The tale of Italy at Euro 2012 has been one of questionable tactics, close calls and near misses. By now, the famous (or infamous) 3-5-2 has been discussed ad nauseam. What worked effectively enough against World Champion Spain was also employed against Croatia on Thursday. In each instance, what seemed to work well in the first half, DeRossi playing a competent enough CB while providing service to the midfield, Andrea Pirlo giving a master class in midfield dynamics (not to mention free kicks) and Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli doing their best to avoid the red and find the net, faltered in the second 45, due primarily to tactical changes by the opponents and an increasingly fatigued midfield (Sound familiar, Roma fans?).
It should come as no surprise then, given the use of ad hoc tactics and half-to-half inconsistencies, that Italy might find themselves on the outside looking in on the quarterfinals. The scenario is relatively simple; Italy need to defeat Ireland and hope for a decisive result in the Croatia-Spain match to advance to the quarterfinals. However, in the event of a draw between Spain and Croatia, the formula is a bit more convoluted; a 0-0 draw between those two nations would see Spain and Italy advance, a 1-1 draw brings goal differential into the equation, while a 2-2 draw would see Spain and Croatia advance and the Italians starting their respective summer holiday plans.
Italy, however, have but one task at hand; defeat The Republic of Ireland. How does Cesare Prandelli intend to defeat the Irish?
Well he's going to need some help from Croatia and Spain. Pandelli, for his part, is not worried about any potential collusion between the Spanish and the Croatians:
You already know what I think about the other game. It's inconceivable that Spain, who based their image on entertainment, fair play and winning with spectacle can focus on playing for a draw. I say we have to think only of our own match and we have what it takes to win
That does not mean, however, that he is resting on his laurels. Prandelli, behind supposedly closed doors, has been experimenting with the more familiar 4-3-1-2, inserting Alessandro Diamanti into the formation.
I don't make choices just for no reason when I wake up in the morning. When you choose certain players, you have to take into account the system. It must always be elastic, balanced and reasoned. That means picking the players who suit that system. Every time I make a choice, it is carefully pondered.
Though with Mario Balotelli picking up a slight knee injury, Prandelli will have to ponder who will take his place next to Cassano; Antonio DiNatale is the odds-on favorite to start up front. In defense, Andrea Barzagli is fit and should be available, particularly if Prandelli resurrects the 4-man defense, which could see a backline of Federico Balzaretti, Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini, and Ignazio Abate. This would push Daniele De Rossi back into his more familiar midfield role, joining Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio, though who will slot in a trequartista remains in question, with Diamanti and Riccardo Montolivo among the candidates.
If some of this sounds familiar, it should. The Azzuri were in the same position two years ago in South Africa, drawing their first two matches and needing a win to advance. Unfortunately, Slovakia didn't hold up their end of the bargain, defeating Italy 3-2. At the very least, should Italy win and not advance, they'll avoid the dubious honor of finishing last in their group.
Ireland, fresh off a ten year major-tournament drought, thanks in part to the hands of Thierry Henry, feature an aging lineup and have conceded seven goals through their first two matches. Ireland is playing for pride at this point, so while they might not present a challenge to Italy, don't expect them to simply roll over.
Italy have gone winless in their last 6 matches in major tournaments, a spell which must end if they have hopes of capturing European glory.
Ireland has only defeated Italy twice in eleven matchups, one of which occurred on June 18, 1994 at the World Cup.