Right now Italian fans are probably feeling sorry for themselves. They shouldn't.
Despite their 4-0 loss in the Euro 2012 final to Spain—a scoreline, by the way, that in no way reflects how well Italy played in the match as a whole—the Azzurri had an absolutely fantastic tournament.
After the debacle that was the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the downturn in quality Serie A suffered in the years following the calciopoli scandal, the Italians needed a good showing to prove to the world that they are still a power on the world stage.
At Euro 2012, they did just that.
They overcame yet another match-fixing scandal and a modest group stage to absolutely dominate the quarterfinal against England and then pull a stunning upset of the Germans in the semifinal. Italian soccer is relevant on the international level again, and not a moment too soon.
Of the 23 men that Cesare Prandelli brought to Poland and Ukraine, he used 19 of them at this tournament. Some of them were absolutely vital to the Italian effort at this tournament. Some turned in less-than-stellar performances.
Who was better than the others? Let's take a look and find out.
The following players were not used during the tournament and, for the sake of fairness, will not be given a ranking:
GK Salvatore Sirigu
GK Morgan De Sanctis
D Angelo Ogbonna
F Fabio Borini
At 35, De Sanctis is likely to have taken his last hurrah with the national team. Depending on how long Gianluigi Buffon can play at a high level, Sirigu may end up being his successor in goal for the Italians.
Ogbonna didn't get used here. But with Barzagli on the wrong side of 30, he'll soon be in the discussion in the Italian back line along with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.
Borini's road back to the Azzurri could end up being blocked off for a while. Seen here dueling with Antonio Cassano, he may get forced out of the side when Giuseppe Rossi returns to the team once he recovers from his knee injury—although that will take a long time.
Antonio Di Natale will be 36 by the World Cup in Brazil, so it's unlikely that he'll participate, which may be Borini's in to the roster. But between Rossi, Cassano, and Sebastian Giovinco he may not see the field much.
It's a real shame that Sebastian Giovinco played so little a role in this tournament. He came on in the 64th minute for Cassano in the group stage opener against Spain and in the 83rd minute against Croatia, again for Cassano. In neither game did he really make a mark.
He almost had a chance for a late winner against the Croats when the ball was teed up for him at the top of the box after a scramble for a cross. But Di Natale was also pursuing the ball and poked it backwards just as Giovinco was about to unleash a shot.
Only the soccer gods know what that shot might have done, but if it had hit the target the chances were good it would have been more than Stipe Pletikosa could have handled.
After failing to make any sort of impact in the first two matches, Giovinco was not used at all for the rest of the tournament as Alessandro Diamanti started to gain more favor.
It's a real disappointment for the Atomic Ant, who had been talked about quite a bit in transfer rumors in the weeks before the tournament and could have seen his transfer value soar with a good showing at the Euros.
The news that he was returning to Juventus from Parma broke during the tournament, but it's unlikely that any further moves will come at this point. Giovinco missed a golden opportunity and wasn't the impact player that the Italians needed him to be.
I feel bad putting Emanuele Giaccherini so far down on this list because he was asked to do something in this tournament that he had never done before in his professional career.
After breaking into the pros as a winger for Cesena and spending the 2011-12 season for Antonio Conte at Juventus as a mezz'ala (an attacking midfielder), Giaccherini was asked to play as a left wing-back in Cesare Prandelli's improvised 3-5-2 in the first two matches against Spain and Croatia.
To make things even more unfair, the Spain match was his international debut.
It was his mistake that allowed Cesc Fabregas to get in front of him and into the space vacated by Giorgio Chiellini as he equalized in the group stage match.
He was better in the next match against Croatia, but when Prandelli switched back to his traditional diamond 4-4-2 Giaccherini was replaced on the left by Federico Balzaretti—the only natural left-back on the roster.
He didn't make much impact in either game apart from his mistake on Fabregas, and deservedly didn't see the field again.
