It’s the same old Italy all over again. As the Azzurri took on a physical Croatia in Poznan Thursday evening, we saw what, throughout the years, has now become a very common mantra among Italian national teams: that of wasted opportunity & untapped potential. Indeed, for as much as the 1-1 draw vs. Spain left many people (myself included) with a smile on their face and optimistic about the rest of the tournament, the 1-1 tie against the Croats smells highly of disappointment. Italy dominated its checkered foe in every aspect for 45 minutes, then – seemingly content with a 1-0 lead – progressively let them back into the game and to the equalizing goal. The trend continued all the way to the full-time whistle, at which point a second Croatia tally seemed distinctly more likely than an Italian one.
This draw complicates things somewhat for the Azzurri who, in light of Spain’s victory over Ireland, will dreadingly hope not to see a 2-2 draw (or higher) between La Roja and Croatia on the last matchday, a result synonymous with Italian elimination and reminiscent of the Euro 2004 “biscotto” (“biscuit” i.e. allegedly arranged draw) between Sweden and Denmark under the same circumstances. Gigi Buffon has certainly made clear he doesn’t believe in that to happen, as Spain and Croatia “are two very different teams, with Spain being the strongest of all and including players whose pedigree will not permit them to bear the anti-fairplay label or to become Europe’s laughingstock with a 2-2 result”.
All the same, despite the goalkeeper’s convinction that Italy remain with destiny in their hands (they still need to beat Ireland), the team’s performance Thursday remains indicative of their considerable difficulties in the goalscoring department. Balotelli was once again a mixed disappointment, instilling at times complete confidence in his power and capability to tear opposing defences to shreds, and alternating that with moments of pure “WTF is he doing??”. Cassano, by his own admission at 70% capacity after his heart surgery in January, seemed initially able to provide the spark of fantasia required to take players one-on-one, but tired himself quickly and ended being eaten up by the Croats’ physical treatment. The introduction of Di Natale & GIOVINCO did little to change that for the better, neither really obtaining any playable balls to exploit nor creating them themselves, as they also fell victim to their opponents’ superior height & physique.
At the end of the day, the most positive notes of the match, result aside, came once again from Italy’s midfield and (to a lesser extent) defense. PIRLO was not as deadly as usual with killer passes, particularly off set pieces (a lot wasted today) but of course, he scored off of THAT set piece and gave Italy the lead with a magisterial free-kick. MARCHISIO was dynamically active throughout the entire game, pressuring Croatian midfielders in their own half and disrupting their build-up all the while making notable contributions to Italy’s offense himself (he had a golden chance to open up his Euro 2012 account in the first half, but was denied by two massive saves from Pletikosa).
The biggest disappointments in midfield come perhaps from the wings, where Maggio and GIACCHERINI were kept largely in a defensive role (the former never crossing the halfway line for 35 minutes straight in the 2nd half). Such a conservative mindset is something that neither player are accustomed to at their respective clubs, be it Napoli or Juventus. Lastly in defense, BONUCCI and De Rossi further improved on their performances vs. Spain and CHIELLINi would definitely have been added to the list, had it not been for that rather unforgivable moment when he misjudged the trajectory of Strinic’s cross, and allowed Mandzukic to get in behind him to score Croatia’s equalizer.
★ ★ ★
MATCH REVIEW (by Marco Pantanella)
Much like they did against Spain, Italy started off well, lively & organised and immediately “IN” the game. As per Prandelli’s instructions, a lot of vertical passing towards Balotelli and Cassano and not too much dilly-dallying in the middle. Mario worked hard and had a an early shot on the turn going just wide, but it was the left-footer from MARCHISIO from outside the box that had Azzurri fans (clearly a minority in Poznan’s Municipal Stadium) cheering, as the ball finished inches high of Pletikosa’s crossbar.
Croatia struggled. Jelavic and Mandzukic, the two goalscoring giants of the Ireland game, made little impression. Talented “Pirlo rival” Luka Modric was undertone, certainly less incisive than a raging MARCHISIO who, after a chance created by Cassano and set up by the Milan forward, twice came close to scoring. It was only the prelude to an Italian goal…
In the 39th minute, it arrived. A free kick whipped in by a super PIRLO leapt over the crossbar and ended its course where Pletikosa could not reach (or too late). 1-0 Azzurri, with Italy more than deserving to be ahead at the half (and missing to extend their lead even more when Cassano, as usual a much better provider than finisher, headed the possible 2-0 just over the bar) after an excellent 45 minutes of football.
