Analyzing its errors, Italy finds a mental problem
For a match and a half, everything seemed to be going so well for Italy. So, what happened midway through the game with Croatia?
In the immediate aftermath of the Italians' disappointing 1-1 draw in their second match of the European Championship, coach Cesare Prandelli alluded to physical problems after the opening hour. But after taking the time to analyze video material, he came to a different conclusion.
''It was the wrong mental approach,'' Prandelli said. ''This squad is born to play and if we move 20 meters backward and we start thinking about defending a lead, we become a squad full of fear.''
Italy had six shots on goal in the first half against Croatia - including a goal from Andrea Pirlo - but just one in the second, when Mario Mandzukic equalized after an uncharacteristic defensive lapse by the Azzurri.
Italy largely sat back and defended its lead.
''I'm convinced that as Italians we're capable of doing just the opposite,'' Prandelli said. ''We're a people known for creativity and quality. You can defend without abandoning your style of play - always and no matter what the situation.''
Italy had also failed to defend a 1-0 lead in its opener against defending champion Spain. Cesc Fabregas equalized three minutes after substitute Antonio Di Natale's second-half goal.
The two 1-1 draws have left Italy in difficulty entering its final group match against Ireland. To advance, The Azzurri need to win and hope that Spain and Croatia do not play out a high-scoring draw.
Taking over from Marcello Lippi after Italy was eliminated in the group phase of the 2010 World Cup, Prandelli led the Azzurri to an unbeaten record in qualifying with eight wins and two draws - a national record for a major tournament.
Italy scored 20 goals and conceded just two for the best defensive record across the nine qualifying groups. The days of Italy's infamous ''catenaccio'' - lockdown defense - seemed long gone. Players were answering Prandelli's calls for flair and to press forward at every opportunity - while at the same time defending as hard as ever.
''In a very short time, Prandelli has given this squad a distinct personality and a high quality style of play,'' wrote former Italy coach Arrigo Sacchi in Saturday's Gazzetta dello Sport. ''The players have followed him, but it's difficult to abandon our old habits - defending and sitting back when you're winning.
''But Cesare shouldn't be discouraged,'' Sacchi added. ''He's got the right ideas and he's on the right road, but the last thing to be learned is the winning mentality. ... Once our players understand that playing our own game is the best way to negate the opponent and the best way to impose our quality and the best way to win, that's when we'll have acquired the right mentality.''
Italy had the right mentality against Spain and in the opening half vs. Croatia, but the likes of Mario Balotelli, Antonio Cassano and Claudio Marchisio missed one chance after another.
''That's where we need to improve,'' Marchisio said. ''When you create so much, you have to score. We definitely wasted an opportunity with Croatia. It's to be expected that when you put in a lot of effort you then have a drop in pace. But that's when you need to be more balanced to absorb the added fatigue.''
Former England coach Fabio Capello also analyzed Italy's failures.
''It's a squad that creates a lot, but it doesn't take advantage and that could be a problem,'' Capello told Italy's Sky TV.
''(Cassano and Balotelli) always use the foil and never the sword,'' Capello added, using a common Italian cliche. ''They're talented players, players that can make an impact.''