By Vittorio Campanile
After two consecutive draws, Italy are just one step away from being eliminated from the European Championship. It's the same story over and over again: a lively and beautiful first half, followed by a disappointing 45 minutes after the interval.
It happened against Spain, when Antonio Di Natale's goal was Italy's only positive, and history repeated itself versus Croatia, when the decline was possibly even more evident. Italy put in a strong performance before the break and attack their opponents, but then sit back and defend after the interval.
And it seems to be the result of a precarious physical condition. Antonio Cassano was a starter in both games, and has shown that he is not in the right condition to play a full game yet.
In his current shape, the AC Milan forward would be better utilised as a substitute, perhaps to try and turn things around in the final 20 minutes. Whenever he plays from the start, Italy pretty much find themselves playing with 10 men from the 30th minute onwards.
The problem is that the Azzurri's midfield lack the dynamism and energy to cope with this situation. Pirlo, the brain of the team, no longer has the strength to do all the running, and needs two hard-working players around him to pick up the slack.
However, Thiago Motta, just like against Spain, fell apart after a positive start to the game. He was followed by Claudio Marchisio, who initially was the most lively of the three, but couldn't keep the midfield going all by himself. Italy's physical decline was clear for all to see, and rather worrying for the Azzurri.
"Just like the match with Spain, Italy fell apart after a positive start ... their physical decline was clear"
In the first half, the team was pressing very high up the pitch, with the midfielders playing close to the attacking partnership of Mario Balotelli and Cassano.
Lots of positional changes made life difficult for Croatia's defence. But in the second half, this ceased to be the case. The Italian back-line was no longer untroubled and was pushed further back towards goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
The midfield was unable to stay compact and was stretched more and more. The Croatians got all the time and space they needed in midfield and Italy were unable to initiate attacks of their own.
Balotelli was the only player who kept on running up front, and Cassano hardly got involved, struggling to keep up with the rest of the team.
And that's how Croatia, who didn't have a single clear chance in the opening 45 minutes, became ever more dangerous.
The question tha has to be raised now is: How did Italy arrive at the European Championship in a condition like this?
Cassano is the only one who can justify his relatively poor shape following his lengthy absence. However, one wonders why the rest of the team can't seem to keep up physically.
Of course, the Serie A season has played a big role in the team's condition. The Italian league might no longer be the most beautiful competition, but it's without a doubt been an exhausting league campaign. It's no surprise that nobody who plies their trade in Italy has excelled this tournament thus far.
But it remains a strange sight to see the Azzurri collapse like this after the half-time break.
The fact that Cesare Prandelli's preferred options in midfield are rather static does not aid the situation, but one cannot help but question the Azzurri's preparation for Euro 2012.
Perhaps the decision was made not to do too much work in training with an eye on staying fresh in the advanced stages of the competition.
The problem, though, is that Italy are now at serious risk of being knocked out. It all comes down to Spain's match versus Croatia, and the Azzurri have to beat Republic of Ireland on Monday. However, they will have to put in a better second-half display than those seen against Spain and Croatia if they are to succeed.
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