Emotional Italy entitled to celebrate
Seldom has a 2-0 win for a team unbeaten in its qualifying group been greeted with such stern faces, such unbearable tension. For a couple of intolerable minutes Monday, Italy’s players paced around the pitch in Poznan, Poland, as if they simply didn’t know what to do with themselves.
They were at the mercy of the result in the other Group C game between Spain and Croatia, and while that match still was being played out, Italy was stuck in nerve-racking limbo. Gianluigi Buffon, the Azzurri's veteran goalkeeper who has seen just about everything in his astonishing career, wandered over to the Italian fans in the stands to try to find out what on earth was going on.
When the news suddenly broke that it was finished, that Spain had won 1-0 and Italy had reached the quarterfinals, all the fears about conspiracy theories could disintegrate. It was as if a dam broke and all the Italian joy came flooding out. Buffon leapt around like a kid and huddled with his teammates. Their relief was enormous. On the back of another match-fixing scandal back home in Serie A, the players are entitled to feel they are doing their bit to mend the image of Italian football, which had taken such a battering before the tournament began.
In the end, the Italians' destiny was theirs and theirs alone, and they mastered a game that was more difficult than anticipated against a fired-up Ireland, which played as if there was a lot more than pride on the line. Now that the Italians have a few days to take a breather and reflect upon their Euro 2012 showing so far, they can look back on a group effort that was positive overall.
Italy was an abomination at the World Cup two years ago, finishing bottom of a qualifying group that included the might of Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand. They didn’t win a single match. This is a much-changed team now. Only three of the side that started their final World Cup group game two years ago were in Cesare Prandelli’s equivalent team here: defender Giorgio Chiellini, midfielder Daniele De Rossi and attacker Antonio Di Natale.
There were a couple of notable absentees two years ago in goalkeeper Buffon and midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo, who both suffered with injuries at the 2010 World Cup. It is difficult to overstate the importance of these two players, who bring vast experience and the phenomenal quality that has made them among the best at their positions in their generation. Buffon and Pirlo give this new team great ballast. They are the foundation stones, the examples, and Prandelli steadily has been piecing things together around them.
The most obvious change is in Italy’s attack, which has a fresh, if slightly spontaneous, feel about it. Mario Balotelli was benched from the start against Ireland after tepid performances in the earlier games, as Prandelli paired Antonio Cassano with Di Natale. In the end, all three played important roles in Monday's victory.
Di Natale is a little bundle of energy with such smart technique, and he justified his inclusion with relentless running that helped give Italy the initiative. When a stray back pass gave him an opportunity, Di Natale chased the ball toward the byline and hooked in a shot from a ridiculously acute angle. Italy built on that moment of pressure. Cassano’s swerving shot was spilled by Shay Given. From the resulting corner, Cassano was in the right place to flick in a glancing header to give Italy a precious lead.
Ireland’s buccaneering enthusiasm made for an anxious evening, and it was that man Balotelli, on as a substitute, who sealed the win in the last minute with a stunning hooked volley.
His teammate, Leonardo Bonucci, slapped a hand over Balotelli’s face to prevent him from saying something he might regret to the coach. The goal in itself was an eloquent enough point if he wished to make the point that he wanted to start. That complex ego sure stands out.
The good news for Italy is that it has options. This is not a squad that is sure of its best starting XI; it's not even sure of its best strategy, as Prandelli shifted his tactics against Ireland to a conventional back four. Two fullbacks showcased their abilities as Federico Balzaretti and Ignazio Abate were both excellent as they bombed forward as often as they could.
Italy has much more going for it than anyone thought possible when it arrived in Poland-Ukraine on the back of three consecutive defeats — the Azzurri's worst run in 26 years. Now that things are looking up, the Italians can relax and wait to see who they will face in the quarterfinals. The winner of Group D, one of France, England or Ukraine, comes next.
It should be a little less tense waiting for that particular outcome from elsewhere.