Italy have no chance of winning Euro 2012 unless ...

The Azzurri have progressed to the quarter-finals but coach Cesare Prandelli has some serious tactical and personnel issues to address if they are to go any further
 Mark Doyle
 Italy Expert Follow on


Andrea Pirlo offered a blunt assessment of his contribution to Italy’s 2-0 victory over Republic of Ireland on Monday night. “It was one of my worst performances,” the playmaker admitted. Such brutal honesty was in stark contrast to the misguided optimism exhibited by his team-mates after the game.

The players’ happiness is understandable, of course. They have after all come through what was, on the face of it, a tricky group. However, the manner of their progression was far from convincing - a late equaliser for Croatia against Spain in Gdansk would have sent the Azzurri out - and there needs to be a degree of realism about Italy’s hopes of going all the way at Euro 2012, particularly when there are so many issues that need addressing.

Firstly, there is the formation. The switch back to 4-3-1-2, Cesare Prandelli’s preferred system for the best part of two years, did not work. Italy lacked width until Federico Balzaretti began to push forward 15 minutes either side of the break - easily their best spell of the game - while Thiago Motta was predictably ineffective in the trequartista role. Indeed, so anonymous was he during the first half that it was easy to forget that he was actually playing. But then, it is difficult to be too critical of the player. The fault lies squarely with Prandelli.
MATCH FACTS: Italy 2-0 Ireland

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Motta is not a No.10 and he never will be. That was obvious during February’s friendly defeat by USA, so the decision to try Motta in the hole again was baffling.

Riccardo Montolivo is not the answer either so unless Prandelli is willing to put his faith in Alessandro Diamanti, he needs to ditch the trequartista role for the remainder of the tournament.

A return to 3-5-2 is now a must and with Giorgio Chiellini having suffered a suspected hamstring tear against the Irish, that would mean Daniele De Rossi returning to the heart of the defence.

The Roma star was a dynamic presence in the middle of the pitch against the combative Irish but he was just as impressive at the back against the Spanish and the Croats, both from a defensive and an offensive perspective, given his passing skills allow him to switch the play and release his wing-backs with great regularity.

Redeploying De Rossi would also create room for Antonio Nocerino, who has been criminally underused thus far. Even when he has been played in a midfield three, Motta has underperformed and Nocerino deserves a chance to prove his worth in the quarters.

While reverting to 3-5-2 would also bring with a temptation to recall Emanuele Giaccherini and Christian Maggio, Italy would be better served by retaining Balzaretti and Ignazio Abate out wide. Balzaretti, after an uncomfortable opening quarter in Poznan, warmed to the physical challenge put up to him by the Irish and, as already mentioned, proved a useful outlet down the left-hand side.

An in-form Maggio would be a better option than Abate on the right-hand side given what he offers going forward, but the Napoli man has looked out of sorts and defensively suspect in Poland to date, so his demotion to the bench on Monday night came as no surprise. Abate did not get forward as well as Balzaretti but he was very sound defensively.

Up front, Antonio Cassano’s inability to finish a game remains a major concern, particularly now that we are into the knockout stages, but the AC Milan man’s performance while he was on the field was one of the major plus points of another otherwise patchy team display against what was undeniably weak opposition.
Italy 2-0 Ireland

Mario Balotelli getting off the mark was also a major bonus. Antonio Di Natale was a livewire presence for 75 minutes and was quite unlucky that there always seemed to be an Irish defender on hand to block his goalbound efforts, but that Balotelli is up and running at Euro 2012 is hugely significant for both the player and his country.

The Manchester City striker greeted his acrobatic strike in characteristically surly fashion but it was heartening to see him smiling and joking with former club-mate Shay Given after the full-time whistle. It seemed as if a weight had been lifted off the forward’s shoulders and that can only be good for Balotelli and his team-mates, who seem to have grown weary of answering questions about the enigmatic striker.

Indeed, the pressure seemed to visibly lift off the squad as a whole at the full-time whistle, which was hardly surprising given they have seemingly had a new controversy to deal with every few days, on top of the usual tension which comes with competing in a major international tournament. Prandelli, certainly, could barely contain himself when he spoke to the press after the game and claimed that with "heart" and hard work, Italy can achieve anything.

That is not entirely true, though, because Italy's opponents on the night lacked neither and they have been sent packing on the back of three successive defeats. As Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni mused afterwards, “If certain strong sides are going home, this means that Italy have the quality to go right through to the end of the tournament.” That was a very significant ‘if’!

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