When asked about the misfortune of being drawn with Spain and Italy, Slaven Bilic usually alluded to something that sounds implausible: Croatia has never lost to Italy.
It’s a bit of a trick question since Croatia only declared its independence in Oct. 1991. In the near-11 years that’ve followed, the nations have only met five times, two of which have been friendlies. When the countries met in qualifying for Euro 1996, Croatia took four points from the Azzurri. Drawn together at the 2002 World Cup, the Croats scored two second half goals to post their only win of group stage (Italy advanced, Croatia did not).
This Italy, however, is moving on from the past. Being four-time world champions is something to be proud of, but it’s also a type of albatross. It leads you to bring back the coach and players from an over-the-hill team after you disappoint at a major tournament.
When the horrors of that idea were exposed in South Africa, Italy lured Cesare Prandelli from Fiorentina and accepted his vision of where the team should go. In the process, they moved away from Catenaccio-derived pragmatism and the other through lines tying them to the past.
The team still has work to do before it can tie itself to the Azzurri’s legacy. Against Croatia, that helps. They’re not the same team that lost tot those Davor Sukor, Niko Kovac-led sides. And that’s a good thing.
The game kicks off at noon Eastern. Here’s your playlist.
Side 1: Italy vs. Croatia
1. Get used to being crazy
In the first round of group games, Italy was the only team that didn’t play a back four. Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, and midfielder-cum-sweeper Daniele de Rossi formed a three-man line that collapses to five in its defending phase. As expected, this created quite the stir (though it’d been known for a week that Prandelli would probably make the move). Combined with Spain playing striker-less, it was a tactician’s Comic Con.
Now there’s speculation as to whether Prandelli will stay with the system, though in all likelihood he will. He didn’t shift to a 3-5-2 to throw Spain a curve. He did it as a solution for his midfield and a way of compensating for the absence of defender Andrea Barzagli. Though he’s said he expects to make changes for Croatia (some Italian traditions don’t change), he probably won’t chance set ups.
2. Clyde and Clyde
If I’ve learned anything from Jay-Z, it’s this: If you make enough albums, you have to have some kind of Bonnie and Clyde homage. Antonio Cassano would likely respond with neanderthal-esque defensiveness if we cast him as Bonnie, so he and Mario Balotelli will have to be Clyde and Clyde, which is far less awkward than the gay slurs that got Cassano in trouble this week.
The incident was a reminder of what Italy’s gotten themselves into with Balotelli and Cassano. Like Bonnie and Clyde, the duo have no reverence for authority. Their attitudes could vibe and lead to a series of successful business ventures (robberies, goals, what have you). They could also end up wandering the backroads of Louisiana until the police hunt them down.
Some are speculating Antonio Di Natale will start for Balotelli. It might be safer that way. The real Bonnie and Clyde sit courtside at Nets games.
3. Soft and slow
Nine Croatia players routed Ireland while the center backs did their best to keep the team humble. Vedran Corluka was a mess on the first goal, while Gordon Schildenfeld was slower than an out-of-shape blogger from Portland. They put their names in for worst center back tandem at Euro 2012, which is saying something considering the troubles most duos sides are having.
If Bilic doesn’t get better play out of his central defenders, Croatia will be picked apart. Antonio Cassano’s movement is too good, his passing too creative to not take advantage of Balotelli or Di Natale, both of whom will blow by Croatia’s defenders.
They need help. Defensive midfielder Ognjen Vukojevic will need to shield them, and somebody’s going to have to make sure the supply from Andrea Pirlo’s cut off. More than anything, Corluka and Schildenfeld are just going to have to play better. If they can’t, somebody else should get a crack, because it can’t get that much worse.
4. Moves like Andres
Spain’s Andres Iniesta was the best player on the field on Sunday against Italy. His main value was finding a man to play off of between Italy’s lines of three in defense and midfield. One-twos with David Silva and Cesc Fabregas were Spain’s most successful tactic, with Daniele de Rossi having to put out the fires at the end. By the hour mark, Italy had covered so many tips and taps that they didn’t notice Fabregas cutting in from the right for Spain’s only goal.
Luka Modric may not be Andrea Pirlo (Cesare Prandelli’s made it clear Modric hasn’t won enough to be considered on Pirlo’s level), but he can do a pretty mean Iniesta impression. Playing off of Mario Mandzukic or one of the Croatias brought-in wingers (Ivans Perisic and Rakitic), Modric can cause just as much damage as his Spanish counterpart.
In theory, a three-man back should match up will with a 4-4-2, with de Rossi a spare man to clean up while his partners match up with Croatia’s forwards. That assumes somebody like Mandzukic doesn’t abandon his role as a forward, play in some kind of withdrawn capacity, and leave the Italians overloaded in the middle.
As those who’ve followed England’s recent history know, a 3-5-2 against Slaven Bilic’s Croatia doesn’t guarantee anything.
ProSoccerTalk is doing its best to keep you up to date on what’s going on in Poland and Ukraine. Check out the site’s Euro 2012 page and look at the site’s previews, predictions, and coverage of all the events defining UEFA’s championship.