Barring something extraordinary, Ireland will not qualify from Group C at Euro 2012. It needed to beat — or at the very least draw with — Croatia. That leaves two nations to go through from Italy, Spain and Croatia. Logic still says that Spain will finish top of the group, which means that Wednesday’s clash between Italy and Croatia is effectively a shootout to determine who will go through in second place. “This will be the decisive match of the group,” Italy manager Cesare Prandelli acknowledged.
A win for Croatia would take it through, and its record against Italy is excellent. The teams have met five times since Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991, and Italy is yet to win. Most significantly, Croatia beat Italy in a qualifier for Euro 96 in Palermo in 1994. Then, in the group stage at the 2002 World Cup, goals in quick succession in the final 20 minutes from Ivica Olic and Milan Rapaic brought a 2-1 victory. The history that might weigh more pressingly on Italy though is that of Euro 2004. Italy drew its first two games, then beat Bulgaria in its third match but went out as Denmark and Sweden drew their final game 2-2.
Prandelli was understandably pleased with the way his side played in its 1-1 tie with Spain, although he played down the most fulsome of the acclaim. “We have not solved our problems; we only fielded a team which could fight for every ball,” he said. Having not won a match since November, losing three games in a row without scoring a goal, Prandelli took a bold step. He abandoned the back four he had used in his 26 previous games in charge of his country, and introduced a back three that has become voguish in Serie A over the past season. The result was a performance of great coherence and tactical intelligence, and he hinted that he will stick with something similar against Croatia.
“The idea is not to change too much so that we have consistency,” he said. “It won’t be easy; it will be decided by details.” There are only two real concerns. Firstly, Daniele De Rossi, a midfielder used as a libero, looked troubled by the introduction of Fernando Torres late on when he was forced into pure defensive work.
In Nikica Jelavic, De Rossi will come against a bona fide striker who is good at holding the ball up and is in prodigious goal-scoring form. That is unless Italy can work out a way of having one of the two more orthodox center backs — Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini — handle the Everton striker. This is the problem of playing a zonal back three; the more traditional Italian variant, with man-markers, would have allowed, say, Chiellini to pick up Jelavic, with De Rossi dropping behind him. Andrea Barzagli, the Juventus defender, is responding well to treatment on his calf injury and should be fit for Italy’s third game, against Ireland.
Croatia has Mario Mandzukic, a player finally delivering on the promise that persuaded Dinamo Zagreb to sign him from NK Zagreb in 2007. He is now 26, and a year at Wolfsburg under Felix Magath, a notoriously hard taskmaster, seemingly has done wonders. Once a slight, almost diffident playmaker, he has become a much more powerful, hard-running figure and his two goals against the Irish were just reward for his endeavor. The idea of him scoring a 15-yard header, though, would have been laughable a year ago.
No matter what doubts he may have, Prandelli suggested he would not be changing formation. “What counts in the choices is the nervous and physical state of the players,” he said. “We will play against a very different team (to Spain). They will put us under pressure, and it’s perhaps even harder because they are unpredictable. They can change their system from one half to another, so we need to prepare with a lot of attention."
Perhaps the bigger question is who will be playing at center forward. Against Spain, Mario Balotelli dropped deep, worked well with Antonio Cassano — an explosive pairing if ever there was one — and probably should have had a penalty when he tangled with Gerard Pique. But, having dispossessed Sergio Ramos on the touchline just after halftime, he dallied oddly as he approached the box, allowing the defender to recover. He was replaced soon after by Antonio Di Natale, who scored four minutes later and very nearly volleyed a later winner.
"We will try to understand who used the most energy," Prandelli said, but he hinted that Balotelli had frustrated him at times. "Before thinking about how to tackle Croatia, we have to study them well. When we decide on how to tackle this team, we will decide on the forwards. We have to exploit those who are in good form. Mario is 21, and he is in the process of maturing. All I ask him is to play a simple game without thinking of trying to resolve a game alone. He needs to think of giving depth to our game. He did a little bit of that against Spain. For the first time, he has to prove to everyone the potential that he is said to have and, for sure, he feels more responsibility.”
It may be that Prandelli prefers to start with Balotelli and release Di Natale as an impact substitute from the bench. Whoever starts, it seems the shape will be the same, although the style almost certainly will be more attacking. This is, after all, a game Italy needs to win.