Has there ever been a tournament as enthralling as this one, with incident and excitement on a daily basis and the script constantly changing? The group involving Portugal, Holland and Germany was the officially designated Group of Death, and pretty tense it was, too. Yet it was blown away on Monday night by events in Group C, which became the group of sudden death.
The final table looks quite calm and organised, with Spain at the top and Italy going through in second place, but as the clocks ticked down in Gdansk and Poznan it was nothing like that at all. Spain were a late Iker Casillas save away from going out.Close shave
The holders of the title and favourites to retain it would most likely have ended up with just four points had Ivan Rakitic’s header gone in, as a 1-0 win would have seen Croatia top the group with seven points, leaving Italy to squeeze past Spain with five.
That scenario was perfectly feasible, yet thanks to Jesús Navas’s goal a few minutes from the end and a strong penalty claim being turned down flat, it was Croatia who went out, though not before making Italy sweat for the few extra seconds it took for the game in Gdansk to finish after the action in Poznan had ended. Italy knew they had five points by that stage, courtesy of a fairly routine win over Ireland, but a late Croatia equaliser would have meant elimination, since all the top three teams would then have drawn 1-1 with each other but Italy had not scored as many goals against Ireland. Complicated? Just a bit.
There was a pause on the final whistle in Poznan as Italy waited to see if Croatia would let them through or send them home, and you could not ask for closer results or more dramatic television pictures than that.
So how good are Italy? Everyone knows how good Spain are, although they have looked a little less unplayable than usual, but Italy have kept a low profile and crept into the last eight with little fanfare. “Italia black horse”, a taxi driver said in Poznan, which since he wasn’t driving a Ferrari, only seemed to mean that Cesare Prandelli’s team have started slowly but are capable of coming up on the rails.
It shows the high standards being set in this tournament, where Italy can be regarded as dark horses, but then teams of the quality of Holland, Russia and Croatia are already out. Should England somehow win Group D and meet Italy in the last eight they will possibly be grateful to have avoided Croatia, since Slaven Bilic’s feisty over-achievers are exactly the sort of mid-ranking side to raise their game and cause England their usual quarter-final problems.
Italy have a bigger reputation and a far more illustrious history, though they are currently ranked only 12th in the world - England are No 6, if you set any store by these things, Croatia No 8 - and as Prandelli was honest enough to admit this week, need to start scoring some goals and winning some games to restore their standing in European football.
They made a start with their win over Ireland, though apart from the excellence of Mario Balotelli’s finish and the liveliness of Antonio Cassano in grabbing the first goal, it was not a particularly convincing attacking performance. And although it might border on the sacrilegious to say it, Italy’s reliance on Andrea Pirlo to come up with ideas was rendering them somewhat predictable.
Pirlo has been a great player and maybe still is, but he can only supply the killer pass to split a defence if the forwards make the right runs, and Italy are no longer as slick in that department as they have been over the years.
Does that sound like a dark horse to you? Italy have looked better in tournaments, but time will tell. At least they are improving game by game and starting to score goals again, which is all anyone can ask of a team in the last eight of a tournament.