It all comes down to this….Italy facing Germany Thursday with the winner advancing to Sunday’s 2012 Euro final. Two traditional heavyweights of the footballing world collide — one will fall, one will proudly stride forward to the finals.
Cesare Prandelli’s Italian squad have the winds of history at their backs, pushing them forward, as they have never been beaten by the Germans in either World Cup or Euro competition, winning five of eight encounters with three draws. As recently as July, 2006, the Italians crushed the German dream of winning the World Cup again on home soil by defeating Jurgen Klinsmann’s side in the semifinals before going on to defeat France on penalties in the final to claim their fourth World Cup.
But while Italy have had great success in the World Cup, they have only won one Euro championship in 1968, and did not even qualify for six of the fourteen Euro tournaments held since 1960. They have already surpassed their achievements in the 2008 Euros, when they were eliminated in the quarterfinal stage, winning only one of their four matches. The Italian side didn’t inspire confidence going into this year’s tournament, losing friendlies to Uruguay, the United States and Russia in their last three friendly matches.
But Italy have come this far in the 2012 Euros based on a second place finish in Group C by drawing 1-1 against Spain and Croatia, then defeating the Republic of Ireland 2-0. Sunday’s win on penalties against England, following 120 minutes of scoreless football, set the stage for Thursday’s semifinal after Germany had defeated Greece 4-1 last Friday.
Coming into the tournament, the Azurri not only faced the distraction of another Serie A match-fixing controversy but also a question of which tactical formation would best suit this edition of the Italian squad. Prandelli successfully employed a 4-3-1-2 formation against England, with bad boys Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano leading the charge, but Russia had were able to swamp that same formation June 1 in their 3-0 friendly victory over the Italians in Zurich . The Italians shouldn’t have needed extra time to dispatch the overwhelmed English, as they outshot them 36-9, with 20 of those shots on target compared to only 4 for Roy Hodgson’s side. The Italians also held 64% of possession, earned 7 corner kicks to England’s 3 and had 744 passes compared to only 269 for the English.
This is not your father’s Azzurri. Unbelievably, the Italians lead the tournament in shots taken, with 61, as Balotelli has launched 21 shots himself. Their midfield, led by ageless maestro Andrea Pirlo, have played well, as the Italians are tied for fourth in the tournament in percentage of possession, have attempted the second most amount of passes, and are also second in crosses attempted, although their attacking statistics are somewhat inflated by the England match. Still, bad luck against England (hitting the woodwork twice) and poor finishing (12 shots blocked) kept the match scoreless for 120 minutes, and Italy has been limited to four goals in four matches.
Despite the increased offense, the Italians have only allowed two goals thus far…..only surpassed by Spain’s stingy total of one goal permitted. Iconic Italian captain Gianluigi Buffon again provides excellence in goal, with 118 caps of international experience and the guile to give the Italians an edge in matches decided by penalties.
Italy go into the semifinal Thursday without the services of defender Christian Maggio, out for yellow card accumulation, and with fellow defenders Giorgio Chiellini (left hamstring) and Ignazio Abate (left leg muscle), along with midfielder Daniele De Rossi (sciatic nerve) nursing injuries. Said team physician Enrico Castellacci of the trio
All three are making progress and we will do everything possible, right down to the last minute, to make them available.
Despite the injuries to three key players, the certain absence of Maggio and the fatigue that can’t help but be a factor after the gruelling 120 minute England match Sunday, the Italian squad is full of confidence. Italian papers trumpet the winless record that Germany has against Italy in big tournaments, and even midfielder Riccardo Montolivo, who escaped being last Sunday’s goat through the heroics of Buffon and Alessandro Diamenti, said
We’re not at all apprehensive… we often beat them (Germany) when it matters most
Prandelli, the 54-year-old widower, is more pragmatic
Germany are the favourites, but nothing can get my players down. We’re good enough to beat them
The world will be watching Thursday to see if that is the case.
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