When the Italians went to a 3-5-2 formation for the first two matches of the tournament, I thought Christian Maggio would flourish.
A natural wing-back who isn't as effective as a traditional right-back—the position he was in when he laid an egg against Russia in Italy's lone pre-tournament friendly. Despite frequently marauding down the right wing with Napoli, Maggio wasn't really able to do much in this tournament.
His game against Spain was less than memorable. He was booked late in the game for an unnecessary foul in a dangerous area, and was unable to make any serious offensive inroads.
The game against Croatia was much of the same. By the end of the game he was giving the ball away as a matter of routine.
He came on for an injured Ignazio Abate in the quarterfinal and played well enough. He was given a second yellow on a harsh call and suspended for the semis.
He didn't play another minute in the tournament, and at 30 may be done with the national team, especially with Abate having a strong showing.
I was not at all impressed by Montolivo in this tournament.
He was playing slightly out of position, as he is a natural regista on a team in which that role will not be filled by anyone except Andrea Pirlo. But in his advanced midfield role he never really gave the Italians the best of games.
With the exception of one shot on goal in the 76th minute after coming on as a sub, he made no impact against Croatia. He didn't find the field against Ireland before starting all three knockout games.
He assisted on Mario Balotelli's second goal against Germany with a great long ball. For the most part he didn't do enough in either distribution or in possession himself, especially in the final.
Add to that his missed penalty in the shootout against England that nearly wasted a dominating performance by the Azzurri, and the former Fiorentina captain surely didn't give his new bosses at AC Milan a good preview of what they'll be getting out of him this season.
Then again, he'll be playing in his natural position there, so what they saw in the last three weeks might not be what they'll get.
Giorgio Chiellini is one of the best center-backs in Europe, if not the world, so how to explain how he consistently under-performs at major tournaments is beyond me.
Chiellini was directly responsible for the equalizing goals scored by both Spain and Croatia in the group stage.
Then, in the group stage finale against Ireland, he was forced off the field in the 56th minute with what looked to be a recurrence of the thigh injury he picked up in the Serie A finale for Juventus against Atalanta.
After missing the quarterfinal, he played as a left-back against Germany and had an excellent game, totally shutting down the Germans on that side of the field.
Playing the same position against Spain in the final, he was forced off after 21 minutes, depriving Cesare Prandelli of a vital substitution in the second half. This after being beaten to a through ball by Cesc Fabregas in the 14th minute, allowing the Spanish No. 10 to cross the ball to David Silva for the game's first goal.
He seems to be snake-bit in major tournaments—not a good thing for the Italians' most talented defender.
Leonardo Bonucci was the embodiment of the late great Jim McKay's immortal words "the agony of defeat" after the loss in the final, weeping inconsolably as the Spaniards celebrated their championship.
Bonucci played in all six games of this tournament with mixed success.
He was often very good in the back, but in the final he and Andrea Barzagli got absolutely carved up, often having to make a last ditch tackle to stop the Spanish on the ball—or watch it fly into the net.
He was able to display his great ability—rare for a defender—to initiate an attack with an accurate long ball from the back. But unlike in the club season with Juventus, he wasn't able to do so frequently enough to make that move a real threat.
With Barzagli unlikely to play in many more major tournaments, if any, Bonucci's going to be an important part of this team for years to come, but in this tournament he didn't exactly shine.
Nocerino is not this far down on the list for ineffectiveness so much as because he had hardly any real field time.
The AC Milan man—the bargain of the transfer window in Serie A—came on in stoppage time in the group stage match against Spain for a brief cameo, then was brought on in the 80th minute of the quarterfinal against England for an ailing Daniele De Rossi.
He played well in that match, nearly winning it in the 89th minute after receiving a gorgeous feed from Claudio Marchisio in the box, but England defender Glen Johnson made a great defensive stop.
He had another late chance in extra time in the 115th minute, but his header into the net was disallowed for offside—a call that was correct but agonizingly close.
