It is a measure of how tough the UEFA European Championship is that defeat for Italy against Croatia tomorrow will almost certainly result in their elimination. It is almost impossible to imagine Spain not beating the Republic of Ireland, which means that Italy’s trip to Poznan is a must-win encounter.
Coach Cesare Prandelli is right to be wary of Slaven Bilić’s side, who boast two in-form strikers in Mario Mandžukić and Nikica Jelavić. Now he must decide whether to stick with the 3-5-2 that held out against Spain or revert to four at the back, with Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini charged with the nullifying the more potent aerial threat posed by Croatia’s forwards.
The Azzurri may also go with a more defensive-minded left-back, Federico Balzaretti, to guard against raids down Croatia’s right flank, where Darijo Srna and Ivan Rakitić were so lively against Giovanni Trapattoni’s side. The problem is, as Prandelli said two days ago, they don’t want to change too much. Switching formation again risks confusing the players, and removing a midfielder will both restrict the damage Andrea Pirlo can wreak, as he will have less protection, and increase the threat Luka Modrić will pose, as he will have more space to pick out his own killer passes.
The other decision the Italy coach must make is whether to persevere with Mario Balotelli up front. Antonio Cassano explained the Manchester City FC player’s miss against Spain thus: “When I saw him running towards [Iker] Casillas I thought, ‘Now, he’s going to pass to me’. He told me he wanted to but he wasn’t expecting Sergio Ramos to catch up with him. I said: ‘You tell that to the journalists. With the shot you’ve got you should have broken the net.'”
Meanwhile, Cassano described Italy’s goalscorer against Spain, Di Natale, as “the sniper”, saying: “Give him half a chance and he scores.” So does Prandelli have the time to wait for Super Mario to come good or would the coach be best served entrusting a marksman who has scored 80 Serie A goals in the last three campaigns with a starting berth?
Antonio Di Natale puts Italy ahead against Spain
In 1990 Salvatore ‘Totò’ Schillaci came off the bench to rescue Italy with a winning goal against Austria at the FIFA World Cup, and went on to win the Golden Boot. Twenty-two years on, is it time for Totò Mach II?