By Aidan Elder | Chief sports writer
There were two schools of thought about Italy heading into Euro 2012. The first was that they were a bunch of middling players from a crippled league who would be in disarray as a result of controversy. The second was they were a bunch of middling players from a crippled league who flourish as a result of controversy a la their World Cup wins of 1982 and 2006. Whatever your view, the ‘middling players’ bit was fairly constant, but the Azzurri have overcome the gloomy predictions to book a Sunday night date in Kiev.
They only way their players would still be in eastern Europe come the first of July would be if they booked a holiday along Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. Cesare Prandelli’s men were given little chance of progress. Being drawn with the European and World Champions from Spain, the perennial dark horses from Croatia and a supposedly ‘hard to beat’ Ireland, it looked like tough group to qualify from. It’s funny how the widely held ‘Ireland being hard to beat’ notion has suddenly become utterly ridiculous. Like we now laugh about people for ever believing the world was flat. Here’s how the odds have gone during Italy’s fascinating campaign.
June 3: News of investigations and arrests of members of the Italy camp breaks just days before they’re due to play their first game. As they’re already considerable outsiders to win Euro 2012, it doesn’t change their price much as they’re rated 16/1 outsiders to win it.
June 10: The opening game against Spain doesn’t result in the pummelling the naysayers were expecting. In fact, the Azzurri do very well with Di Natale puts Italy in the lead, but Spain eventually get going and equalise through Fabregas. Italy might have claimed a shock victory were it not for the hemming and hawings of Mario Balotelli bearing down on goal. It’s impressive, but not amazingly so and the Italians get a slight trim to 12/1 to win the tournament.
June 14: It’s the game with Croatia and despite dominating the first half and taking the lead with a splendid Andrea Pirlo free-kick, they only come away with a draw. The bad news is they’re moved out to 14/1, but the good news is a win over Ireland will get them a place in the quarters.
June 18: The game against Ireland rolls around and even though the Irish are out and pretty hopeless to begin with, there seems to be a bit of nerves in the Italian camp about progress. In a twist of irony, Italy seemed worried Croatia and Spain might ‘fix it’ to get the 2-2 draw they both need to qualify from Group C. There’s also some fear that Giovanni Trapattoni being able to execute a Jedi mind trick over his compatriots. It’s all unfounded however as Cassano and Balotelli goals give them the comfortable victory. Some timely smothering of Balotelli prevents some supposed dissent aimed at manager, Prandelli, helping team morale. As it’s only a win over Ireland, it doesn’t set the world alight, but the quarter-final against England is very winnable and they’re snipped to 10/1.
June 24: It’s the first game of the tournament in which Italy don’t score, but funnily enough, the England match is around the time everyone starts to take Italy seriously. It takes some crappy English penalties for them to book their place in the semi-finals, but they were the better team throughout and should have had the game safely tucked in bed long before the final whistle. Wayne Rooney barely gets a kick and with England giving Pirlo the freedom of the pitch, Italy look threatening throughout. It’s an impressive looking Germany in the last four, so hopes aren’t especially high and they’re still 6/1 to go all the way.
June 28: Early on against Germany, it looks like it’s the end of the road for Italy. The Germans look dominant and with Gigi Buffon doing a passable David James impression, it’s looking grim for Prandelli’s men. It all changes as Balotelli goes ballistic – this time in a footballing sense rather than mentally. He heads Italy into the lead following an excellent cross from Cassano and thumps the ball past Neuer after getting on to a through ball from Montolivo to put his team 2-0 up. Germany spend the next 45-odd minutes thumping the ball towards Mirsoslav Klose’ s head, to little avail. It’s Italy who reach the decider and combined with Spain’s fluky win over Portugal, they’ve got a real chance of winning it at 6/4