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KIEV, July 2 (Reuters) - 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 Brazil.
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 record-breaking Spain.
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 tournament.
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 Italy's group.
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 removed.
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)