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Before the start of the European Championships this summer, many in Italy were feeling pessemistic about the Azzurri’s chances, not only with regards to the knockout stages, but towards getting out of the group itself, needing to navigate through the likes of a seemingly invincible Spain, a Croatia team that has always given Italy fits, and an Ireland side managed by the wily Giovanni Trappatoni. Between the difficult group, the exploding match-fixing scandal at home, and the departure of Cesare Prandelli’s preferred starting left-back due to said match-fixing scandal, things looked bleak.

However, whenever Italy has faced scandals back home on the eve of tournaments, they somehow always rise to the occasion and perform well beyond anyone’s expectations (see the 1982 and 2006 World Cups). It was no different for this Italy team, as they swept their way to the final by way of some excellent, attacking football, particularly against England (despite needing to go to penalties) and Germany in the knockout stages. Italy conceded only two goals before the final versus Spain, both of which came in the first two group stage matches.

Much of the Azzurri’s success in this tournament can be laid at the imperious feet of Andrea Pirlo, who continued his wonderful form with Juventus into the summer. Most of Italy’s chances on goal came via Pirlo, and Prandelli’s “rotating diamond” gave him the ability to move away from his markers. As far as the rest of the midfield went, Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio were both highly impressive with their work rate and defensive abilities. After the semifinal win over Germany, Marchisio remarked that he was so tired he “could barely see anymore.” Thiago Motta also did well in his role of playing higher up, breaking up attacks, and rotating the ball quite well; unfortunately, he was hampered by injury for a significant chunk of the tournament. His deputy, Riccardo Montolivo, was highly effective in Motta’s role in their semifinal triumph. The one criticism one could put on the midfield was that they did not take their chances in front of goal, as a solitary goal came from a midfielder coming in the form of an Andrea Pirlo free kick.

The forwards for the most part blew hot and cold, missing several gilded chances throughout their run. The Azzurri should have beaten England by at least two or three goals, however, their profligacy in front of the net forced the tie to go into penalties; if they did better with their chances in the second half against Germany, a nervy 2-1 finish could have easily been a comfortable 4-1 demolition. A positive from the forwards came from the partnership of Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli, who did well against Spain in their opening match and proved to be devastating against Germany. Balotelli kept his word before the tournament and was able to keep a cool head for the most part as well as scoring three goals, most notably his excellent brace in the semifinal in Warsaw.

Up until the final the defense was for the most part rock solid with both a three and four man defense. Gig Buffon was his usual excellent self, and the Juventus trio of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli, and Giorgio Chiellini all continued their form with Juventus into the tournament. Bonucci especially picked his game up considerably and continues to grow into a top defender. Federico Balzaretti also impressed, particularly against Germany where he played as a right-back, a position he hadn’t played in years, although one would never have noticed it.

Italy’s downfall eventually came from a Spain side determined to make history as well as general tiredness. To be fair to the Azzurri, they looked exhausted as they chased Spain’s collective shadows, and the 4-0 scoreline is harsh on Italy’s performance not only in the final, but throughout the tournament. It certainly didn’t help much that Italy were reduced to ten men for the final half-hour as Thiago Motta was forced off through injury and Prandelli used all of his substitutes.

In a strange way, although the defeat certainly hurt, there was no shame in it. Nobody expected Italy to get as far as they did, and that should be credited to them. There is a strange beauty in the entire story; an unexpected run to the finals of a tournament noone thought you had a shot in, only to be exhausted by the end and losing as a result. It reminds me in some ways of Schalke’s run to the Champions League semifinals a couple seasons ago. Not much was expected of them in the knockout stages, but they progressed playing some scintillating football, much like the Azzurri did this past month. Like Schalke, Italy were crushed by superior opposition, but regardless of the final result, the football played and the expectations defied  still makes it a great story, and it is something to build upon as well for the World Cup in two years time.

Another positive to come out of this is that for many of these players, it is the first major final they have played in. Players like Bonucci, Marchisio, and Balotelli will hopefully learn from this loss and grow as footballers as a result. The final in Kiev was not the destination, but the starting point of a new era for the Azzurri.

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