Italians very wary of Croatia


FOR MONTHS now, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli has been telling us that the first-round game that worries him most at these Euro finals is today’s second match against Croatia in Poznan. Given the opening day results in Group C, Prandelli has a point.

Prandelli always had a strong suspicion Croatia might put a halt to the Republic of Ireland’s gallop and come into this game with three points already in the bag. Likewise, given that Italy opened their campaign against the reigning world champions, Spain, he knew all too well his side might arrive at this game with a defeat or a draw under his belt.

In the circumstances, Italy go into tonight’s game in better condition psychologically than anyone might have dared hope just one week ago.

It is true Italy did indeed draw 1-1 with Spain last Sunday night in Gdansk but the nature of that draw, the extent to which Italy not only stopped Spain but, in the process, played some very tasty football themselves, may well have kick-started the Azzurri into a serious tournament run.

With enthusiasm back home suddenly kindled, as witness a TV audience of just under 15 million for the draw with Spain, it says much about Italian expectations that the Italian media are already counting the yellow cards (Bonucci, Chiellini, Maggio and Balotelli) with a view to the availability of the same quartet for next Monday’s all-decisive clash with Ireland.

Given both Croatia’s current form and the fact Italy have never beaten them in a competitive game, then the Azzurri will need all the confidence and enthusiasm they can muster. Since they formed their own national team following the break-up of the ex-Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the Croats have beaten Italy both in a 1994 European qualifier in Palermo and in the first round of the 2002 World Cup.

If Italian confidence is good, then that of the Croats is sky high.

Looking forward to the game, their coach Slaven Bilic said yesterday: “I don’t believe that much in tradition but it’s nice to know that we never lose against Italy. We played very well against Ireland on Sunday. We outplayed them physically, tactically and psychologically. We must remain at this level if we are to win.”

Given that, in their different ways, both sides have started the competition well, then tonight’s line-ups are expected to be very similar to those of last Sunday.

Bilic may well start with exactly the same 11 as those who started against Ireland, whilst Prandelli’s only changes could see AC Milan’s Antonio Nocerino replace Paris St Germain Italo-Brazilian Thiago Motta in midfield whilst Palermo’s Federico Balzaretti may replace Sunday’s debutant, Emanuele Giaccherini on the left flank.

Understandably, Bilic is happy to stick with Wolfsburg’s Mario Mandzukic and Everton’s Nikica Jelavic in attack, the men who between them did all the scoring against Ireland.

Likewise, Prandelli seems intent on again starting with Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli in attack, leaving himself with a deadly substitute in the shape of Antonio Di Natale, who scored against Spain with his very first touch after coming on in the 61st minute.

Not surprisingly either, both men will continue to rely on their ace playmakers, Andrea Pirlo for Italy and Luka Modric for Croatia. The Italian coach also intends to stick with AS Roma midfielder, Daniele De Rossi, in the improvised role of central defence. For many critics, De Rossi was Italy’s man of the match against Spain.