“Suffering, joy, everything!” Much like for Cesare Prandelli, the ninety-minutes in Poznan provided a variety of emotions for supporters as progression to the quarter-finals hung in the balance. Pre-match tension took some time to disappear, with Antonio Cassano easing nerves just after the half-hour mark. Anxiety was then replaced with relief once Mario Balotelli sealed the win in injury time, only to be replaced with an agonising wait for the conclusion of events in Gdansk to confirm safe passage. Italy’s win over Ireland, coupled with the Spanish victory against Croatia ensured the Azzurri’s Euro 2012 journey continues into the knock-out stages of the tournament.
Having reverted back to the previously favoured 4-3-1-2 formation, several changes were also made to the starting line-up with Federico Balzaretti and Ignazio Abate most notably impressive on their respective flanks. With all sorts of permutations in Group C, the main focus was on gaining all three points against an Ireland side looking to avoid exiting the competition with three defeats. Despite a brave performance from Giovanni Trapattoni’s men, it was Italy who prevailed, and on the back of consecutive draws could finally celebrate a win. After all the ‘biscotto’ controversy which dominated headlines ahead of the game, conspiracy theorists and cynics were left to discuss how it never even came close to fruition.
Despite sealing victory, there are still several areas of concern that Prandelli may look to address ahead of the next game on Sunday. Having dominated periods of play during the game, the Azzurri still struggled to make their possession and chances count, giving way for a period of nervy almost backs-against-the-wall defending to hold on to their lead.
Furthermore, they seemed to fade again as the game progressed, countered on this occasion with the introduction of the energetic duo of Alessandro Diamanti and Mario Balotelli. While Andrea Pirlo was perhaps not at his best, more crucial will be the news regarding Giorgio Chiellini’s injury. The Juventus stopper pulled up in the second half, with Italy chief doctor Enrico Castellacci stating a muscular problem in the left thigh, and admitted ‘we are a little worried’ as to whether he will feature on Sunday and perhaps beyond. There are still doubts as to which is the preferred system, but depending on injury news, the 4-3-1-2 may be forced on Prandelli. While the full-backs excelled, the switch in system had a detrimental effect on others in the midfield, who struggled with their change in position.
Overall, a point apiece with reigning European and World champions Spain, a similar result against the impressive Croatia, and a hard-fought victory over a rugged Irish side has seen Italy reach the quarter-finals. Post-match, both coach and players alike were keen to stress the tournament now starts again, with England, France or Ukraine lying in wait. With Cassano and Balotelli registering their first goals of the competition, one would hope it will boost their confidence going into Sunday. Credit must also go to Leonardo Bonucci, who sensibly silenced ‘Super Mario’ who appeared ready to broadcast a message to the media following his goal. ‘He said something in English, so I’ve no idea what it was! Unfortunately, Mario is very instinctive and that is also his strength. Without that personality he wouldn’t have scored such a great goal’. With his intervention, attention will remain on Balotelli’s contribution coming off the bench, whether he should start there again in the next match is up for debate.
The Azzurri showed signs of resolve and growth as the group games progressed, now they must show they have the spirit, quality and determination to extend their adventure. With a little luck on the injury front and a few tweaks from Prandelli, it is still wildly unpredictable as to what they can achieve, using a well-known football maxim, it will very much be a case of taking it one game at a time.
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