It’s not the first time Cesare Prandelli has found himself in this position.
Two years ago, Italy headed into their final group game of Euro 2012 needing to beat Republic of Ireland to progress to the knockout stages. On that occasion, a 2-0 win in Poznan proved to be enough, and the Azzurri would go on to secure a spot in the final before losing to the all-conquering Spain.
This time, there’s an even greater sense of urgency about the outcome of Tuesday’s make-or-break clash against Uruguay in Natal. Last week’s embarrassment against Costa Rica in Recife means there’s still work to do, and Prandelli is under the spotlight once more.
There can be no doubting that Italy have progressed since the ex-Fiorentina coach relieved Marcello Lippi as head coach following the abysmal display at the last World Cup in South Africa. But defeat to Oscar Tabarez’s team will land them right back where they started when Prandelli first swapped his purple bomber jacket for a national team blazer.
Whereas he seemed to have a clear plan what he wanted to do with his squad heading into Euro 2012, this summer he has appeared more uncertain. He has changed shape regularly in the run-up to the World Cup and even when going with the same structure he has regularly changed the emphasis.
Switches in formation are normal, especially in Italy, where an unchanged team can sometimes be viewed as the move of a chancer. But the difference for the Azzurri at the moment is that there are few obvious candidates to lead the line either alongside or in place of Mario Balotelli, the best balance in midfield is not immediately obvious, and there are question marks regarding which shape the back line should take.
Antonio Candreva adds quality width to the right, but there is a lack of balance due to the lack of a left-sided player of similar ability. In the centre of midfield, he has tried Marco Verratti and Thiago Motta as partners to Andrea Pirlo ahead of Daniele De Rossi to varying degrees of success. The Roma man’s probable absence against Uruguay will only thicken the plot further.
And the most worrying thing is that Prandelli doesn’t seem to know how best to deal with the current situation. At half-time against Costa Rica, he brought on Antonio Cassano for Motta to change the approach somewhat, but the pace of the game was completely unaltered and, if anything, the Ticos had even greater success as a result. Later substitutions did nothing to improve the situation either.
The 56-year-old has a great record as national coach, is contracted until 2016 and is the most well-equipped coach for the Azzurri at this moment in time, but he has a serious quandary to solve.
Pound for pound, the Italians have a squad to make them dream of big things at this tournament, but they sit 90 minutes away from a possible exit. And with Luis Suarez back fit and firing, defeat is far from out of the question.
The Costa Rica loss was a nadir. But Prandelli needs to ensure that his side respond quickly if he is not to be remembered as a coach who took two steps forward only to then take a giant leap back.
Tuesday will be the acid test.