He stepped up fourth in the shootout in that match and slipped the ball into the right side of the net with keeper Joe Hart going the wrong way.
As I said, he didn't have a bad tournament, but he was on the field so little that his impact was minimal.
This was the tournament of what could have been for Claudio Marchisio. By my count there were at least four goals that he could have either scored or assisted on had he been on his game.
Two of them came in the group stage opener against Spain, when he had shots lined up in the box with only Iker Casillas to beat, but put the ball straight at the Spanish keeper both times.
Particularly agonizing was his inability to finish in the 89th minute after a slaloming run through the Spanish defense in which he dribbled by no fewer than three Spanish defenders.
In the next game against Croatia he had both a point-blank shot and its rebound saved by Stipe Pletikosa as Italy looked to break through for the first goal.
He then followed those games up by completely disappearing for the match against Ireland and making a minimal impact on the quarterfinal against England.
In the semis, Marchisio again found himself in a fantastic position—deep in the German box with help to his left in the form of Antonio Di Natale. He decided instead to try to beat Manuel Neuer and lashed his shot wide of the far post by a good margin, with Di Natale unable to try and redirect it.
Il prinicpe had a breakout season with Juventus this year, but he has yet to translate that form to the national team. I think it's only a matter of time for a player this talented to make it in Savoy blue, but he'll have to do it quickly if Italy is to shore up its midfield should this end up being Andrea Pirlo's last major tournament.
Thiago Motta's physical, grinding style was an asset for Italy against Spain in the group stage opener and against Croatia, but when Prandelli switched back to his 4-4-2 formation against Ireland, Motta, a natural holding midfielder, ended up playing trequartista by default—a role he is not well suited for.
Motta can be creative, but he's just not the kind of player to play in the hole like that, and after an ineffective performance he was replaced in the starting lineup by Montolivo for the knockout rounds.
I had advocated for his inclusion in the starting XI in the final on a return to the 3-5-2, but it was Montolivo again, and the result was Italy's inability to boss the Spanish midfielders around.
The final effectively ended when Motta, who had come on in the 56th minute to replace Montolivo, injured his hamstring and had to leave the field. With Prandelli out of substitutions, the Azzurri were reduced to ten men, and the match was, for all intents and purposes, over with.
Motta's impact was not what it could have been, both on the field and in terms of playing time. The Brazilian transplant will likely be a major part of the national team in the coming years, but his performances did leave things to be desired in this tournament.
Antonio Di Natale scored with his first touch in the group stage match with Spain, taking a beautiful feed from Pirlo and slotting the ball past Iker Casillas. It looked as though the returning old soldier, who hadn't been in the team since the World Cup, was going to have an impressive tournament.
He nearly equaled the feat when he came on at halftime for Antonio Cassano in the final, heading a cross from Abate that whistled over the bar by the width of the ball. Five minutes later Casillas denied him from point-blank range following a feed from Montolivo.
In between those impressive moments, however, he didn't do a whole lot.
He wasn't as threatening when coming on against Croatia. He started against Ireland and played fairly well, nearly scoring on a ridiculous angled shot with Shay Given way off his line, but the ball was cleared and that was really his only genuine chance to score. He was taken off in the 74th minute for Mario Balotelli, who subsequently scored a late goal on a corner to lock down the starting striker spot alongside Cassano.
He took no part in the knockout stages until the final, when he worked doggedly to pull his country back into the match. He nearly succeeded before Motta had to leave the field and the Italians had to play the rest of the match shorthanded, effectively ending their chances.
A good tournament for Barzagli was completely ruined by an abject failure in the final.
Having missed the first two matches of the group stage due to an injury picked up against Russia in a pre-tournament friendly, he returned against Ireland and from then helped to lock down opposing offenses, particularly in Chiellini's absence.
In the semifinal against Germany he completely de-fanged Mario Gomez—rendering the Bayern Munich man so ineffective that he was replaced at halftime.
