The Italian camp is buoyant after making a promising start to their Euro 2012 campaign, earning a credible draw with the holders Spain. However, there is no room for complacency, as this afternoon’s game against Croatia is likely to establish whether the Azzurri will make it out of group C or not.
After a run of three scoreless friendly defeats, Cesare Prandelli’s Italy found the type of performance and desire required in their 1-1 draw against the all conquering Spain. The challenge was unique in that Italy played against a style that is exclusive to Spain on two levels: firstly, La Roja employed no centre forward in their 4-6-0 formation and secondly their distinctive tiki-taka style of play.
Therefore, Prandelli’s men will need a different approach to the Croatia match. Though Italy should retain their 3-5-2 formation and possibly the same starting XI that faced Spain, there will be a large emphasise on them to dominate possession and play their football in their opponent’s half. Indeed, Prandelli admitted unlike the Spanish fixture, Italy must take the “initiative” against Croatia.
It is in Prandelli’s ethos, which he has stood by from the first day he took the job. Whilst the Azzurri’s defensive record in qualifying was impeccable conceding just two goals, it was a possession based attacking brand of football that became the identity of Prandelli’s Italy.
Probable Starting XI to face Croatia
Buffon – Chiellini, De Rossi, Bonucci – Giaccherini, Pirlo, Marchisio, Montolivo, Maggio – Cassano, Balotelli.
With Andrea Barzagli still unavailable and Daniele De Rossi’s man of the match performance against Spain, it is likely Prandelli will stick with this back three for continuity. Croatia will use at least one striker against Italy and Nikica Jelavic will be encouraged by the space Fernando Torres was able to find. The Everton hit man is in much better form than El Niño and the Italians will be wary of his threat.
Claudio Marchisio has emerged under Andrea Pirlo’s tutelage and will likely pay attention to Croatia’s Luka Modric. Joining the Juve pair, expect Thiago Motta to be sacrificed for a more attacking midfielder such as Antonio Nocerino or Riccardo Montolivo. The latter has been a favourite of Prandelli from their time together at Fiorentina. Christian Maggio should remain on the right, whilst Emanuele Giaccherini’s place on the left is less than secure after his lapse of concentration cost Italy their lead against Spain.
Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano were Prandelli’s first choice pair before Antonio Di Natale’s composed finish against Spain. Toto’s goal was Italy’s first in four games – there is no doubt the Udinese man will feature at some point, should Balotelli be preferred to start with Fantantonio.
It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Italy reverted back to a four man defence after Prandelli switched to a new 3-5-2 formation against Spain. This would allow De Rossi to move back to his favoured position in the centre of midfield and allay fears of the Roman being caught out of position. You can read more about the tactics of both sides in Enzo Misuraca’s tactical preview of the game here.
With three wins and two draws, Croatia have maintained an unbeaten record against the Italians since attaining independence in 1991. Amongst their meetings was the controversial 2-1 victory in the 2002 world cup, when Italy were denied two clear goals by the Danish linesman Jens Larsen. Although Italy still qualified from their group that year, a defeat here would almost guarantee no way back into the tournament.
Whilst Italians ponder whether Mario Balotelli is the man to lead the line for the Azzurri, there is no question Mario Mandžuki? is the man to lead the Blazers. The 26 year old was better than a goal every other game in his three year spell at Dinamo Zagreb and has scored 20 times in 56 appearances at VFL Wolfsburg. In Croatia’s last eight competitive fixtures Mandžukic has scored five times, including two headed goals in their 3-1 Group C victory against the Republic of Ireland.
His strike partner is no slouch either, Nikica Jelavic averaged two goals in every three games during his time at Rangers before setting the Premiership alight notching nine goals for Everton in 13 games.
Croatia are a major threat to the Azzurri progressing in Euro 2012. Yet, should la Nazionale pull this one out of the bag and obtain a win, the optimism surrounding Prandelli’s work will be validated.
Italy 2-1 Croatia. Despite the strength of Croatia, I expect Italy to dominate the midfield and create enough good chances to win the match.