Italian Serie A News, Results, Analysis and Features on Football Soccer

Giancarlo Rinaldi On June - 22 - 2012

Euro Report: Pre-Quarterfinal Review For Azzurri

They may have looked about as nervous as a turkey with an invitation to a Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner, but in the end they made it. A jumpy, twitchy, seat-of-the-pants Italy display took them out of the group stages to the knockout rounds of a major championships. Some things never change.

The Azzurri stepped into the last eight of Euro 2012 with probably their worst performance of the competition. The return to a 4-3-1-2 formation was supposed to bring familiarity and freedom. Instead, it brought a hesitancy against a Republic of Ireland team which ended up with far and away the worst goal difference of any side in Poland and Ukraine.

Perhaps it was bound to be that way. All the talk of the “biscotto” - the supposed convenient 2-2 draw between Spain and Croatia which would have guaranteed Italian elimination - distracted them from the task at hand. Only a late Mario Balotelli strike and the final whistle in the other group game truly calmed those concerns.

Yet there were a few crumbs of comfort from the Irish display. Goals for Super Mario and Antonio Cassano were a fine tonic for both players. Daniele De Rossi confirmed his versatility in either a defensive or midfield role and Federico Balzaretti came onto his game after a sluggish start at full-back.

Above all, though, there was Andrea Pirlo. He might put the heart in the mouth with some of his swagger and sway when in possession near his own goal but he has been Italy’s talisman so far. A goal and a couple of assists are the bare statistics of his performances to date. In truth, he has been much more - carrying on the club form which delivered a Scudetto to Juve into La Nazionale. He surely deserves a mention in any player of the tournament debate.

It is worth remembering the condition Italy came to Poland in when dishing out any criticism. Dreadful friendly results, the repercussions of a match-betting scandal and a game cancelled due to an earthquake all disrupted preparations. It would have been easy to slip sluggishly out of the competition.

Instead, the Spanish clash was a breath of fresh air for the Azzurri after a miserable tournament build up. It was also a masterclass in the versatility and adaptability of Serie A footballers. Asked to play a 3-5-2 formation untried by Cesare Prandelli during his national team reign, they took to it as if they had been playing that way for years.

De Rossi, asked to slot into the centre of defence, was particularly impressive. He was able to both read the play and start Italy’s attacks. For most of the match he looked assured and accomplished in his role.

There were also pass marks for surprise inclusion Emanuele Giaccherini. The under-used Juve man was asked to perform on the left-side of midfield and acquitted himself well. He was enterprising when he could be and diligent in his defensive duties.

What was most encouraging about the Spain game, however, was the determination to take the game to the World and European champions. There was little parking of the Italian bus and when Toto Di Natale gave them the lead it was perfectly deserved. If it had lasted a little longer, perhaps confidence might have grown further. Nonetheless, a draw almost felt like a victory.

A few days later, however, came a share of the spoils which seemed more like defeat. Again the Azzurri took the game to their opponents but an Andrea Pirlo free-kick felt like scant reward for their efforts. They were always open to an equaliser and a clinical Croatia side duly delivered. Qualification was out of Italy’s hands.

The games confirmed concerns about this side which were formed in recent friendly struggles. They are capable of playing nice football but not getting the goals it deserves. The irony of that situation will not be lost on people who have been following the Azzurri for a while. It is a most un-Italian conundrum.

Cassano, a regular scorer in qualification, was understandably rusty on his return after months on the sidelines due to his serious health scare. Balotelli seemed inclined to dawdle in front of goal when he would normally be more direct. The attacking midfielders, too, seemed more inclined to try for one more pass rather than shoot for goal.

That is a puzzle Prandelli must solve to take this team forward. If he does not, they will always be vulnerable to sides which play like Italy used to. Happy to sit deep, strike on the break and be deadly in front of goal.

Ironically, they could face a problem a little like that against a quarter-final opponent who has been known to criticise the Italian defensive approach in the past. England may have ditched Fabio Capello as boss but Roy Hodgson knows plenty about setting a team up to be hard to beat. It might well result in a reversal of what are considered to be the traditional roles.

Recent history shows just one English victory over the Azzurri in their last nine encounters but nobody will be taking the outcome for granted. If nothing else, the Three Lions have shown resilience in their group games and represent a tricky test. Prandelli will need to plan well if he is to plot their downfall.

Whatever the outcome, he has put down some important foundations at this tournament for the way ahead. His side has tried to be enterprising and attacking and, at times, produced some very pleasing play. The end-product has not always been in evidence but, if they can find that, they are well on the way to rebuilding the confidence which took such a battering in South Africa

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