Italy basking in compliments after draw with Spain

For a squad that entered the European Championship with three

straight losses, Italy is suddenly basking in praise after its

daring performance against defending champion Spain.

Compliments were abundant at Casa Azzurri on Monday, a day after

the 1-1 draw with Spain. Italy coach Cesare Prandelli was told

about French media calling his team downright ”sexy” and a

comment from Jose Mourinho, who said Italy could go ”very

far.”

”Did they say that before or after the match?” Prandelli

asked. ”The French should always be taken with a grain of salt.

Maybe it was just a post-match joke. But if it was really a

compliment, I happily accept it.”

Prandelli acknowledged that he maintained his promise of

abandoning the traditional Italian ”catenaccio” – lockdown

defense – and attacked whenever possible.

”You have to exalt the characteristics of players that you

have, and we’ve got players with a lot of quality, skill and

personality,” Prandelli said.

Italy produced swift counterattacks at every opportunity against

a Spain squad renowned for its ball possession and took the lead

with a perfectly executed strike from substitute Antonio Di Natale.

While Spain equalized three minutes later, Di Natale had another

excellent chance to restore the lead.

An untested three-man defense formed an impressive wall around

Italy’s area and held strong until the final 15 minutes, when it

was fortunate that Fernando Torres missed a series of

opportunities.

”It was an impressive performance,” Italian football

federation president Giancarlo Abete said. ”We matched the world

champions.”

Abete reiterated that he expects Prandelli to stay in place

until his contract expires after the 2014 World Cup. Italian

Olympic Committee President Giovanni Petrucci and Italian Sports

Minister Piero Gnudi also showed up to offer congratulations.

Italy had lost its previous three matches – all friendlies – by

a combined score of 5-0, and had to prepare amid another

match-fixing scandal. But Prandelli appears to have his squad back

in the form it showed during qualifying, when it went undefeated

and conceded only two goals in 10 matches for the best defensive

record in the nine groups.

”Compliments are always nice, but they need to be taken in

appropriate doses,” Prandelli said. ”We need to go step by step.

We played a good match, but if you think about it, the result could

have changed at any moment, so let’s all calm down a bit.”

Italy next faces Croatia, which leads Group C after beating

Ireland 3-1.

”In three days, we’re going to face a completely different

squad, a squad that is utterly unpredictable,” Prandelli said.

”Croatia is a real squad.”

The biggest question Prandelli might have to ponder now is

whether to replace Mario Balotelli with Di Natale in the starting

lineup.

Balotelli struggled to keep his cool against Spain and wasted

his best scoring chance by inexplicably waiting for defender Sergio

Ramos to catch up with him. Three minutes later, Di Natale replaced

him.

”He said his first idea was to look for Antonio (Cassano), and

that he didn’t realize (Ramos) was catching up,” Prandelli said.

”When a player makes mistakes, he has to realize he has other

opportunities and when he gets new chances hopefully he can make

the right choices.”

Prandelli hasn’t decided yet whether he’ll swap Di Natale for

Balotelli.

”When we decide how to affront (Croatia), then we’ll decide

which players to use,” the coach said.