After the HT break Croatia came back stronger, Modric testing BUFFON a couple of times and the whole team looking more aggressive, much like their fans really who started throwing flares onto the pitch and systematically booing Balotelli. Super Mario was replaced by Di Natale soon after.
On their first real chance however, Croatia equalized. Off a cross from the left CHIELLINI missed his header, and Mandzukic (who had scored a brace against Ireland only a few days earlier) controlled and blasted the ball in off the post. 1-1. The Azzurri lost their unity, conceded more space, allowed Croatia to fancy their chances. Eventually the opponents’ momentum concluded with the full-time whistle. One would hope Italy’s Euro campaign will not suffer the same fate in the next round…
LE PAGELLE dei Juventini (by Marco Pantanella)
BUFFON 6.0 – Couldn’t do much on the Croatian goal. Was otherwise quite solid on a few other Croatian half-chances.
BONUCCI 6 – A level above his performance against Spain. Then again he didn’t have the likes of Iniesta & David Silva to contend with.
CHIELLINI 5.5 – A solid, grinta-laden performance marred by one error in judgement. Unfortunately one that cost Italy two points.
MARCHISIO 6.5 – Once again, the motor of midfield Italy can’t do without. Present during the defensive just as much as the offensive phases, and often a determining factor in the latter. Really should have scored in the first half but Pletikosa had other plans.
PIRLO 7.0 – A beautiful goal off a free-kick, the specialty of the house. A number of less-than-accurate dead-ball deliveries also however, coupled with passes that didn’t exactly turn into assists today. Still… it’s Pirlo. The free-kick alone authorizes the grade.
GIACCHERINI 5.5 – Unlike against Spain, where the danger of the opponents warranted a conservative approach, the little goblin kept too much in his own half (in the second period especially) and seldom created danger on his wing. More of an issue involving team tactics than the player’s individual performance really, but the fact nonetheless remains: Giaccherini did very little today.
(69′) Di Natale
(83′) GIOVINCO s.v. – Came on too late to contribute anything substantial, and his diminutive stature didn’t exactly help him.
PLAY-BY-PLAY (by Marco Pantanella)
|•||Prandelli makes no changes. Italy line up in a 3-5-2 and the exact same starting eleven that faced off against Spain. Balotelli keeps his place up top, with Di Natale ready to come in from the bench.|
|•||In his pre-match conference yesterday, Croatia manager Slovan Bilic declared that “Luka Modric is better than PIRLO“. Andrea will just have to show him what’s what, won’t he…|
|1′||Referee Howard Webb officiates. And we’re off!|
|3′||Balotelli!! Good passing build-up from Italy, with the ball transitioning through many Juventini from CHIELLINI to MARCHISIO then to GIACCHERINI on the left wing. The little goblin sends it in for Super Mario, who stops the ball, turns and sends a powerful shot a few yeards wide of Pletikosa’s left post!|
|6′||Croatian throw relayed to Perosic, whose turning looping shot is no trouble for BUFFON.|
|7′||Cassano cross from the left wing towards MARCHISIO in the center. Perisic swirls his clearance. Corner kick Italia. Nothing comes out of it.|
|9′||Maggio tries to penetrate in centrally from the right wing. Twice. He’s stopped. Twice.|
|11′||Balotelli! Cassano swings it in for Mario in the middle of the box. The City striker stops and fires a shot in! It’s a poor effort and deflected. It lands for MARCHISIO 20 yards out in the center. He fires a blast very few inches above the top-left corner!!!|
|13′||Close-up replay on Christian Maggio’s shoes, beautifully-decorated with Tricolore colors: Bianco Rosso Verde.|
|14′||Fantastic PIRLO aerial ball for Balotelli, who attempts to relay it back for Cassano just outside the box. Cleared.|
|15′||Strinic gets away on the left and crosses it for Masukic, who misses the winning deflection by a hairbreadth!|
