Italy’s fate rests at feet of Spain and Croatia

Eight years ago, Antonio Cassano wept inconsolably as Italy

exited the European Championship without losing a match.

The striker knows the same nightmare situation could arise at

Euro 2012.

By surrendering the lead in a 1-1 draw with Croatia on Thursday,

Italy is third with two points in Group C with one match remaining

and no longer has its destiny in its own hands.

If Spain and Croatia – who both have four points – draw with a

score of 2-2 or higher on Monday, Italy will be eliminated even if

the team beats Ireland in the final round of group matches.

The scenario is similar to 2004 – the Azzurri beat Bulgaria in

their third group match but were eliminated after Sweden and

Denmark drew 2-2.

”There are going to be two teams of different levels facing

each other and Spain, which is the favorite, has players with a

pedigree that won’t allow them to be unsportsmanlike,” said Italy

goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who had the job of consoling Cassano

that night in Guimaraes after his teammate’s injury-time

winner.

Italy was coached by Giovanni Trapattoni in 2004 and, as fate

would have it, he is now in charge of an already-eliminated Ireland

team that is looking to salvage some pride in its last game after

two straight losses.

Italian media are speculating about a plot between Spain and

Croatia to eliminate the Azzurri, but current Italy coach Cesare

Prandelli wouldn’t be drawn into the debate.

”This is a controversy I have a hard time understanding,” he

said. ”Over the past 10 years, Spain has enthused the entire world

and everyone wants to copy them and you want me to think this squad

is contemplating a (plot against Italy)? Whoever does that has

problems. We don’t need to look for excuses.”

The Italians are not without hope.

If they win and the other match doesn’t end in a draw, they will

advance as the second-place team in the group. Or if Italy wins and

Spain-Croatia finishes 0-0, the Azzurri will win the group.

Alternatively, if Italy wins and Spain-Croatia finishes 1-1, the

Azzurri will advance if they beat Ireland by at least three goals

or by scores of 3-1 or 4-2 – based on a better UEFA ranking.

”We have the duty to believe until the end,” Prandelli said.

”We shouldn’t give in to this culture of skepticism. That’s what I

told the squad. We’ve got to think exclusively about Ireland.”

Italy could have avoided these last-match calculations, however,

if it hadn’t sat back after going in front against Croatia thanks

to Andrea Pirlo’s free kick at the end of the first half.

After having six shots on goal in the first half, they had only

one in the second.

”The first half was how we should always play, and the second

was how we should never play,” Italy midfielder Claudio Marchisio

said. ”We’ve got to figure out what happened. Our strikers weren’t

able to press forward anymore.”

That wasn’t the fault of Mario Balotelli or Cassano, Marchisio

said.

”We’re all at fault, and the same goes for the match against

Spain,” he added, in reference to the 1-1 draw in Italy’s opening

game. ”This isn’t a tournament where you can draw, you’ve got to

close out matches here and win them.”

Marchisio disagreed with the analysis of Prandelli, who cited a

drop in energy and fitness after an hour.

”I don’t think so,” Marchisio said. ”I think we let up

mentally.”