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Has there ever been a tournament as enthralling as this one, with incident and excitement on a daily basis and the script constantly changing as the action moves from one game to the next? The group involving Portugal, Holland and Germany was the officially designated Group of Death, and pretty tense it was, too. Yet it was blown away on Monday night by events in Group C, which became the group of sudden death.
This morning’s final table all looks quite calm and organised, with Spain at the top and Italy going through in second place, but as the clocks ticked down in Gdansk and Poznan it was nothing like that, nothing like it at all. Spain, to reiterate, were a late Iker Casillas save away from going out. The holders of the title and favourites to retain it would most likely have ended up with just four points had Ivan Rakitic’s header gone in, as a 1-0 win would have seen Croatia top the group with seven points, leaving Italy to squeeze past Spain with five.
That scenario was perfectly feasible, yet thanks to Jesus Navas’s goal a few minutes from the end and a strong penalty claim being turned down flat, it was Croatia who ended up going out, though not before making Italy sweat for the few extra seconds it took for the game in Gdansk to finish after the action in Poznan had ended. Italy knew they had five points by that stage, courtesy of a fairly routine win over Ireland, but a late Croatia equaliser would have meant elimination, since all the top three teams would then have drawn 1-1 with each other but Italy had not scored as many goals against Ireland. Complicated? Just a bit.
There was a pause on the final whistle in Poznan as Italy waited to see if Croatia would let them through or send them home, and you could not ask for closer results or more dramatic television pictures than that.
So how good are Italy? Everyone knows how good Spain are, although they have looked a little less unplayable than usual in this tournament, but Italy have kept a low profile and crept into the last eight with little fanfare. “Italia black horse”, a taxi driver told me in Poznan, which since he wasn’t driving a Ferrari I took to mean Cesare Prandelli’s team have started slowly but are capable of coming up on the rails.
It shows the high standards being set in this tournament when Italy can be regarded as dark horses, but then teams of the quality of Holland, Russia and Croatia are already out. Should England somehow win Group D tonight and meet Italy in the last eight they will possibly be grateful to have avoided Croatia, since Slaven Bilic’s feisty over-achievers are exactly the sort of mid-ranking side to raise their game and cause England their usual quarter-final problems.
Italy have a bigger reputation and a far more illustrious history, though in fact they are currently ranked at only 12th in the world rankings – England are No6, if you set any store by these things, Croatia No8 – and as Prandelli was honest enough to admit this week, need to start scoring some goals and winning some games to restore their standing in European football.
They made a start with their win over Ireland, though apart from the excellence of Mario Balotelli’s finish and the liveliness of Antonio Cassano in grabbing the first goal, it was not a particularly convincing attacking performance. Not when you consider that the coach had asked for as many goals as possible as insurance against the other result going against them.
Shay Given did not have one of his better nights, but he was hardly kept busy between the first goal and the second. For a large part of the game there was only one goal in it, and although it might border on the sacrilegious to say it, Italy’s reliance on Andrea Pirlo to come up with ideas was rendering them somewhat predictable.
Pirlo has been a great player and maybe still is, but he can only supply the killer pass to split a defence if the forwards make the right runs, and Italy are no longer as slick in that department as they have been over the years.
Ireland did not have too much trouble closing off the supply to Cassano and Antonio Di Natale, which was why they must have been kicking themselves for conceding such a soft goal at a set piece. Until Balotelli came on, at least, Italy were not pulling the Irish defence all over the place, and the same was true against Croatia in the previous game. There Italy had taken the lead with a Pirlo free kick, but had been unable to push on and left themselves vulnerable to Mario Mandzukic’s second-half equaliser.
It was not quite true, as Prandelli later claimed, that Croatia had just the one chance and scored from it. There were one or two more opportunities over the course of the game and, according to Bilic at least, Croatia should have had a penalty. What was true was that Italy were sluggish in front of goal when they had the upper hand – both Pirlo and Prandelli moaned about an inability to kill off the game – and sluggish generally in the second half. “I don’t think we lack character,” Prandelli said. “But our energy levels seem to drop after an hour or so.”
Does that sound like a dark horse to you? Italy have looked better in tournaments, but time will tell. At least they are improving game by game and starting to score goals again, which is all anyone can ask of a team in the last eight of a tournament. England are in the same boat, and maybe they are the real dark horses, if you can have horses in boats.
There is no point projecting too far ahead until England have played their final game and found out whether they can go further or not, but now Croatia are out a quarter-final against Italy would be a less daunting proposition than one against Spain.
England would need to beware of Mario Balotelli, however. If there is to be an Anglo-Italian quarter-final, stand by for the Manchester City maverick looming as large for Italy as Cristiano Ronaldo did for Portgual at Gelsenkirchen in 2006.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
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