Euro 2012: Italian Grades for Group C Finale V. Ireland
All the worry and all the conspiracy theories proved to be unfounded.
It may not have been as clean as it could have been, but the Italians were able to finally keep a clean sheet and preserve a well-deserved victory. The fears of a prearranged 2-2 draw between Spain and Croatia were never realized, and the Italians—after making four player changes and a shift back to Cesare Prandelli's favored diamond 4-4-2—made it through to the quarterfinal.
Indeed, they were unlucky not to win Group C, after an 88th minute goal by Jesus Navas gave Spain a 1-0 victory and secured the defending champions the top spot.
The Azzurri now await one of three teams from Group D—France, England, or Ukraine—to face in the final quarterfinal match.
Who were the most important players in Italy's victory? Let's see how everyone grades out.
Gianluigi Buffon was pressed into action mere seconds after kickoff, when the Azzurri botched a back-pass that went between the central defenders and was pounced on by Robbie Keane. Buffon kept Keane from doing anything with the ball, but the Irish striker really should have put Ireland up within the first 15 seconds of the game.
Buffon was his usual brilliant self the rest of the match. The only two times the Irish truly tested him were an effort from Keith Andrews on the hour—a simple save from a long-range shot directly at him—and a powerful low shot off a nudged-forward free kick—also from Andrews—that he could only parry away, with Andrea Barzagli covering well to clear it before any Irishman could pounce.
Buffon also dealt well with the crosses that the Irish peppered his box with as they searched for an equalizer through the second half.
I've downgraded his grade slightly from the A he had in the first two matches to an A- after he picked up a needless yellow card in the 73rd minute for dissent after referee Cuneyt Cakir halted play to allow Daniele De Rossi to receive treatment as Andrea Pirlo was dashing toward Irish territory on a potential breakaway. If the Italians are holding on to a late lead in the quarters he'll have to take care not to be booked for time-wasting or dissent, or else the Italians will be without their most important player in the semifinals.
There has been agitation to replace Christian Maggio with Abate on the right side ever since the former's abysmal display in the 3-0 friendly loss to Russia right before the tournament (funny how the Russians have crashed out).
Abate is probably the best option for Prandelli when he uses a four-man defense, as Maggio is more of a wing-back than a traditional right-back. The AC Milan man gave a great account of himself yesterday—and may have cemented himself a place in this squad for a long time.
He played solid defense all day, and showed his usual fearlessness in coming forward, giving a dimension of width that the Italian attack had curiously lacked with Maggio on the right. His feed to Antonio Cassano in the 34th minute led to a dangerous shot that was blocked by an Irish defender before it got to Shay Given.
It was an overall great day and a fantastic way for him to break into the tournament.
After picking up a calf injury in the aftermath of the friendly against Russia, it was assumed Barzagli would be out until the knockout stages at the very least. After what must have been a lot of work in the trainer's room, the Juventus man was able to come out for the vital group stage finale, and he picked up right where he left off.
The 2006 World Cup winner (all four of the remaining members of that memorable squad were in yesterday's starting 1, by the way) resumed his seamless partnership with club teammates Giorgio Chiellini and, after Chiellini was forced from the field due to injury, Leonardo Bonucci.
His shining moment was in the 79th minute when he was quick off the mark on Andrews' shot off a free kick, getting the ball to safety before any Irish player could pounce on Buffon's parry. It was the capper on an overall master class of playing the center-back position, in which he allowed no service to get to Ireland's strikers and did not let anyone past him with the ball. With Chiellini's availability now in doubt, his presence in the center of Italy's defense is vital.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Giorgio Chiellini—the most snake-bitten player in the history of international soccer.
There isn't anything that hasn't happened to this man. Four years ago in training for Euro 2008 he made a tackle that ripped apart Fabio Cannavaro's knee and took the legendary center-back out of the tournament. His last three games in major tournaments before this one he committed critical errors that led to the concession of crucial goals. Yesterday, Chiellini went up for a ball in the air in the 56th minute and came down hard on his leg. He immediately signaled that he had to come off.
It may be a recurrence of the thigh injury he suffered in Juventus' final Serie A match of the season against Atalanta. It's almost certain that he won't play in the quarterfinals and I would be willing to bet his tournament is over.
He was playing well before his injury, making no spectacular stops but making no major mistakes either. It's a shame that such a good player has had such rotten luck on the international stage. Juve fans will be hoping that his injury is a matter of weeks and not of months.
