Claudio Villa/Getty Images
Italy started Euro 2012 off with the most anticipated match-up of the group stage: a date with defending champions Spain.
Both teams started with interesting tactical moves—Spain did not employ a striker, opting for six midfield players in a "faux-9" formation, while Italy ditched their usual diamond 4-4-2, instead employing a 3-5-2 formation with midfielder Daniele De Rossi moving back to play in the middle of the three-man defense.
The tactical changes very much favored the Italians. While the Spaniards enjoyed 60% of possession—which was far less than their norm—they were frustrated by the Italian defense and didn't mount much real early pressure on Gianluigi Buffon. The Italians, led by Andrea Pirlo and Antonio Cassano, saw some serious chances to score go to waste before a beautiful through ball from Pirlo found substitute Antonio Di Natale, who slotted the ball past Iker Casillas for a breakthrough on the hour.
The Spaniards responded immediately, after dual mistakes from Giorgio Chiellini and Emanuele Giaccherini allowed Cesc Fabregas to find space in the center of the Italian box and slam home an equalizer three minutes later. Both teams had golden opportunities to take the lead as the game drew to a close, but neither were able to convert on their the chances. Italy arguably had the better of the game, and probably could have come out with all three points.
1-1 was the result in Italy's second match, a game that truly should have been won. Italy dominated the first half and spurned several excellent chances before Andrea Pirlo's exquisite free kick late in the first half gave them a lead they deserved.
Croatia made an adjustment at halftime and began to take the game to the Italians, who had trouble adjusting and were on their back foot for most of the half. Still, victory should have been the result—an unacceptable mistake from Giorgio Chiellini allowed Mario Mandzukic to gather a cross and power in the equalizer.
Needing a victory against an already-eliminated Ireland to have a chance to advance, Italy started tight, and Ireland was able to put them under pressure for the first quarter of an hour. Then, the Italians were able to settle in and began to heap pressure on Shay Given's goal, finally breaking through with Cassano's header off a Pirlo corner.
Ireland was able to again put the Italians under significant pressure in the second half, leaving Italian fans with their hearts in their mouths until a 90th minute corner by Alessandro Diamanti was put into the net by Mario Balotelli, quieting the hearts of the Italian faithful and moving them on to the quarterfinals.