But in the final Barzagli absolutely laid an egg.
He lost his mark on David Silva in the 14th minute, allowing him to find Cesc Fabregas' pullback cross and put it into the net. Then, in the 41st minute, he completely failed to recognize Spanish left-back Jordi Alba's surprise run forward, giving him acres of space to slip through and latch on to a through ball from Xavi to score.
It was an awful game from the man who was being relied on to lock down the back four against the relentless Spanish attack. It's hard to imagine him playing worse in a game that counted so much.
After having battled Christian Maggio for the starting job at right-back for much of the year, the AC Milan man got his chance against Ireland after Maggio's subpar performances and the switch back to a traditional four-man back line.
He has probably solidified his spot in the starting lineup with Prandelli, at least until Davide Santon can mount a challenge to him. He played very well defensively and did extremely well moving forward, giving the Italian attack the width that Prandelli's tactics, which are narrow in the midfield, required.
In the quarterfinal in particular, Abate was a terror up the right wing—peppering the box with crosses or slipping the ball back into the center of the field.
He did pick up an injury at the end of that match, forcing Prandelli to improvise slightly in the semifinal.
In the final he returned, but made hardly any attacking impact. The relentless Spanish pressure forced him to sit back and defend, and he was never able to make it into the match.
Expect to see him preferred to Maggio as World Cup qualifiers begin this year, and he should only continue to improve.
With his performances in this tournament, Bologna man Alessandro Diamanti may have booked a place in Prandelli's side for a while to come.
Coming on as a substitute in three of Italy's six matches, Diamanti didn't play particularly badly in his first match against Ireland, but was unable to do much with the ball as Ireland pressed the Azzurri for much of the second half—although he was able to notch an assist on a late corner that Mario Balotelli put into the net.
It was in the quarters, however, that he shone.
Coming on for Cassano in the 78th minute, Diamanti consistently marauded around the attacking third, peeling off into the right wing and crossing the ball with accuracy.
He even took a few of the set pieces Italy picked up in extra time. Then he sent Joe Hart the wrong way to seal the victory in the shootout.
He was just as creative after coming on against the Germans in the semifinal, leading several dangerous breaks as the Germans pressed to equalize. None came to fruition, but Diamanti's play was very good in this tournament, and he deserves to be in this side for the foreseeable future.
Federico Balzaretti got an opportunity following the omission of Domenico Criscito from the side due to the calcioscommesse scandal, and he definitely made the most of it.
Not included in the lineup the first two games, he was installed at left-back in the group stage finale against Ireland and played very well. In the quarters against England, he was an absolute terror in the first half, marauding down the left side and peppering the box with crosses. His feeds were responsible for several good shot opportunities in that first half before the attack switched to the other side of the field in the second half.
With Abate injured and Maggio suspended for the semifinal against Germany, Balzaretti was forced to play as an emergency right-back, and he played very well. The Germans were unable to do much of anything until his handball in the box gave them a stoppage time penalty and a lifeline—frayed as the rope may have been.
Balzaretti was a surprise omission in the starting XI for the final, with Prandelli preferring Chiellini in his old position on the left. But when the big defender had to again leave the game due to an injury after 21 minutes, Balzaretti came on and played very well, moving up the left wing against Alvaro Arbeloa and helping the Italians retain a surprising amount of possession between Spain's two first-half goals.
It's a shame that a performance like this came from Balzaretti so late in his career—at least as far as international soccer is involved. He'll turn 31 in December, so will really only be able to take part in one more major tournament, if that—and let's not forget that an angry Criscito is looming to take his spot back depending on how the scandal at home affects his fate.
Balotelli had a less-than-stellar start against the Spaniards in the group stage, where he horrifically botched a one-on-one matchup with Iker Casillas and generally played uninspired soccer. He was better against Croatia, but couldn't make any of his chances count.
