Zola: Italy are Euro 2012 dark horses

The former Azzurri forward and West Ham manager is sticking to his pre-tournament prediction that his country can be the surprise package in Poland and Ukraine this summer
Gianfranco Zola believes Italy have what it takes to challenge the top teams at Euro 2012, tipping them as "dark horses" to overcome England in the quarter-finals and go on to win the tournament.

The Azzurri finished second in Group C, having taken five points off of Spain, Croatia and the Republic of Ireland to qualify for the knockout stages of the competition and set up a last eight clash with the Three Lions on Sunday.

Zola, who scored the winner for Italy in a 1998 World Cup qualifier against England 15 years ago, has claimed that while Cesare Prandelli's team have problems seeing games out and tucking chances away, they should not be underestimated.

"If Italy play as their opening three matches, England or France make no difference: the opponents will have more problems," Zola told La Gazzetta dello Sport.

"Apart from a drop in the final stages because of fatigue, I saw good ball movement and fluidity in the final third.

"Admittedly we are struggling to find the goal, but I had said before Euro 2012 that Italy are dark horses."

Zola then went on to praise coach Prandelli for his attempt to modernise Italy's style of play, adding that his decision to field midfielder Daniele De Rossi as an extra defender was an inspired choice.

"It is no surprise that Hodgson knows our football," Zola continued. "This reminds me of Germany's World Cup team in South Africa: quite young, proactive and full of ideas.

"Prandelli has had the courage to not play the 'Italian' way, having invested in quality and focused on ball possession and that coupled with our defence gives us three or four major tactical advantages."

"I liked De Rossi between the two centre-backs. I liked how he launched play from deep. Daniele helps the team cover more distance.

"I believe that Prandelli against England will play three at the back, but [whatever happens], I trust him."

Zola has had experience of playing against Roy Hodgson's teams in the past for Parma, Chelsea and Italy and he is highly respectful of the current England manager's philosophy, which he feels is based on the ideals of the Italian game.

"I saw [Hodgson] play a 4-4-2 with high pressing, careful distances and spaces between departments, even if people like Ashley Young, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney can initiate a change of pace at any time.

"Italian coaches in England have helped the English to understand that to win, you must also defend well.

"You see a lot of Hodgson's influence [in his teams]. When I played against Switzerland and Inter, [I saw] that wherever he coached, his philosophy was organisation, order and self-denial: a 'sacchiano' in the sense of the word."

Zola also offered some words of encouragement to Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli, who scored his first goal of the tournament against the Republic of Ireland.

"Today Balotelli is what he is," Zola opined. "His goals are like the one he scored against Ireland; they come when you least expect it.

"But I trained the Under 21s and I can confirm that we have not yet seen the best of Mario. He has made strides in his presence on the pitch and is playing for the team more, but he must continue to improve.

"That is, in terms of finding more determination, better management of himself on the field and increasing his tactical awareness."