Game in a sentence
Despite making a meal of it at times, a much-changed Italy finished off pointless Ireland to make it to the Euro 2012 quarterfinals.
- Despite calls for wholesale changes in Giovanni Trapattoni’s side, he put out the same team that lost 3-1 to Croatia and 4-0 to Spain. So a 4-4-2 with Doyle and Keane up front. More power to him I suppose, and a nice gesture of faith from what could be an outgoing manager. Damien Duff got the captain’s armband (if you care about that sort of thing), because it’s his 100th cap.
- Italy however were a drastically different team than their previous iterations. Cesare Prandelli switched from his exciting if-not-world-beating 3-5-2 to a 4-1-2-1-2, opting for a midfield diamond driven by Andrea Pirlo in front of a four man defense, with Daniele De Rossi on the left hand side and Thiago Motta behind Cassano and Di Natale. Out of the side: Maggio and Giacherrini (who played out wide in the old midfield 5) Mario Balotelli and Leonardo Bonucci.
- Prandelli’s players seemed to struggle a bit in transitioning to the new formation. The fullbacks—Federico Balzaretti on the left and Ignazio Abate on the right—were productive in attack and were the sole providers for a while of any Italian width. They often cut in the middle of the Irish box however and weren’t always disciplined in tracking back. This left Italy exposed in the first twenty minutes of the match, and Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff were often able to run into space on the counter. A better team would have punished Italy on more than one occasions.
- Also unable to get in his rhythm in the early stages was Pirlo, whose searching passes often failed to link up with Cassano and Di Natale. His influence grew as the game progressed, but even though he was below his best form, he was still man of the match and was the driving force of the Italian midfield.
- Still, these were growing pains and Italy soon grew more confident and comfortable, forcing Ireland to make a few errors and concede corners. Prandelli’s shuffle would pay off as some lax marking on Cassano in the 35th minute allowed him to head past Shay Given. The Aston Villa keeper perhaps should have done a bit better parrying the shot, but if he had it would have been a remarkable save.
- It looked just after the restart that Italy would punish Ireland, particularly on the wings as both Irish fullbacks—John O’Shea in particular—looked vulnerable. Still, for all their work, Ireland held firm. Prandelli seemed content to hold on to the single goal lead when he subbed off Antonio Cassano for Alessandro Diamanti in the 63rd minute.
- That seemed to be a dangerous strategy. As the second half progressed, Italy failed to take the initiative and increasingly conceded free kicks (drawn by the particularly active Damien Duff, who led both sides in fouls received) to Ireland in and around their half, even though the Italians were dominant in every category imaginable.
- Italy’s nerves calmed somewhat at the dying stages when Mario Balotelli came on for Di Natale in the 75th minute, and the Manchester City player immediately won a free kick outside the Irish area. Italy suddenly looked threatening again, and it was indeed Balotelli who scored a wonderful goal with his back toward the net on a volley in the 90th minute to give them a 2-0 lead.
- MATHS: It was a nervy finish because a single Croatian goal against Spain, who were leading 1-0, would have put Italy out. Had they scored a third goal, apparently Italy would have been safe. It ended at 2-0, there was a small period of waiting, and Italy were through as runner ups in Group C.
- Some food for thought for Prandelli in the quarterfinals. The team took a lot of time adjusting to the diamond midfield and four at the back; while they drew twice, the team looked far more coherent in a 3-5-2. Against a better team than Ireland, their play today would have been costly. That’s football, I’m told.
1. Andrea Pirlo
2. Mario Balotelli
3. Antonio Cassano