|16′||Balotelli!! Maggio run & cross from the right, once again Mario finds himself free in the center! This time his effort is on target but straight at Pletikosa, who’s forced to punch it away.|
|18′||Good work…ish by Balotelli, who gets himself entangled in a dribbling attempt inside the Croatia box, loses the ball, but then retrieves and somehow wins a corner.|
|18′||PIRLO‘s corner is swung in at the far post. Thiago Motta fights for it but play is stopped. Handball.|
|19′||Danger Croatia! Cross ball sent in fromt he left towards Mandzukic, who takes a tumble with CHIELLINI inside the Italy box! Webb gives a foul to the Azzurri!|
|20′||Jelavic! Srna right cross from the right side almost finds the Everton striker for the winning tap-in. He’s a yard short and BUFFON can get down to save it!|
|23′||Italy try to build it up with one-touch passing. Cassano’s effort towards Balotelli is intercepted.|
|25′||PIRLO long ball, tries to find Maggio just inside the box on the right. Too long.|
|26′||Strinic cross from the left headed away by BONUCCI. With the ball still in the danger zone, GIACCHERINI clumsily concedes a foul to Croatia.|
|27′||FK deflected by the wall, into corner. From it a high ball towards Jelavic is well-held by GIGI.|
|29′||Aarrrrghhhh!!! A great shooting opportunity for MARCHISIO is wasted as Principino opts for the through ball for GIACCHERINI instead. But he mis-weighs it completely!|
|29′||Cassano!! Running after a lost ball on the right, Fantantonio gets to it first and turns Schildenfeld inside out! Into the Croatia box he tries to find MARCHISIO but the ball is intercepted!!|
|30′||Cassano again, with a dummy trying to find GIACCHERINI on the left. Too long.|
|33′||MARCHISIO!! After a series of pinballing inside the Croatia box, all stemming from a Cassano decision to pass instead of shooting from a good position, the ball bounces to the feet of Thiago Motta then eventually back to MARCHISIO, whose howitzer from outside the box is deflected wide!|
|33′||PIRLO with some great footwork to clear some space on the right. He swings in a cross towards BONUCCI but Bonnie can’t direct it goalwards.|
|34′||Cassano!! BONUCCI, who had stayed up from the preceding play, finds a corridor pass for Cassano. His diagonal shot is wide by a few yards!|
|35′||Balotelli tries his luck from 25 yards outside the box. Wide.|
|36′||Inexplicable Webb decision as Corluka goes down decked by his own man, but the referee gives a foul to Croatia. All during a promising Azzurri situation.|
|37′||MARCHISIO!! Excellent ball by Cassano to find Principino, who turns his defender and is put right in front of Pletikosa! But the Croatian keeper makes two monumental saves to deny him!!!|
|38′||Free-kick Italia from just outside the left corner of the box. PIRLO territory…|
|39′|| GOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAL ITALYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!
|39′||The Goal: Masterful execution by Andrea, who curls the ball at the first post. Pletikosa gets a hand to it but by that time the ball was already in the net!! 1-0 Italy!!|
|42′||GIACCHERINI cross from the left, tries to find Balotelli. Cleared. Hasn’t seen much action Giac today… Ball rarely transitioning around his parts…|
|43′||Cassano! Gets his head in from a PIRLO CK delivery and misses the frame by a mere few yards!|
|44′||Croatia counter-attack. Mandzukic tries a diagonal shot at the first post, but BUFFON shows safe hands.|
|46′||Half-time. Azzurri 1-0 up at the break thanks to Andrea PIRLO‘s eye-candy.|
|46′||We’re back. With no changes for either team during the HT break.|
|47′||Modric!! Finds some space outside the Italy box, dummies De Rossi, but his low effort lacks power and is well-saved by BUFFON.|
|48′||A promising Italy build-up dies down after a Cassano-T.Motta-Cassano one-two is intercepted.|
|49′||Modric again with the long-range effort. Over the bar, but not by much.|
|50′||BONUCCI! Tries his luck from long-range. Good powerful effort, deflected wide with Pletikosa rooted to the spot! Corner comes out to nothing.|
