It wasn't the prettiest of performances by any means, but come the final whistle last night in Poznan, Italy had done enough—just barely—to secure their place in the quarterfinals of Euro 2012.
Combined with Spain's 1-0 victory over Croatia in Gdansk, Italy's underwhelming 2-0 triumph over a spirited Irish squad ensured that they will advance to play the winner of Group D come Sunday.
The Azzurri now have nearly a week to prepare for the contest, and manager Cesare Prandelli has some very important decisions to make heading into that match.
Given Italy's performance against the Irish, the former Fiorentina bench boss will be left with plenty of questions that need answering if his squad are to have any chance of being crowned as the kings of Europe.
Here are some of the things we learned from Italy's final group match.
The most glaring issue that came to the fore during Monday’s must-win match was the ineffectiveness of the 4-3-1-2 formation. Prandelli has preferred to utilize this system since his time began at the helm of the squad, but if Italy is to make any real noise in this competition, he must go back to the 3-5-2.
With this current crop of players, having a trequartista (No. 10) role is simply not a viable option. Unless Prandelli decides to field the likes of Sebastian Giovinco or Alessandro Diamanti in addition to his two strikers—something he has not been willing to do during his two years with the Azzurri—there is nobody in the squad that can adequately play the position.
For all of his ability as a holding midfielder, Thiago Motta is certainly not a playmaker who can unlock the defense with a great pass or moment of individual magic. The decision to field him in the hole behind the two Antonios (Cassano and Di Natale) simply did not work.
Brazilian footballers may be revered largely for their attacking flair, but this Brazilian-born midfielder was not blessed with the skill set that has become synonymous with the South American nation.
The puzzling part of the equation is that this comes as no surprise to anyone who has seen the PSG man in action, which means his ineffectiveness against Ireland should be blamed on the manager, who must have known what Motta is capable of and what his strengths are.
Riccardo Montolivo has already proven that he is not the answer in the trequartista role either, which should force Prandelli to change his formation rather than simply swapping personnel.
In addition, Italy lacked width for much of the match, with only Federico Balzaretti providing any sort of attacking outlet down the flanks. With Ireland able to congest the center of the midfield, the slick passing that was on display in Italy's first two matches was, for the most part, nowhere to be found.
The combination of these factors meant that we saw an Italy side who, despite controlling much of the match and dominating possession, didn't look nearly as threatening as they did against either Spain or Croatia.
This move will come more out of necessity than anything else, as Giorgio Chiellini looked to be in some distress as he limped off the field in the second half of yesterday’s match.
While Italian fans wait anxiously for word on of the severity of Chiellini’s injury, they don’t have to look too far for a replacement should the uncompromising Juventus defender be unable to play any further part in the tournament.
Yes, his absence would be a big one, but in Daniele De Rossi, Italy have a player more than capable of stepping in and providing the same type of steel, solidity and organization at the heart of the defense.
His dynamic presence in the center of the pitch is an important asset to the Azzurri, but given his impressive performances against Spain and Croatia, he may be more useful to the squad as a defender.
Should Italy decide to play with three at the back, De Rossi’s composure on the ball will allow them to keep possession when necessary, while his passing ability will make it much easier to turn defense into attack quickly and hit the opposition on the break.
It is a move that could work to great effect even if Chiellini is deemed fit for Sunday’s quarterfinal match, as the two men could form a solid trio alongside Andrea Barzagli, who looked calm and composed as ever in his return from injury.
That move would open up space in the midfield for Thiago Motta to play in his natural position as a holding midfielder, providing cover for the back three that wasn’t always there against Ireland.
Despite being solid defensively, De Rossi does like to get forward quite often, which caused some problems last night in Poznan as Italy were caught short on a few occasions, allowing the Irish to break.
If Italy give up similar opportunities to some of the other nations in this tournament, they will not walk away from the match with a clean sheet.
With Motta patrolling the midfield, this gives the Juventus duo of Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio more freedom to focus on creating goal-scoring opportunities, knowing that they have someone to rely on behind them should they lose possession.
Making his first appearance in Poland and Ukraine, the Palermo full-back put in an impressive display on the left side of the defens, one that makes it almost impossible for Prandelli to remove him from the starting 11 heading into the knockout stages.
Menacing going forward and solid at the back, Balzaretti put his pace and ability to get beyond the opposing right-back on full display yesterday, especially in the opening minutes of the second half when Italy looked most likely to score a second goal.
Should Prandelli revert back to the 3-5-2 formation for the knockout stages of the tournament, the 30-year-old must be the man chosen to fill the role on the left flank.
Emanuele Giaccherini may not have performed terribly in Italy’s opening two matches, but it is clear that Balzaretti is much more suited to get the job done for the Azzurri.
As a natural defender he will be able to deal with the tricky wingers that Italy will come up against should they face France or England (no offense, Ukraine), while also causing problems in the attacking third with his crossing ability.
Quite simply, he is the best option Italy have at the position.
In a match that the Italians needed to win—and by some margin to put their qualification beyond any doubt—they once again took their foot off the gas after managing to find the opening goal in the first half.
After Cassano’s glancing header from a Pirlo corner gave the Azzurri a deserved lead in the 35th minute, it was the Boys in Green who looked more threatening after the interval, as Italy struggled for large periods to keep the ball and sustain any real pressure in the Irish half.
It’s a theme that has become all too familiar for Italian fans during this European Championship, as their team has shown an inability to kill games off when presented with the chance.
Whether the issue is physical fitness—as suggested by Prandelli following the 1-1 draw with Croatia—or an over-reliance on the defense to keep a clean sheet, something needs to change going into the knockout stages if the Azzurri are to have any real chance of lifting the Henri Delaunay trophy for a second time.
They got away with it—just barely—in the group stage, but if Italy don’t begin to take their chances and figure out a way to keep the pressure on the opposition even when they have the lead, they will not be in Poland and Ukraine much longer.