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The Juventus midfielder has been in impressive form for his side but the onus must be on his team-mates to step up if Cesare Prandelli's men are to make waves in the competition

COMMENT
By Alex Mott | Italy Expert

There's a case to be argued that Andrea Pirlo was the best midfielder in Europe last season. His was the signing that virtually won Juventus their first title since the Calciopoli scandal hit in 2006; a Juventus side that went the whole campaign unbeaten. He was the metronome that made the Old Lady tick.

Pirlo's calm and patience on the ball were unrivalled on the continent, and going into Euro 2012, he was in the form of his life.

At 33, the Lombardy-born playmaker had no right to play a campaign like 2011-12. He was released by AC Milan for being past his best, but under Antonio Conte's leadership, he has become the lynchpin of the best midfield on the peninsula.

MIDFIELD MAESTRO

PIRLO'S STATS VS SPAIN
PASSES MADE
LONG PASSES
SHORT PASSES
PASSING ACCURACY
GOALS
ASSISTS

39
9
30
82.1%
0
1
PIRLO'S STATS VS CROATIA
PASSES MADE
LONG PASSES
SHORT PASSES
PASSING ACCURACY
GOALS
ASSISTS

67
11
56
82.1%
1
0
For more Euro 2012 stats check out our match centre
That looked to have stood Italy in good stead going into the tournament in Poland and Ukraine. Like at Juve, coach Cesare Prandelli would make him the focal-point of the side; a reference for all others. And with team-mate Claudio Marchisio, alongside Thiago Motta in midfield, it seemed certain that the Azzurri would stroll through the group stage unfazed.

After the opening group match against Spain, that progression looked assured. A hard-fought 1-1 draw with the reigning champions showed all that was best of La Nazionale: defensive confidence, marauding wing-backs and in Antonio Di Natale, a striker capable of important goals. But most of all, though, it was Pirlo's performance up against Xavi and Iniesta that impressed most.

"The player who has made the difference is Pirlo," Fabio Capello told Uefa.com. "Everytime he starts a move, it is a move that's going to be dangerous to the opposition."

Corriere dello Sport claimed it was a "Beautiful Italy" in the next morning's paper. But the Milan daily weren't so complimentary four days later: "Draw & Trouble" was its ominous headline after Prandelli's side had inexplicably garnered only a point against Croatia in their second group game.

Italy struggled, in the second half, to exert any sort of pressure in the Balkan side's midfield, and were punished late on through a Mario Mandzukic goal. Pirlo was kept quiet throughout the second 45, and, as a result, Italy as a team looked disjointed.

It has become a Catch 22, but the Azzurri have become too reliant on their best player. Like Portugal and Ronaldo, when Pirlo doesn't perform, neither do the Italians.

As the only creative threat in the middle of the park, Pirlo was a target for Slaven Bilic's side. He was dealt with manfully by Ognjen Vukojevic, and struggled to impose himself on the game.

The only option for Prandelli, then, is to add another creator in the middle of the park. Thiago Motta, as good as he is, is no trequartista. He adds no enterprise and against Republic of Ireland, it really was a waste of a position. The sensible alternative is to include Antonio Nocerino into the starting XI. His box-to-box running is exactly the sort of industry Italy need, and up against the likes of Keith Andrews and Paul Green, he will be well-suited.

If Italy are to progress further in this tournament, other players need to step up to the plate, and not let a 33-year-old deep-lying midfielder carry the weight of a nation on his shoulders.

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