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KRAKOW, Poland, June 6 (Reuters) - The age-old Italian traits of being strong in defence and grabbing the key goal when it matters disappeared at the World Cup two years ago and they are in danger of vanishing again as Euro 2012 approaches.
An unbeaten qualification campaign has been undermined by three defeats and no goals in their last three friendlies while injuries and a possible change in formation come at just the wrong time before Sunday's Group C opener against holders Spain.
Defensive linchpin Giorgio Chiellini, one of the few to emerge with any credit from their 2010 World Cup group-stage exit as champions, tried to sound positive on Wednesday but his happy aura from Juventus's undefeated Serie A season has gone.
He clung to the fact that 13,000 fans turned up for their first training session at Polish league side Cracovia's tight, atmospheric ground to "give us a boost". He also clung to the fact that Italy are Italy.
"We have to recognise that we have had a drop off in results. But I don't think the Italy of the last two years has disappeared. The idea that we have 'disappeared' is a bit over the top," Chiellini told a news conference.
"We know we meet the team that has made history in the last four years. With great respect we will try to play our match knowing that even for them it will be difficult to take on Italy."
Spain beat Italy on penalties in the quarter-finals of Euro 2008 but the Azzurri defeated Vicente Del Bosque's men 2-1 in a friendly last year.
Coach Cesare Prandelli is considering utilising midfielder Daniele De Rossi in a new-three man defence after playing his usual four at the back in the 3-0 friendly debacle against Russia last week. Centre back Andrea Barzagli is also injured.
Italian pundits are worried that the potential change is a knee-jerk reaction and that two years of hard work are being thrown away but Chiellini did his best to defend Prandelli.
"Still there are a few days to try it, then the coach will decide the tactics," he said.
"De Rossi is a great player. He has all the class, experience and character to do well, also in that role. In our clubs we are used to changing formations. We shouldn't give too much importance to this change, other issues are more crucial."
A recent deadly earthquake in Italy's Emilia Romagna region, which meant an important Euro warmup with minnows Luxembourg was cancelled, led Chiellini to start a fundraising drive for the victims.
"Let's not forget them, they need us," said the 27-year-old, who also visited the Auschwitz concentration camp with the rest of the squad on Wednesday.
"It is difficult to find words to describe it." (Editing by Justin Palmer)