|54′||Interesting one-time pass from PIRLO to Maggio, but the Napoli wing-back is called offside. Replays showing he was just in line with the last defender.|
|56′||Strinic shot from outside the box, off Maggio’s back. Corner Croatia.|
|57′||Yellow card Thiago Motta for a hold on Rakitic before the corner is taken. When it finally is, Italy win a goal kick.|
|60′||T.Motta stays down after getting clattered by Srna. Normally I’d immediately think that he was play-acting or he deserved it, but he really did get knocked there.|
|61′||Balotelli!! Howitzer shot from 25 yards, two yards over the crossbar!!!|
|62′||Aarrghh. A great Italy opportunity is wasted as PIRLO‘s pass to Cassano is mis-controled by the Milan player. The play dies down.|
|63′||Substitution Italy: Montolivo comes on for Thiago Motta.|
|65′||Maggio tries to beat Strinic on the foot race. He’s obviously faster, but the Croatian still wins the battle.|
|68′||Substitution Croatia: Pranjic comes on for Perisic.|
|69′||Substitution Italy: Di Natale comes on for Balotelli.|
|72′||Goal Croatia. Mandzukic.|
|72′||The Goal: Out of nothing. Strinic cross from the left. CHIELLINI‘s caught daydreaming and misses his header. Mandzukic stops the ball and fires into the net off the post. 1-1|
|76′||Montolivo!! Fires it in from very long range! His 35-yard effort is parried away by Pletikosa!|
|77′||Maggio!!! Put straight on goal by Cassano but he’s flagged for offside! If he is, it’s by mere inches!!|
|80′||Yellow card Montolivo for an avoidable foul on Mandzukic.|
|82′||A VERY dangerous Croatia counter-attack is wasted when Mandzukic picks out Jelavic on the right, who tries to go for the return pass but ends up giving it straight to De Rossi. Phew!!|
|83′||Substitution Croatia: Eduardo Da Silva comes on for Jelavic.|
|83′||Substitution Italy: GIOVINCO comes on for Cassano.|
|84′||GIOVINCO with his first ball for Italy. Sends in a cross from the right that leaves Pletikosa a bit worried. Cleared away into corner. But Italy waste it.|
|85′||Yellow card Schildenfeld for a “tug” on GIOVINCO storming away on the right. The truth is that Schildenfeld is a giant and GIOVINCO‘s half his size.|
|88′||Srna cross from the right, deflected away before Mandzukic can get his head in.|
|89′||A GIACCHERINI clearance ends up launching Di Natale through on goal, but once again Italy see their breakaway denied by the offside flag. And ONCE AGAIN, the close-call decision doesn’t go their way (Di Natale was right in line!)|
|90′||FIVE MINUTES OF ADDED TIME.|
|91′||PIRLO with a lovely ball for Di Natale. Intercepted just in time by Schildenfeld|
|92′||Aarrghhhhhhh! Montolivo penetration inside the left, he sends it low towards the edge of the box, but Di Natale & GIOVINCO get tangled up, PIRLO tries the dribble but is stopped, the play dies down!|
|92′||Great effort by CHIELLINI to stop Mandzukic and earn a goal kick at the same time!|
|93′||Foul on Montolivo 40 yards from goal, on the left. PIRLO waits as the tower men get up the field. Meanwhile Mandzukic is carried off the field with some kind of a knock.|
|94′||Substitution Croatia: Kranjcar comes on for Mandzukic.|
|96′||De Rossi stops a Croatia breakaway on the left.|
|96′||Kranjcar!! From the distance. Stopped with some effort by BUFFON.|
|96′||That’s all she wrote. FULL-TIME whistle is blown in Poznan, bringing Italy-Croatia to an end. It’s another 1-1 draw for the Azzurri, but this one has a lot less glamour written on it.|
|GOALSCORERS: 39′ PIRLO (I), 72′ Mandzukic (C).|
|ITALY (3-5-2): BUFFON – BONUCCI , De Rossi, CHIELLINI – Maggio, MARCHISIO, PIRLO, Thiago Motta (62′ Montolivo), GIACCHERINI – Balotelli (69′ Di Natale), Cassano (83′ GIOVINCO). COACH: Prandelli. |
(UNUSED SUBSTITUTES: De Sanctis, Sirigu, Abate, BARZAGLI, Ogbonna, Balzaretti, Nocerino, Diamanti, Borini).
|CROAZIA (4-4-2): Pletikosa – Srna, Corluka, Schildenfeld, Strinic – Rakitic, Vukojevic, Modric, Perisic (68′ Pranijc) – Jelavic (83′ Eduardo), Mandzukic (94′ Kranjcar). COACH: Bilic.|
(UNUSED SUBSTITUTES: Kelava, Subasic, Simunic, Buljat, Vrsaljko, Vida, Badelj, Dujmovic, Kalinic).