Italy's once vaunted defense in shambles
SALVADOR, Brazil (AP)
Coach Cesare Prandelli has always dismissed Italy's once infamous lockdown ''catenaccio'' defense as a relic of the past.
Well, he might want to reach back into the annals of history now to resurrect the style of play that made Italy one of the most frustrating teams in the world to play against.
Italy conceded eight goals over their three group matches at the Confederations Cup, the most it has ever given away in the first round of a tournament.
The goals have been piling up in greater numbers from one match to the next - one against Mexico, three against Japan and four against Brazil on Saturday.
''Eight goals are a bit too many,'' center back Giorgio Chiellini said. ''And a lot of them have come from set pieces. We've got to be more attentive because those are instances that can change a match.''
However, it doesn't look like it will get any easier for Italy in Thursday's semifinal, when the opponent will likely be World Cup holder Spain, whose attackers have a habit of turning defenders inside out.
Italy finished second to Brazil in Group A and will next face the winner of Group B.
Spain leads Group B with a full six points ahead of its final group game against Nigeria on Sunday. Italy last faced Spain in the final of last year's European Championship, when the Azzurri were beaten 4-0.
Chiellini and others say it's not purely a defensive problem but rather a failure of the entire squad to play as one unit.
In the matches against Japan and Brazil, Italy was overwhelmed in the opening minutes and failed to produce anything in attack.
In truth, the squad features only one dangerous striker in Mario Balotelli, while teams like Brazil and Spain feature a handful of goalscorers.
''The problem is not the defense but the squad,'' Chiellini said.
Another problem has been fatigue, with Italy struggling to get used to the heat and humidity. Center back Andrea Barzagli could hardly walk after the 4-3 win over Japan and sat out against Brazil.
The conditions should be even more of a factor in the semifinal in Fortaleza, the tournament's northernmost venue, located just below the equator.
There have also been problems at fullback, with Mattia De Sciglio gifting the ball to Japan to give away a penalty and Ignazio Abate dislocating his shoulder against Brazil, ending his tournament.
Another factor has been the play of goalkeeper and Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon, who at 35 is starting to make some uncharacteristic errors. Brazil's star Neymar beat Buffon with a free kick from an angle that flew inside the goalkeeper's post and Buffon was also responsible for Brazil's final goal, failing to properly save a shot from Marcelo and allowing Fred an easy goal.
Still, it's worth noting that Italy nearly drew level with Brazil when an 80th-minute header by Christian Maggio exploded off the crossbar, with Mario Balotelli just missing a few minutes later. Also, two of Brazil's goals looked suspiciously offside.
''When Chiellini scored to make it 3-2 we put them in difficulty and we nearly equalized,'' Prandelli said. ''Matches likes these make you grow and if we face Spain on Thursday - the best squad in the world along with Brazil - we'll try to play our match. We're going for it.''
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