After a three-game losing streak in international friendlies and a match-fixing scandal surrounding the nation, many people predicted an early exit for Italy in Euro 2012, even in a group with no other major European powerhouse besides Spain.
But Italy looked very good in their opening match against Spain—Cesare Prandelli took a huge risk by playing three at the back in a 3-5-2 against arguably the best international team in the world, but it was a risk that paid off as the Azzurri grabbed a 1-1 draw which should be seen as an excellent point.
People will say that Spain should've taken their chances and would've if it wasn't for a misfiring Fernando Torres, but I thought Italy's performance was extremely impressive.
Their three at the back held strong as a tight defensive unit, with the out-of-position Daniele De Rossi probably Italy's best player on the day for his three tackles, five interceptions and two shots blocked.
But it wasn't all defense for Italy, and both myself and the match commentators were surprised at their ambition in going forward.
They attacked with remarkably efficiency, with six of their 10 shots on goal despite on 40 percent possession. If they can be as efficient in their remaining group matches, Italy will surely have a quarterfinal place booked.
Nonetheless, the Azzurri can't get ahead of themselves, and a win against Croatia is crucial to their hopes of advancing from Group C. Here's my prediction for the starting lineups in what I think will be a 3-5-2 formation, followed by a final score prediction.
Goalkeeper: Gianluigi Buffon
Prandelli won't have to think twice about this selection. Buffon made four saves against Spain, and it was another trademark consistent performance from the Juventus shot stopper.
Centre Back: Giorgio Chiellini
Chiellini was brilliant against Spain, and his incredible job in defense was one of the reasons why Italy held on for the draw towards the end of the match. He made four tackles and eight interceptions, and he'll have to put in a similar performance against Croatia to keep Luka Modric's passes from getting to the likes of Jelavic and Mandzukic. Chiellini is one of the reasons why Italy have one of the best defensive units in the world, and his performances are crucial to the Azzurri going far in Euro 2012.
Centre Back: Daniele De Rossi
This may come as a surprise (considering De Rossi's natural position is a defensive midfielder), but I see no reason why Prandelli wouldn't continue to play De Rossi at centre back. The Roma enforcer looked like he'd been playing that position for his entire career against Spain, and unless he has a real problem with playing there, I think he should stay in defense to let another player like Motta or Montolivo take his spot in midfield.
Centre Back: Leonardo Bonucci
Bonucci was average against Spain with only one tackle and three interceptions, but he'll likely start as a member of that defensive unit—Chiellini, Buffon and himself—that were so impressive this season for Juventus. Hopefully Bonucci can build on his performance against Spain, as he and Chiellini's partnership is an important one in Italy's Euro 2012 campaign.
Playmaker/Holding Midfielder: Andrea Pirlo
This is another no-brainer for Prandelli. Against Spain, Pirlo proved that he can bring his impressive form for Juventus this season into the Euros for Italy, which is not something every 33-year-old player can say. Pirlo's assist for Italy's goal was brilliant, as he swiftly got past Busquets (something Pirlo usually doesn't do) before playing an inch perfect ball for Antonio Di Natale to finish.
Pirlo has this brilliant ability of conjuring up a moment of magic out of nowhere because of his incredible passing and vision. Those two attributes suit Italy's direct style of play perfectly, as he can look up and play a ball up for one of Italy's forwards to finish. Pirlo is one of the main reasons why Italy are so efficient in their attacks.
Defensive Midfielder: Thiago Motta
Because of De Rossi playing as centre back, Thiago Motta got the opportunity to start as Italy's defensive midfielder against Spain—and he did a decent job, almost scoring the opening goal with a header in the first half that forced Iker Casillas into a brilliant save. With only two tackles and two interceptions, Motta will need to be better against Croatia in order to keep Luka Modric from causing serious problems in midfield.
Attacking Midfielder: Claudio Marchisio
Marchisio is the midfielder most capable of scoring goals for Italy. When given a few yards of space on the edge of the area, Marchisio can be deadly—as he showed with his powerful volley against Spain—so while Pirlo is Italy's playmaker and Motta is their enforcer, Marchisio is man who can get goals from midfield. Let's hope he opens his Euro 2012 account against Croatia.
Right Midfielder: Christian Maggio
Christian Maggio did exactly what he was supposed to do against Spain—give Italy width. Italy are a very centrally oriented team with most of their attacks stemming from the middle of the pitch, but Maggio's play on the wing in their opening match gave them a more dimensional attack. To keep doing that throughout the tournament will be important to Italy's game, and Maggio should look to continue giving the Azzurri width against Croatia.
Left Midfielder/Forward: Sebastian Giovinco
This is definitely a bold prediction considering Giovinco normally plays as a centre forward, dropping back in the hole behind the main striker, but I think Giovinco will earn a starting place against Croatia because of his impressive substitute appearance against Spain. The highlight was an almost perfect lofted through ball for Di Natale to latch on to, but the Udinese forward couldn't put the ball in the net.
Nonetheless, I think Giovinco will be started as more of a left attacking midfielder than just a traditional left midfielder—especially considering Emanuele Giaccherini's mediocre performance on the left side when he started against Spain.
Forward: Antonio Cassano
Along with Pirlo and De Rossi, Cassano was one of Italy's best players against Spain. His heart problems during the season seem to have no effect on his performances on the pitch, and Cassano proved himself as a very multidimensional player—what I mean by that is that he's just as capable of scoring as he is of assisting a goal.
The Thiago Motta header that I mentioned before came from a brilliant cross from Cassano, and that was just one of three key passes that Cassano made against Spain. My prediction is that the AC Milan forward will grab a goal or two against Croatia.
Forward: Antonio Di Natale
This is what I think will be the one change in the Italian starting lineup from their lineup against Spain. Di Natale was a "super sub" in Italy's opening Euro 2012 match, putting them in front with what was practically his first touch since coming on as a sub for Mario Balotelli.
Speaking of Mario Balotelli, hopefully the controversial Manchester City forward won't be too upset about not making Italy's starting 11. His bizarre failure to take advantage of a breakaway was arguably the reason why he was taken out against Spain, and I think Di Natale's subsequent goal will earn him a place in the starting lineup.
Final Score Prediction: Italy 2-0 Croatia
The thing that impressed me the most about Italy against Spain was their efficiency in attack.
Their direct style of play meant that 60 percent of their shots were on target, and whenever the Italians had some possession, they seemed to go on the attack with menace. Because of Pirlo's ability to play a killer pass out of nowhere, Italy's attack is one of the most direct in the tournament, and I think they'll get two goals to put them in a pole position to qualify for the knockout round.