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Euro 2012: Italy v Croatia

Will Di Natale take flight against Croatia this evening?
Will Di Natale take flight against Croatia this evening?

The boys in blue take on their Adriatic neighbors, Croatia, in match day seven's opening game. Croatia, having defeated Ireland, sit on top of group C at 3 points, with Italy and Spain tied for second (1 point each), following Sunday's 1-1 draw.

The match against Spain was characterized by two managers deploying two unique formations, based purely on need. Spain trotted out a virtual 4-6-0, leaving Cesc Fabregas as a "false nine", presumably due to Vicente del Bosque's lack of faith in any of La Roja's more traditional strikers.

Meanwhile, Cesare Prandelli's squad ran out a 3-5-2 on Sunday, using Daniele De Rossi as CB/Sweeper, covering for the injured Andrea Barzagli and the dismissed Domenico Criscito. It's hard to quibble with that decision, as they drew Spain 1-1, which, given their recent run of form leading up to Euro 2012, was certainly a positive result.

So how will the Azzuri take shape for this match?

We dont know and neither does Prandelli, at least not yet. Though, early signs seem to indicate that the same starting XI, in shape and form, will be utilized against Croatia.

One can argue that the 3-5-2, at least with De Rossi in the backline, was successful because Spain, for much of the match, did not deploy a true striker. This gave De Rossi the freedom and time to link play to the midfield, which, in turn, afforded Andrea Pirlo the opportunity to drift a little further up the pitch to orchestrate Italy's offense. However, once Spain introduce a striker, De Rossi no longer had that luxury; he was fixated on stopping the striker and the linking play all but disappeared, putting more of an onus on Pirlo and the rest of the midfield, leaving Italy gassed towards the end of the match. Fortunately for Italy, the striker that wrought this havoc was the sports psychology-case study known as Fernando Torres, so no true harm was done.

Croatia, based on their formation against Ireland, will deploy Mario Mandzukic and Nikica Jevalic up top. This duo, responsible for all three of Croatia's goals against Ireland, paired with the midfield service of Luka Modric, represents a formidable attack that might push the back three of Italy's defense to the brink.

De Rossi did an admirable job and was fantastic on the ball, but the fact that he is a midfielder, the worlds greatest defensive one at that, was apparent when he had to play the role of CB attempting to contain a true striker. It is unlikely that Croatia or The Republic of Ireland will run out a 4-6-0, so how will Prandelli address his defense going forward? Will he insert Angelo Ogbonna into the back line and move De Rossi back to his more familiar and effective midfield role?

Similarly, questions remain in attack. The tandem of Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli is as potent as it is combustible. Against Spain, Cassano certainly had his chances and a definite impact on the run of play, but it was Antonio Di Natale who ( to borrow a hockey phrase) put the biscuit in the basket, after replacing Balotelli. There are some indications that Prandelli will opt for the more experienced Toto Di Natale ahead of Balotelli this time around:

"Mario is 21 and he is in the process of maturing..."All I ask him is to play a simple game without thinking of trying to resolve a game alone. He needs to think of giving depth to our game."

In this game of chess, the next move is Prandelli's. To call three points in this match crucial would be an understatement. Croatia sit atop the group and Spain will surely defeat Ireland, meaning a draw for Italy is useless and a defeat catastrophic.

Official Lineups to follow, as Prandelli might wait until the proverbial 11th hour to make his move. For now, enjoy these:

*Update, no changes have been made to the starting XI, so the projected are now official*

Projected Lineups

Italy (3-5-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Giorgio Chiellini, Daniel de Rossi, Leonardo Bonucci; Federico Balzaretti, Thiago Motta, Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Christian Maggio; Mario Balotelli, Antonio Cassano.

Croatia (4-4-2): Stipe Pletikosa; Ivan Strinic, Gordon Schildenfeld, Vedran Corluka, Darijo Srna; Ivan Perisic, Luka Modric, Ognjen Vukojevic, Ivan Rakitic; Mario Mandzukic.