After two ineffective games with Emanuele Giaccherini playing down the left-hand side, Prandelli decided to make a move he really should have made all along and put Balzaretti on the left side of defense. The move paid dividends.
Making the runs up the left wing that made him a name with Palermo in the 2010-11 season, Balzaretti spent the first half of the game raiding up the field and providing the Italian strikers with superb service. He set up at least three shots—two from Antonio Di Natale and one from Cassano—that would have found the target had they not been blocked by Irish defenders, who were throwing themselves in front of everything in this game.
He was also the victim of a terrible offside call in the 32nd minute—notable because the Turkish crew led by referee Cuneyt Cakir is the same one that called Italy back for offside nine times (at least three of them erroneously) in their 1-0 friendly loss to the United States in February. I think someone should take a closer look at this crew when determining who officiates the knockout rounds. But I digress.
Defensively, Balzaretti was very good. He made a good tackle in the 24th minute to stop a dangerous-looking Irish counterattack, and was generally solid all night, although he was booked in the 28th minute for a rugby tackle that prevented Ireland from again flying by on the counter.
The only true left-back on the roster, Balzaretti should be an automatic starter in this tournament and possibly beyond until Domenico Criscito's situation clears up.
Italy's strange inability to control possession for certain periods of this match prevented Pirlo from making his general flowing passing moves. He seemed not to have the time and space he needed to operate.
It may be that he was feeling nagging effects of a knock he seemed to take in the 15th minute, when he was teeing up for a long shot and was cleanly dispossessed on a sliding tackle by Kevin Doyle. He stayed down on the field for a while after that tackle, which undoubtedly caused many hearts to shoot into throats as flashbacks of the Pirlo-less Azzurri of the 2010 World Cup flashed before the eyes of Italian fans.
Despite his relative inability to control open play (at least by his lofty standards), when the ball was dead he was on his game. Few are the men who can match Pirlo's abilities on the dead ball, something that he has shown in spades this tournament. He picked up his second and third assists of the tournament on corner kicks that allowed Cassano and Mario Balotelli, respectively, to score Italy's goals, going along with his exquisite free kick goal against Croatia.
Overall, Pirlo continued his high level of play in this tournament yesterday. He will continue to be vital as the tournament wears on as Italy tries to advance deep into the knockout phase.
After two games where he was in and out of the match-up while occasionally threatening the opposing goal with a fantastic scoring opportunity, Marchisio was simply absent from this match. His only offensive contribution of note was a 58th minute volley off a good holdup by Cassano that went well wide of the target.
He made a good defensive play on an Irish corner in the 67th minute, but he was chiefly absent from the discussion in this one.
While not a true trequartista, I think Marchisio, who was stuck as a holding midfielder in Prandelli's midfield diamond, is much better suited to playing in the hole behind the strikers than teammate Thiago Motta, a natural holding mid who looked uncomfortable playing in an advanced position yesterday. Marchisio certainly needs to be near the box with some good service to thrive. He just didn't make a mark yesterday.
Daniele De Rossi
In the first minute of the match, Daniele De Rossi turned up somewhere where he hasn't been seen thus far in the tournament: the top of the opponents' box, volleying a cross from Di Natale toward goal.
The shot was wide, but De Rossi's welcome return to the midfield after a two-game stint as the center of a three-man defensive line helped to disrupt the Irish midfield. His defense was tenacious, such as in a 57th minute sequence where he tenaciously—and cleanly—battled for the ball while making most of the challenges after he had already gone to ground and his sliding challenge from behind in the 64th deflected a long shot away from the target for a corner. At other times, it may have been a bit over the line—he was booked in the 71st minute.
On the attacking side, he took two more shots after the first-minute volley, one blocked in the 43rd minute and one in the 51st minute that went high and wide, but not by all that much.
De Rossi's future will be determined by formation. If Prandelli returns to the Juventus-inspired 3-5-2 of the first two matches he'll likely be back in his defensive role. If the Azzurri continue to play with this four-man back line, he will continue to play a holding midfield role and acting as cover for Andrea Pirlo.
In Thiago Motta's defense, he was playing an unfamiliar role yesterday. A natural holding mid, he's not used to playing as a trequartista, the position Prandelli asked him to play today as the attacking tip of his midfield diamond.
He had the chance for something great early in the match from a corner kick. The seventh-minute set piece was sent in by Pirlo and was flicked across the box and into the path of Motta, who stumbled and fell, unable to get any touch on the ball, which would have surely been a goal.
