Italy basking in compliments after draw with Spain
For a squad that entered the European Championship with three straight losses, Italy is suddenly basking in praise after its daring performance against defending champion Spain.
Compliments were abundant at Casa Azzurri on Monday, a day after the 1-1 draw with Spain. Italy coach Cesare Prandelli was told about French media calling his team downright ''sexy'' and a comment from Jose Mourinho, who said Italy could go ''very far.''
''Did they say that before or after the match?'' Prandelli asked. ''The French should always be taken with a grain of salt. Maybe it was just a post-match joke. But if it was really a compliment, I happily accept it.''
Prandelli acknowledged that he maintained his promise of abandoning the traditional Italian ''catenaccio'' - lockdown defense - and attacked whenever possible.
''You have to exalt the characteristics of players that you have, and we've got players with a lot of quality, skill and personality,'' Prandelli said.
Italy produced swift counterattacks at every opportunity against a Spain squad renowned for its ball possession and took the lead with a perfectly executed strike from substitute Antonio Di Natale. While Spain equalized three minutes later, Di Natale had another excellent chance to restore the lead.
An untested three-man defense formed an impressive wall around Italy's area and held strong until the final 15 minutes, when it was fortunate that Fernando Torres missed a series of opportunities.
''It was an impressive performance,'' Italian football federation president Giancarlo Abete said. ''We matched the world champions.''
Abete reiterated that he expects Prandelli to stay in place until his contract expires after the 2014 World Cup. Italian Olympic Committee President Giovanni Petrucci and Italian Sports Minister Piero Gnudi also showed up to offer congratulations.
Italy had lost its previous three matches - all friendlies - by a combined score of 5-0, and had to prepare amid another match-fixing scandal. But Prandelli appears to have his squad back in the form it showed during qualifying, when it went undefeated and conceded only two goals in 10 matches for the best defensive record in the nine groups.
''Compliments are always nice, but they need to be taken in appropriate doses,'' Prandelli said. ''We need to go step by step. We played a good match, but if you think about it, the result could have changed at any moment, so let's all calm down a bit.''
Italy next faces Croatia, which leads Group C after beating Ireland 3-1.
''In three days, we're going to face a completely different squad, a squad that is utterly unpredictable,'' Prandelli said. ''Croatia is a real squad.''
The biggest question Prandelli might have to ponder now is whether to replace Mario Balotelli with Di Natale in the starting lineup.
Balotelli struggled to keep his cool against Spain and wasted his best scoring chance by inexplicably waiting for defender Sergio Ramos to catch up with him. Three minutes later, Di Natale replaced him.
''He said his first idea was to look for Antonio (Cassano), and that he didn't realize (Ramos) was catching up,'' Prandelli said. ''When a player makes mistakes, he has to realize he has other opportunities and when he gets new chances hopefully he can make the right choices.''
Prandelli hasn't decided yet whether he'll swap Di Natale for Balotelli.
''When we decide how to affront (Croatia), then we'll decide which players to use,'' the coach said.