Can Italy overcome their mixed group stage history?
Italy took to the field at the PGE Arena in Gdansk against Spain under a cloud of uncertainty. From troubles at home to having pre-tournament preparations hampered, the road to Poland and Ukraine hit late hurdles.
A friendly loss to Russia caused a rethink and the introduction of the 3-5-2 system in the Group C opener. Despite those issues the Azzurri took the field with a panache and verve not seen for a number of years, continuing Cesare Prandelli’s reinvigoration of the side. The media were thrilled, hailing a beautiful Italy. Ahead of their remaining group encounters against Croatia and Republic of Ireland – not quite the dreaded ‘Group of Death’ but close to it - Italy will seek to build on their initial promise to overcome a mixed history of group stage football at the European Championships.
When Italy qualified for their first Championships in 1968 – winning for the only time to date – the format was radically different. The tournament proper only started from the semi final stage and even then it took two draws – including an unconventional toss-of-the-coin (Giacinto Facchetti choosing tails correctly) victory over USSR in the last four – before host Italy could finally lift the trophy. They defeated Yugoslavia in the final only after a replay. Initially ending 1-1, two days later Luigi Riva and Pietro Anastasi ensured an Italian success.
They failed to qualify for the next two editions but hosted the expanded eight-team tournament in 1980 – the first with a group stage. The two group winners would contest the final, leaving no margin for error. After a draw and a win Italy had to defeat Belgium. Franco Causio came closest but the Azzurri were left to face Czechoslovakia for third place after a 0-0 draw.
Italy have failed to qualify for just two of nine editions with a group phase, starting in 1984. When Azeglio Vicini rejuvenated a stale Azzurri for Euro ’88 in West Germany, his young charges responded with a series of vibrant performances. Like 2012, Italy drew 1-1 against a strong first-up opponent – the hosts – after opening the scoring. Aside from Euro 2000, this was the most assured Italy ever looked in the initial round, winning their remaining fixtures before a semi final loss versus the Soviet Union.
In Belgium and the Netherlands Italy won three straight and advanced to the final. Like the current day there were question marks over Dino Zoff’s side, who flew under the radar with a three man defence to come within 30 seconds of glory in Rotterdam.
Having missed Euro ’92, Italy made a disastrous group stage exit in 1996, losing to the Czech Republic before Gianfranco Zola missed a penalty in the decisive fixture with Germany. Yet they won the opener, something which did not occur in 2004 as Italy went into their final group match against Bulgaria on two points. Needing a win and hoping Sweden and Denmark did not draw 2-2, Antonio Cassano netted a dramatic winner only for that dreaded score in the all-Scandinavian battle to eventuate.
The Azzurri flattered to deceive as World Champions in Austria and Switzerland four years ago. They crashed to a 3-0 defeat against the Dutch – Italy’s heaviest in the tournament’s history – and were only kept alive by Gianluigi Buffon’s penalty save versus Romania, before scraping to the quarter finals against disappointing France.
With that in mind Italy is set to face nemesis Croatia – the only country alongside Brazil to hold a positive record over Italy, consisting of three wins and two draws since independence in 1991. The current group leaders have never lost the second match at a major tournament, including a win over the Azzurri at World Cup 2002. Yet Italy must overcome that record and their technically gifted opponent to put themselves in the box seat to advance. They started the tournament dynamically but need three points on the board as Prandelli’s side aim to soar towards the knockout phase rather than leave qualification to the final match.
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