It was that kind of day for Motta. He was caught offside in the 76th minute and also conceded a dangerous free kick close to Italy's box. Attacking or defending he just couldn't find his rhythm against the Irish.
Cassano once again played fantastic soccer yesterday. His play over the entire tournament has made it clear that there were goals in him at some point, and eight years after scoring the decider in a must-win against Bulgaria in Euro 2004 he again struck at the perfect time.
Italy had finally found their footing after a nervy first 20 minutes and had begun to settle into the game and dominate possession. In the 35th minute Cassano unleashed a long shot that Shay Given had to parry away for a corner kick. The ensuing corner—the fifth of an eventual 12 that the Italians would have on the night—was headed by Cassano and just cleared the line before being kicked out of the goal by a desperate Irish defender.
Cassano once again played fantastically in the attacking third, having the freedom to rove around and create for himself and others. Quite frankly I don't understand why Prandelli took him off the field when he did. I know the Italians are still being careful with his condition, but he could have spent another few minutes on the field. His absence directly coincided with the Irish surge that Italy had to hold back for almost 30 minutes until Balotelli's last-minute goal widened the gap.
Antonio Di Natale
It wasn't the great performance he put up as a sub against Spain, but Di Natale did his part yesterday. One could say he was unlucky not to score. He had three shots blocked, all of which would have found the target had they gotten through.
His best opportunity was when he got the ball in the box and dribbled around Shay Given. His momentum and the angle Given forced him to made a goal seem impossible considering the fact that there was no immediate support, but Di Natale lofted the ball from a nearly flat angle toward the empty net and somehow it found the target, forcing Sean St. Ledger to clear the ball off the line.
Four minutes after Cassano's goal he nearly became the provider, gathering a deep free kick and putting it across the face of goal, narrowly missing a teammate's head for a quick second. In the 55th minute, he latched onto a through ball by De Rossi and tried to slot it in near post, but Given was up to the task and denied him.
Overall it was a good, not great performance, where he showed just how dangerous he can be when given good service up top.
I'm sure no one was expecting Bonucci to make an appearance yesterday, but Chiellini's injury forced his introduction in the 56th minute. Fortunately, his chemistry with Juventus teammates Barzagli and Buffon ensured that the Italian defense didn't miss a beat. He played solid defense and even took a thundering shot at goal in the 85th minute that went well high.
With Chiellini's availability in question, Bonucci may have to continue his partnership with Barzagli and make it just as successful as Mario Balotelli's.
I immediately questioned Diamanti's introduction in the 62nd minute. A midfielder replacing top striker Cassano seemed to me like a declaration that Prandelli would play the rest of the game more defensively rather than continuing to take the game to the Irish.
That being said, Diamanti did not play badly. He took a long shot that was easily saved by Given shortly after coming on and also drew a dangerous free kick just outside Ireland's box. He also took a free kick in the 85th minute—a rarity with Pirlo on the field—that slammed into the wall.
Diamanti was not bad, but his introduction did coincide with a surge from Ireland that once or twice threatened to equalize the game and ruin Italy's night. I could definitely see him coming on, but not as early. It totally changed the Italian approach and allowed Ireland back into the game in the middle portion of the second half.
There has been steady improvement over the three games of this tournament for Mario Balotelli, culminating in his brilliant semi-bicycle kick goal in the 90th minute off of a Pirlo corner.
Coming on in the 74th minute for Di Natale, Super Mario pegged the Udinese man back after the older player replaced him in the first match against Spain and scored a goal. His goal to seal the deal was absolutely sublime, and proof of this mercurial 21-year-old's talent in front of goal. At the same time, we may have come very close to a Bad Mario incident—I would love to know what he was about to say as Bonucci covered his mouth with his hand in the post-goal celebration
Apart from the goal, Balotelli gained a dangerous free kick at the edge of the Irish box after displaying some wonderful dribbling skill to get through the Irish defense—although it must be said that while there was truly a foul committed against him he probably embellished it a bit. He also had a weak shot on goal in the 88th minute that was easily saved by Given.
He could have helped the cause even more in the third minute of stoppage time, but was a little bit too selfish and shot the ball himself rather than dishing it to a supporting teammate and his shot was deflected wide for a corner.
His play yesterday could very well reinstate him in the starting lineup in the quarterfinals. If he's healthy, the Cassano/Balotelli pairing could be devastating as the tournament wears on.
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