In the final of our three part series, SportsNewsIreland looks at Ireland European Championship group opponents. In the first feature, we took a look at the players to watch and hopes for Ireland’s opening opponent Croatia, then we looked at tournament favourites Spain and now in our final piece, we look at the hopes of Italy.
What a difference 8 months makes. Last November, Italian football was on a high, the team had just qualified, unbeaten, for the European Championship and were amongst the favourites to win a second European Championship.
Then came the group draw and with it a showdown with reigning World and European Champions Spain.
The bad news didn’t end there however as Italian football, finally recovering from the match fixing scandal that rocked European Football in the mid 2000’s and culminated in the demotion of a then Juventus, was rocked by yet another match fixing investigation.
Not even the success of a unbeaten Serie A winning campaign by the rejuvenated Juventus has been able to lift the cloud of the scandal and Italy’s hopes appear almost doomed without a ball being kicked in the tournament.
Manager Cesare Prandelli has already had to drop Zenit St Petersburg defender Domenico Criscito from the squad after he was quizzed by police as part of the match fixing investigation and the Italian has gone as far as admitting that he would have no problem with his side pulling out of the finals as the scandal engulfs the country’s domestic game.
Much of Italy’s success in Poland will depend on the focus of the squad and how the scandal affects their preparation and mentality. However, despite the negative headlines that have marred the build up, recent failures at Euro 2008 and the World Cup in 2010 mean that the Italian footballing public still expects this side to perform and failure to do so could have serious implications for the country and Prandelli.
Players to watch
During the qualifiers a new look Italian side emerged, a side that wasn’t afraid to attack and score goals. In fact the Italian’s scored 20 goals in qualifying and under Prandelli they have shed their tag as a defensive side, although they still managed to concede just two goals in 10 games.
Antonio Cassano was top scorer for the Italian’s during qualification with six goals however the AC Milan striker is just returning following a minor heart operation and despite his inclusion may not be fully match fit.
That leaves the mercurial Mario Balotelli as the main man up front and no matter what your opinions are of the Manchester City striker, he has the ability to be a match winner both for club and country. Sadly his temperament can often mean that he is more of a liability than an asset and a lot of Italy success will depend on the man management skills of Prandelli and how he deals with the former Inter Milan star.
Prandelli has also included Antonio di Natale in his squad and while the 34 year old in pushing on in years; he still managed to top the goal scoring charts in Italy and could be a valuable weapon from the bench.
Despite the focus on youth, Italy does still rely on the old guard with Juventus’s Andres Pirlo continuing to pull the strings in the middle of the field at the age of 33 while alongside him, the hard working Daniele di Rossi ensures that the focus on defence is not lost.
A three-time Serie A winner and European Cup winner with Juventus 54 year old Cesare Prandelli make his name as a manager with a five year spell at Fiorentina, taking an underachieving side to the Champions League. Prior to his stint in Tuscany Prandelli most notable achievement was helping Verona and Venezia to the top tier of Italian football.
He took over as manager of the Italian side after the disappointments of finishing bottom of their group at the World Cup in 2010 and the European Championship will be his first major International tournament as a player and manager.
Working from such low expectations after South Africa has helped Prandelli and the former Roma and Parma coach has used this to his advantage, ushering in a new brand of attacking football with a younger fresher squad. So far the results have been impressive as he managed to guide his side unbeaten through the qualifying stages.
However Prandelli now faces his biggest challenge ever since taking over the job with his side heading to Poland on the back of three straight defeats not to mention the match fixing controversy that has hampered his build up.
Much of Italy’s success will depend on how Prandelli manages to motivate his players and distract them from the negative headlines that will emerge throughout the match fixing investigation.
Italy will begin their Euro 2012 campaign against defending champions Spain and believe it or not this game will not be crucial to their success. Coming into the tournament on a low will not help them but a good solid performance, aided by a narrow defeat or a draw will given them confidence. That should help them for the more critical classes with recent bogey side Ireland and cross water rivals Croatia, where two wins would see them qualify.
Much like the Germans, the Italian’s find a different level when it comes to the knock out stages and after overcoming the tricky group stages they won’t fear anyone.
Record against Ireland:
Ireland has enjoyed a good record against Italy since the appointment of Giovanni Trapattoni and are unbeaten in their last three games against the Italians. The most famous of those games was the 2-0 win last June when Keith Andrews and Simon Cox scored to give Ireland a famous win in Belgium.
In competitive tournaments, the record stands at one win apiece, with Italy, thanks to a goal from Toto Squillaci, knocked Ireland out of Italia 90 before Ray Houghton got Ireland’s revenge in New York in 1994.
In total Ireland have played Italy 11 times and have lost 7, drawn 2 and won 2.
Squad: Buffon (Juventus), De Sanctis (Napoli), Sirigu (PSG); Abate (AC Milan), Balzaretti (Palermo), Barzagli (Juventus), Bonucci (Juventus), Chiellini (Juventus), Maggio (Napoli), Ogbonna (Torino); De Rossi (Roma), Diamanti (Bologna), Giaccherini (Juventus), Marchisio (Juventus), Montolivo (Fiorentina), Motta (PSG), Nocerino (AC Milan), Pirlo (Juventus); Balotelli (Man City), Borini (Roma), Cassano (Milan), Di Natale (Udinese), Giovinco (Parma).
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