For the past three weeks, Italy have been living the dream. On Sunday night in Kiev, unfortunately, the dream turned into a nightmare.
Having been written off before the tournament began, each passing success over the past three weeks only intensified the feeling across the peninsula that the Azzurri were destined to win Euro 2012. The parallels with the World Cup triumph of six years ago were just too difficult to ignore.
In many ways, though, Italy’s performances in Poland and Ukraine have been even more remarkable and that is precisely why the inevitable sense of disappointment that will follow the 4-0 defeat by Spain should be superseded by enormous pride in what Cesare Prandelli’s men have achieved over the past three weeks.
Like the 2006 squad, their journey was overshadowed by a match-fixing scandal. However, unlike their predecessors, their preparations were also interrupted by an earthquake which forced the cancellation of their scheduled friendly against Luxembourg, meaning Italy arrived in Krakow having played just two games this year. That is no way to prepare for a major international tournament and an embarrassing first-round exit seemed a very real possibility after the humiliating 3-0 defeat by Russia in their final warm-up fixture.
Factor in first-choice left-back Domenico Criscito’s Scommessopoli-enforced withdrawal and Andrea Brazagli’s calf problem, and their opening-round draw with Spain bordered on miraculous. The Azzurri were ultimately denied the win their performance arguably deserved but their display was a true triumph over adversity. Their stirring campaign continued in the same vein.
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Not only did the Azzurri finish in the final two, but they did so with style - playing the kind of technical and expansive football rarely associated, rightly or wrongly - with the Nazionale. Even in the final itself they attacked Spain, something reflected in the stats.
There will be an inquest. There always is in Italy – and usually quite a lengthy one. Questions will be asked over why Cesare Prandelli did not even consider reverting to 3-5-2 for the final, given how well the formation worked in the two nations’ previous encounter in the group stages.
Indeed, it is worth remembering that the Azzurri looked vulnerable down both flanks in the games against England and Germany and it was not in the least bit surprising that Spain’s opening two goals stemmed from players clad in red advancing into space in behind Italy’s full-backs.
However, nothing went right for the Azzurri on the night. They did not take their chances when they came their way and both Giorgio Chiellini and Thiago Motta were forced off through injury, with the latter’s exit coming just moments after he had entered the fray as the Nazionale’s third and final substitute. This left Italy to play the final half-hour with 10 men ... game over.
The final result was harsh on an already exhausted Italy side up against one of the finest international teams in history and playing their third game in seven days; by the end, what had been a heavyweight contest, bore more resemblance to The Black Knight's futile fight with King Arthur in 'The Holy Grail'!
But the Azzurri should not dwell on the manner of their defeat. They should instead focus on the fact that they have not only restored pride to a nation left feeling bitterly disillusioned with the game after yet another domestic match-fixing scandal but also restored their reputation as one of international football’s traditional superpowers.
Italy have come a long way over the past two years and they’ve travelled a rocky road. However, having been left face down in the gutter after the 2010 World Cup, they’re now staring at the stars once more and Prandelli and his troops deserve our respect and admiration for that very reason.