Against Ireland, Prandelli decided to give him a mental health day and left him off the starting lineup, bringing him on with about 20 minutes to go. Balotelli responded by scoring on a wonderful bicycle kick off a Diamanti corner, and started for the rest of the tournament.
For the quarterfinal against England, he played well, but was unable to make his chances count. He stayed in the game all the way through to the end, and showed an incredible amount of nerve by starting the shootout for Italy by beating club teammate Joe Hart.
But his piece de resistance came against Germany in the semis. He opened the scoring with a great header against a wrong-footed Manuel Neuer off a cross from Antonio Cassano.
Then, in the 36th minute, Riccardo Montolivo sent him a long ball off a cleared German corner. Balotelli found himself through the defense and one-on-one with Neuer, who he beat with a thunderclap from the top of the box into the top right corner.
He was shut down for the most part in the final—allowed nothing more than a few long-range shots well off target. This was, however, a very positive step in the development for the mercurial 21-year-old.
He's not at the same level as your Messis, Ronaldos, Ibrahimovices, or Rooneys yet. But he has announced himself as a presence on the international stage and it is clear that he can reach those levels. He looks to be the focal point of the Italian attack for many, many years to come.
In my mind, Daniele De Rossi was the unquestioned man of the match against Spain in the group opener, playing out of position in the middle of a three-man defense and giving a fantastic performance. He was constantly breaking up Spanish movements and making last-ditch tackles in the box that would have been penalties had they been miscalculated.
He played well in defense again against Croatia before moving back to his traditional midfield role against Ireland—again playing very, very well.
Against England he was an important compliment in the midfield to Andrea Pirlo, and took a few shots at Joe Hart's goal—including one in the third minute from way, way out that crashed against the inside of the post and bounced out.
He was withdrawn due to injury in the 80th minute in the quarterfinal, so he took no part in extra time.
In the semifinal he was back to his old tricks against Germany by disrupting Mesut Ozil and the rest of the German midfield, as well as delivering a thunderous—and legal—sliding challenge to Sami Khedira late in the first half that punctuated a dominant Italian performance in those first 45 minutes.
He played about as well as can be asked for in the final, but wore down in the second half as the Spaniards attacked relentlessly. And he was unable to do anything to change matters, particularly when Motta went down.
Still on the right side of 30, De Rossi is going to be a major part of this team for a very long time, and may even wear the armband someday. This was a great tournament for him.
The fact that Antonio Cassano was even on the field for this tournament is remarkable.
After suffering a stroke in late October and undergoing surgery for a previously undetected heart defect, his recovery time was unclear and it looked as though Cesare Prandelli would have to go into the Euros without him, as well as his constant strike partner throughout qualifiers Giuseppe Rossi.
But Cassano made a quicker recovery than expected, and was able to play in seven Serie A games with AC Milan before the end of the season—convincing Cesare Prandelli that he was fit to play in this tournament, despite some doubts from others.
Cassano dispelled those doubts in the group opener against Spain, playing absolutely phenomenal soccer. He moved well off the ball, often peeling off to either flank to deliver the ball in to Balotelli and the supporting midfielders—as evidenced by his fantastic service of Super Mario in the semis to open the scoring.
He only scored once—a header off an Andrea Pirlo corner against Ireland—but he was a constant danger throughout the tournament.
Now 29, he should have one more major tournament left in him, and may even get Rossi back by the World Cup. It's sure that Italy will rely on his talents throughout the World Cup qualifying process into the main tournament in Brazil.
Euro 2012 was another chapter in the resurgence of Gianluigi Buffon.
After a disastrous 2010-11 that was marred by the injury he suffered at the World Cup in South Africa, Buffon had one of his best seasons for Juventus this year, and it was followed up by a fantastic tournament in Poland and Ukraine.
Throughout the group stage, Buffon's play was excellent simply because it was so routine. He wasn't really forced to make any spectacular saves, and the two goals he allowed against Spain and Croatia would have required superhuman efforts to keep out after his defense had left him unprotected.
