Betfred Sport

Azzurri heartbreak not a disaster

As Cesare Prandelli’s Azzurri men lay slumped on the turf of the Olympic Stadium in Kiev after a gruelling 90 minutes of chasing shadows, their Spanish victors celebrated with the Henri Delaunay trophy, making history in the most emphatic fashion.

Italy had just been thumped 4-0 by arguably, the greatest-ever national team in football history.

Spain grinded down their Italian counterparts with their sublime form of ‘tiki-taka’ football, much like the way the great Muhammad Ali used to defeat his opponents in the ring.

But it would be rather unfair to look only at the final as an indicator of success at the European Championships.

Under Prandelli’s astute management and against the backdrop of a domestic match-fixing scandal, causing the Italy Prime Minister to offer his country’s withdrawal from the tournament, the Azzurri somehow managed to almost go all the way.

Solid, but unspectacular 

The team went into the tournament with a reputation of being solid without being spectacular.

Based on the security of Gianluigi Buffon in goal, they could also rely on a predominantly Juventus back line minus Milan’s Ignazio Abate, consisting of Giorgio Chiellini in the full back position while Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci marshalled the centre of defence.

Meanwhile, the work rate of Daniele De Rossi and Riccardo Montolivo in midfield cannot be dismissed.

It was this solid, but unspectacular manner in which Italy progressed out of a group containing the eventual winners, Spain, Croatia and Republic of Ireland.

A draw over the defending champions was deemed a good start, but a lacklustre performance against Croatia led many to doubt whether this team had what it took to reach the knockout stages, let alone the final.

Pirlo's virtuoso display 

However, it was in the game against Slaven Bilic’s side that we were reminded of the quality of one particular midfielder. Andrea Pirlo re-introduced himself to the biggest stage.

His perfectly executed free-kick in the 1-1 draw demonstrated his undeniable quality and he soon became the key component in Prandelli’s side. 

The 33-year-old came into the tournament as a title winner with Juventus after inexplicably being released by Milan the previous summer and showed why he is still one of the best playmakers in world football.

His stand-out performance came against England, where he was allowed time and space to orchestrate the midfield and feed the likes of Mario Balotelli with chances galore.

His Panenka-esque chipped penalty in the shootout summed up his virtuoso display.

Super Mario 

And who can forget the enigma that is Mario Balotelli. Dismissed as an over-paid prima donna by some, it is hard to argue against the fact the man is undeniably talented.

We saw the good and bad of Super Mario against the Irish.

His superb overhead kick to beat Shay Given showed his finishing prowess, but the moment was somewhat tempered by his bizarre celebration which included an attempt to trade insults with his own bench, prevented by Leonardo Bonucci covering the mouth of the troubled striker.

But his two goals in the semi-final victory over a young and fearless Germany side showed that Balotelli might have turned a corner in his relationship with the Italian fans.

He could no longer be dismissed as an impetuous troublemaker, and demanded the respect of his fellow teammates after his header and thunderbolt put Italy into the final.


They were now being taken seriously as the result sent shockwaves through the football world, beating a battered and bewildered side that had previously cast aside all their opponents at a canter.

Although, the final was simply a step too far and Italy will take some consolation from the fact that no team could have lived with La Roja in that kind of form.

The Azzurri will fly home with optimism for the future and should have no real regrets from their performance this summer.

They have improved considerably since the shambles of South Africa in 2010 and now have a team which reflects the ideals of their manager.

James Hilsum

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