to triumph.

All certainly is not lost. The encouraging work carried out by Italy in the past two years is not for nothing. Memories of the time they played Spain at their own game and won 2-1 last August are still fresh. A repeat performance isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

What worked for Italy then is not working for them now – the system, for instance, is under review and is expected to change from 4-3-1-2 to 3-5-2 – but the philosophy is the same. Positives can be drawn from the match last summer, which did so much to validate coach Cesare Prandelli’s repudiation of a nation’s tradition as defensive and counter-attacking.

Italy will look to impose themselves on Spain. Defender Giorgio Chiellini insists there’ll be no Gentile-Maradona-style man-marking of their star players and no “barricades” of 10 men placed in front of the penalty area. “You win with tactical rigor, with ball possession and the desire to make the game,” he said.

BRICK WALL

Click here to see more from Italy's captain, Gianluigi Buffon.

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Some aren’t so sure, pointing to how José Mourinho’s Inter and Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea overcame Barcelona with catenaccio.

But what of Spain themselves? A lot has been made of how no team from Europe has ever won three major international tournaments in a row.

West Germany came as close as anyone in 1976, reaching the final of this competition in Belgrade only to lose to Czechoslovakia in a shootout that was decided by Antonín Panenka, who re-defined the penalty kick by chipping the opposing goalkeeper. More recently, France went into the 2002 World Cup in the same position Spain are in now. They lost their opening game to Senegal in one of the greatest shocks of all-time and were knocked out in the group stages.

Of course, that’s not to say Spain will suffer the same fate. Remember, they lost their first match at the 2010 World Cup to Switzerland and still marched to victory. Yet both examples serve as a reminder of how difficult it is to stay at the top.

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The more a team wins, the less it wants to win. Hunger is sated. There’s no ‘it’s now or never’ feeling that gets players to reach within themselves and find that little bit more to go the extra mile.

Among Spain’s 23-man squad, only fullback Jordi Alba is yet to lift a trophy. The rest have 210 between them. And if their minds are at rest, then their bodies could certainly do with one as the inevitable signs of fatigue begin to make themselves felt.

Spainish daily, AS, calculated this week that Spain’s squad has played more minutes than any other at Euro 2012. Thirteen of its players have gone through the 4,000-minute barrier this season compared with only three within Italy’s cohort.

All of which makes for a more evenly balanced encounter between the last two World Cup winners than many were perhaps expecting. Spain remain strong favorites, while Italy were many people’s dark horses until a month ago. Now they are portrayed as black sheep. But maybe, just maybe, they’re a cornered, wounded animal. Maybe they will be at their most dangerous.

James Horncastle is a European soccer writer with articles published in The Blizzard, Champions magazine and FourFourTwo.

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