After seeing the Azzurri scrape through the group stages of Euro 2012, Goal.com Singapore's Jeremy Lim evaluates how the ace up their sleeves spurred on victory against the oddsCOMMENT
By Jeremy Lim | Goal.com Singapore
Italy have to stop perennially making a habit of leaving their fans hanging by their thumbs when supporting the team at major tournaments.
After a mini-scare of joining Euro 2012 contenders Russia out of the group stages, the Azzurri have scraped past the group stages on the last day battered and bruised, but still breathing. Over their three group games against Spain, Croatia and the Republic of Ireland, the squad has fully lived up to their nation’s reputation as being one to deliver when the chips are down.
While we thought a proactive seizing of the initiative could become the onus of the team during coach Cesare Prandelli’s reign, especially given the way they breezed through European qualification, it was not to be. Backs-to-the-wall looks to be the theme of the Azzurri this campaign, and it will have to do till the players at Prandelli’s disposal acquire more international experience to seize their situation.
So far however, it appears as if winging it could even be made to work. The Italian people are a paranoid bunch, not a surprising characteristic when considering their nation has been invaded on numerous occasions throughout its 150-year history. Fears of a Spanish conspiracy in forcing Italy out via a draw with Croatia exercised a grip on the local media in the lead-up to the game against Il Trap’s Boys in Green, only serving to rally the men to do what they could and trust to hope the reigning European champions would do their job.
If there is one thing this Italy squad can count on despite its relative technical difficulties, it is their ability to respond. Put them on the back of three consecutive friendly defeats, and they respond by nearly defeating Spain in their opening group game, by doing so suggesting the only thing defensive about their game was their mentality, in silencing their critics.
An inferiority complex seems to be the most valuable commodity for this Azzurri batch. Extend too much hope to the team, and everything comes crumbling down. Indeed, the appraisals brought by the very-credible result against Spain only harnessed a slumber in their next game against Croatia, when they should have won by a hatful but instead slumped to a depressing 1-1 draw.
The ensuing criticism and threat of elimination woke the squad up. Difficult times enforce change particularly for Italy, and Prandelli finally let go of his stopgap 3-5-2 formation to return to a more regular 4-3-1-2 against the Irish. Circumstances galvanised the way the team played, with Gianluigi Buffon, Federico Balzaretti and Leonardo Bonucci giving standout performances. Daniele De Rossi appeared to relish his switch back to midfield in particular, and Antonio Di Natale, only restored to the national set-up after a two-year hiatus, proved his worth despite being unlucky not to score.
Mario Balotelli’s wonderfully executed scissors-kick clinched the encounter for his side in fitting manner, the venom and pent-up frustration from unfair targeting by the media over his career visible for all to see. The first competitive international tournament in his career, Balotelli’s response has been to mature tenfold, working non-stop for his team without his well-documented meltdowns.
Super Mario’s story is synonymous with the Azzurri squad. Where others would falter under the pressure of having to deliver at the last gasp, Italy thrived. Prandelli still has plenty of work to do as a quarter-final encounter with either England or France beckons, but his men will already testify to understanding the importance of belief in every endeavour. Progress to the final four, and the sky will be the limit for football’s greatest underdog.