The first time he was called into serious action—in the quarterfinal against England—he handled it with aplomb. In the fifth minute, some bad defending from Italy allowed Glen Johnson a point-blank shot off a cross, which Buffon punched away one-handed.
He then settled in and watched his teammates absolutely dominate the Three Lions before coming up huge in the fourth round of the shootout, diving to his left to stop Ashley Cole's shot and give Alessandro Diamanti the chance to wrap the match up.
Tested again by the Germans in the semis, he started out somewhat shaky, hesitating on a corner kick that had to be cleared off the line by Andrea Pirlo. He then became his old, fantastic self by saving a thunderous long-range shot by Sami Khedira in the 35th minute, then a good free kick by Marco Reus in the 62nd.
Faced with a penalty in stoppage time, he guessed correctly where Mesut Ozil would go, but the shot was too powerful for him to keep away.
He bears no responsibility for the 4-0 final defeat. Each of those goals would have required Herculean efforts to save, and he made no mistakes on any of them.
In the first two matches the defenders in front of him were carved up. In the last two his outfield players were just plain exhausted and unable to keep a competent defense.
Goalkeepers age well, especially Italian ones (Dino Zoff, anyone?), and I wouldn't be surprised to see Buffon playing at a high level for Euro 2016. He will most definitely continue to be the rock of the Azzurri through this World Cup qualifying process.
Another mainstay considered washed up this time last year, the 33-year-old Pirlo put on a virtuoso performance in this tournament, rolling back the years to 2006 when his precision passing from the regista position garnered him the man of the match award for the World Cup final against France and marked him out as one of the best midfield players of his generation.
In these Euros the idea was simple: stop Pirlo, and stop Italy. The execution of that plan, however, was far easier said than done, and indeed was not until Spain was able to do so in the final.
The Spaniards had already gotten a taste of his quality in the tournament, falling victim to a perfectly weighted through ball that Antonio Di Natale buried for the opening goal of the game. In the rematch, they collapsed on him—particularly with fellow pass-master Xavi—not allowing him the space he needed to operate.
The rest of the teams Italy met in the tournament were not so skillful.
Pirlo dominated Croatia in the first half, punctuating the performance with a fantastic free kick goal that gave Italy the lead. Ireland met with a similar fate, falling victim to a goal on a Pirlo corner kick and watching him carve out chances for his strikers—most of which were blocked by desperate Irish defenders doing everything they could to protect Shay Given's goal.
But it was in the knockout stages that Pirlo shined brightest.
After coming out hard against Italy the first 15 minutes, England ceded possession to the Italians for the rest of the match. And Pirlo ended up creating a mind-numbing 25 shots on goal for his teammates, which by some miracle (or disaster, depending on who you root for) never found the net.
He put the capper on the day with a confident, cheeky chip down the middle of the goal in the shootout with his team behind—a move that seemed to unnerve the next two English penalty takers, both of whom missed.
In the semis, the Germans actually changed their formation and lineup in an effort to contain Pirlo—an effort that proved vain. He created well in the first half and, as the Italians protected their lead in the second, he released his teammates for dangerous counterattacks.
Combining this tournament with his stellar season for Juventus this year, I don't think it's a stretch to say that Pirlo has inserted himself as a legitimate third option to Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for the FIFA Ballon d'Or.
The big question now is how much longer the 33-year-old can hang on in the international game.
His display this season certainly shows no signs of slowing down, but some doubt that he will be able to make it to the World Cup in two years. I personally think that he'll have one major tournament left in him before Italy has to start searching for his successor. Who might that be? Time will tell, but keep your eye on Marco Veratti, the teenager whose play spurred Pescara to promotion to the top flight for the first time in nearly 20 years and sparked interest from Juve.
But before we worry about that, take a moment to savor the virtuoso performance that l'architetto put on for us these last three weeks. It's not likely you'll get to see something like it for a while.