History looms over inconsistent Italy
The shadow of eight years ago haunts Italy. Back in Euro 2004, Italy drew its first two games, against Denmark and Sweden, and went on to play Bulgaria; the weakest side, in its third game. It won that match - only to find that Denmark and Sweden had drawn, meaning all three sides finished on five points.
In such cases, the teams are separated on a three-way head-to-head; all three had two points from games against the other two; all three sides had a level goal difference. But Denmark and Sweden, crucially, had drawn 2-2, meaning both went through by virtue of having scored more goals.
Flash forward to 2012, Italy has drawn with Spain and then, on Thursday night, with Croatia. It will play the Republic of Ireland which has lost both its games. Italy could beat the Republic of Ireland by any score and then discover that Spain and Croatia would advance with a mutually beneficial 2-2 draw. If that happens, Gianluigi Buffon, Italy’s goalkeeper, said, “the whole world would laugh."
Cesare Prandelli, Italy’s coach, was adamant he wasn’t thinking about such an eventuality, although the way he said it suggests he was fearing exactly a repeat. “I’m not thinking about a 2-2,” he said. “All I’m thinking of is resting up and being ready for the next game. I’m sure all the games are fair and that everybody is going to be playing for a win.”
Resting up was a regular feature of Prandelli’s post-game press conference. He is clearly concerned his side is fatigued. Both against Spain and Croatia, Italy's level has dipped midway through the second half.
“I don’t think we lack character,” he said. “But it is true that we struggle and there is a drop in our game in the 60th minute. We need to weigh up the next game and manage our energy levels. On both games we got to that stage of the game and lacked freshness.”
It’s hard not to wonder whether fatigue is the only issue. Italy has always had a tendency to try to protect leads. While tiredness may have been a factor on Thursday, there was also a sense of the old mentality, of willingly surrendering the initiative; for Italy had been the better side for much of the game. Chance after chance fell the way if its forwards, but a combination of wastefulness from Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, once again preferred as a strike pairing, and excellent goalkeeping from Stipe Pletikosa, kept the half time score at 1-0.
“I’m not angry at the strike force for not scoring,” Prandelli insisted. “Of course we’re a bit bitter because when a side plays football like that and creates chances, you need to kill off the game - that’s all you need to do. Football is unique in that one cross can ruin everything you’ve built up over the game.
“But we’re alive, we can go through: we need to play well but we have played well. We have to be more clinical and determined.”
For all the discussion after Antonio Di Natale had come off the bench to score against Spain, the likelihood was that Balotelli would start. Di Natale struggles so badly with knee injuries that he barely trains for his club Udinese; to play more than a substitute’s role with three games in eight days was always improbable.
Balotelli himself was booed mercilessly when he came off with 20 minutes to go, but unless the Croatian fans felt he was timewasting as he dawdled to the touchline, it wasn’t clear why. He had played with intelligence and verve – but he had missed five reasonable chances. “He played well in the first half and gave a lot in terms of running into space high up pitch,” Prandelli said. “He needed to keep doing that, but unfortunately he was struggling. He could hardly get off the pitch at the end.”
The clear suggestion as well was that Prandelli will stick to his back three against Ireland on Monday, although it may be that Andrea Barzagli, if recovered from his calf injury, comes in. The 3-5-2 was a formation that stifled Spain and it frustrated Croatia as well, at least early on. With Mario Mandzukic playing up high, almost alongside Nikica Jelavic, it was a simple enough matter of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonnucci picking up the two forwards with Daniele De Rossi the spare man behind.
The reason the shape has fallen out of favor across Europe is the prevalence of single-striker systems. One defender picks up the striker and then there is a spare man and a redundant man, which can leave a team outnumbered elsewhere.
That was precisely what happened late on – Slaven Bilic made a tactical switch that compounded the problems Italy was already having with fatigue, and its natural tendency to drop deep in defense of a lead. Mandzukic moved right, Luka Modric pushed up as a playmaker and Danijel Pranjic came in on the left in a 4-2-3-1 that shifted the game noticeably into Italy’s half as Croatia began to dominate midfield. Chiellini, usually so reliable, seemed to struggle with Mandzukic coming in from the right, and it was the Juventus defender’s inability to deal with an Ivan Strinic cross that led to the equalizer.
Ireland will almost certainly play with a front two so that shouldn’t be an issue on Monday; Italy’s problem, though, is that its fate may not be in its hands.