Prandelli plotting a final twist to epic tale


SOCCER:UNDER PRESSURE from the media only a month ago, senior Italian Federation officials insisted they would be sticking with Cesare Prandelli for the next two years, regardless of how the team fared here at these European Championships.

Yesterday, a hundred or so of the country’s football journalists warmly applauded him into his press conference back at Casa Azzurri, the team’s base here in Krakow. He looked like a man who was enjoying the moment.

During the 40 minutes that followed the possibility of the 53- year-old walking away from the job in the coming weeks to go to a big club was raised more than once – and never entirely dismissed.

His team, meanwhile, was described back home by one paper as the greatest Italian side of the post-war period. There might actually be a case to be made for that suggestion, but until they overcome their greatest challenge yet at this tournament and beat Spain to lift the title, the boys from 1968, 1982 and 2006 will feel entitled to indulge in a spot of that old footballers’ saw: “Show us your medals”.

In the wake of Thursday’s remarkable win in Warsaw, however, there is a very real feeling around the Italian camp they can upset the reigning world and European champions.

Before this tournament got underway, the best case anyone seemed capable of making for an Italian triumph was the team has a habit of thriving when there is a scandal raging back at home.

Now, Prandelli’s standing has soared after the way he has engineered the elimination of Croatia, England and Germany – all ranked above the Italians on Fifa’s world ladder.

He is winning plaudits too for his handling of his players, most notably Mario Balotelli, and basking in the reflected glory of Andrea Pirlo’s regal return to form, as well as strong showings from the likes of Claudio Marchisio, Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Cassano.

The latter he has persisted with despite the striker’s obvious difficulties in the wake of months away from the game with serious medical problems.

“Cassano may only have 50 minutes in his legs now,” acknowledged the coach after the Germany game, “but they are a fantastic 50 minutes.”

Against Joachim Loew’s side, he admitted he had gambled by ceding a great deal of territory out wide to ensure they could flood central midfield “and we benefited from always having an extra man there.”

Tomorrow, the challenge will be altogether different against a team that puts nothing like the emphasis on width that the Germans do.

Prandelli acknowledged the scale of the difficulties yesterday but gave little away regarding potential solutions:

“As we did against the Germans we have to look for weaknesses; they are a great team and there aren’t many but we believe we can find a few and then work to exploit them.”

When the two sides met in their group (the fourth time this has happened down the years), Prandelli took a different approach to the one employed in the games since, with three central defenders, among them De Rossi, and wide midfielders expected to cover an awful lot of ground up and down the flanks.

It all worked well enough and Italy generally had the better of the contest, even if Spain ultimately deserved their draw.

This time, he strongly suggested they will stick with much the same team and system that have yielded improving performances in every game since.

“We changed our philosophy over the course of this tournament,” he said. “We are more sure of ourselves tactically and physically . . . we have grown together.”

Whether they have grown enough to overcome the team that has swept all before them over the last four years, remains to be seen.

But then Spain, who have beaten their rivals just once in eight meetings at big tournaments – and that on penalties in 2008 – have not been sparkling here in the way we have grown accustomed to, with the offensive side of their game lacking the pace and cutting edge they possessed when winning in Switzerland/Austria and South Africa.

Only against Ireland have they looked as good here and with Xavi, in particular, looking a little jaded (most of the Spaniards would have played anything up to 20 more clubs games this year than the bulk of their opponents in Kiev) they have relied a little more on the meanness of their defence.

There have been times, though, primarily against Croatia and Portugal, when they have ridden their luck.

For all of that, Vicente del Bosque knows a bit at this stage about getting the best out of his players on the biggest stages and they themselves insist they continue to be motivated by the opportunity to break new ground in the international game.

“We are aware of what we are playing for on Sunday,” said Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos.

“It [winning three titles in succession] is something that no team has ever achieved. It requires many years of work and sacrifice. No matter what happens we have already made history. This hasn’t finished, though, and the icing on the cake would be to return and win the Euros.”

Del Bosque, it seems, has only one serious choice to make, with the veteran coach having to settle on who will play up front, and after Alvaro Negredo failed to justify his selection in the semi-final and Pedro came up short in extra- time he may well revert to Plans A or B, Cesc Fabregas or Fernando Torres.

The Spanish coach will be relieved, meanwhile, that his players have had an extra day to recover before the final.

Hopefully it will help them to produce their best, another challenge the undoubtedly tired Italians would have to rise to but they are unlikely, in any case, to be as troubled as some of Spain’s lesser opponents by the defending champions’ ability to dominate possession.

Six weeks ago the outcome might have seemed like a forgone conclusion but Italy, as Prandelli said, have grown.

There is plenty of adventure about their play despite the continuing emphasis on firm foundations.

Balotelli and a couple of his team-mates seem, on this sort of form, capable of almost anything. Spain, meanwhile, are still trying to rediscover their spark.

It should still, in truth, be theirs to lose but an Italian victory would be a surprise rather than an outright shock.

Either way, it should be an interesting night.

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