| KIEV, July 2
KIEV, July 2 Italy's Euro 2012 campaign ended in
a tired humiliation at the hands of Spain, with the Azzurri
suffering the worst defeat of any team in a final, but coach
Cesare Prandelli was justified in placing the conclusion to the
tournament in some context.
"Of course, the (4-0) defeat hurts but I think as time goes
by, it will be recognised that we had an excellent tournament,"
he said and few would dispute his conclusion even if there is
plenty to improve on if Italy are to be challengers in 2014 in
Prandelli's side certainly exceeded expectations and offered
plenty of evidence that they are on the right track even if they
were, like everyone else, far from the benchmark set by
Italy may have had the pedigree of one European Championship
title and four World Cup triumphs, but they travelled to Poland
and Ukraine with few anticipating a run to the final.
Two years ago in South Africa, their dismal World Cup exit
at the group stage led goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon to question
whether Italy would even be good enough to qualify for the
That fear proved misplaced but the qualifying campaign was
far from stellar and the pre-tournament form hardly hinted at
what was to follow, especially given Spain and Croatia were in
A 1-1 draw with Spain in the opening game indicated however
that Prandelli had found the right recipe for his side as
question marks over some of his players were immediately
Another 1-1, this time with Croatia, left all to play for
with the final game against Giovanni Trapattoni's Ireland and
Italy responded well with a 2-0 victory thanks to goals from
Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli which secured them a place
in the last eight.
A quarter-final with England, another team that appeared to
be performing above lowered expectations, brought out the
quality within the team - Andrea Pirlo was outstanding in
midfield and although penalties were needed to dispatch Roy
Hodgson's team - no-one disputed Italy's right to advance.
Then came the highlight of the tournament - an enthralling
and emphatic 2-1 win over Germany in the semi-finals, with
Balotelli coming into his own with two goals, the second
arguably goal of the tournament, as Italy's midfield ran the
game and their back-line, well lead by the impressive Andrea
Barzagli, held firm.
Italy paid for those efforts though three days later when a
jaded looking team were dissected by Spain's incisive passing
and intuitive movement.
The final scoreline of 4-0 could be explained away by
injuries and the fact that the Azzurri were forced to play the
last half hour with 10 men but even without the bad luck of
losing third substitute Thiago Motta just four minutes after he
came on, Italy were already trailing 2-0.
Prandelli's biggest achievement was to create a 'club' type
spirit in the squad, welding the players into a genuine team and
that will likely mean that he heads into September's World Cup
qualifiers without wanting to make many changes.
But there will be a need to integrate some fresh young
talent while at the same time qualification will certainly have
to be earned from a group with Denmark and the Czech Republic.
Pirlo will be 35 come the World Cup and has had a long
career after starting in Serie A at 16, while Cassano is 30 this
month and the 34-year-old Antonio Di Natale is likely to make
way for younger striking options.
Italy's Under-21 squad has produced some players of great
potential - strikers Lorenzo Insigne and Mattia Destro along
with midfielder Marco Verratti, who is considered an eventual
replacement for Pirlo.
Prandelli will hope that those three get a chance to show
their worth regularly in Serie A in the coming season because
the 'project', as the coach has labeled his job, will need a
little refreshing on the road to Rio.
(Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Justin Palmer)