Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

5 Jul

Euro 2012 has wrapped up and like it did four years ago, Spain was the last team standing. Much was said about Spain’s performances at Euro 2012. Many suggested they were a team that had run their course and were on the decline. In the end, La Furia Roja saved their best performance for last and topped Italy 4-0 in the final.

Spain’s dominance on the international soccer stage over the last four years will go down as one of the most incredible accomplishments in sports. If you consider how international tournaments have gotten longer, the competition stiffer, and mix that with the grueling length of the club soccer season, the ability to for these players to win three straight international tournaments is all that much more impressive.

Overall, the tournament was a blast. The European Championships offer a higher total competition level. With only 16 teams compared to the World Cup’s 32, the Euros have less filler teams. The World Cup has a lot of teams who are not even close to the skill level of the tournament’s elite and that breeds a mentality of not wanted to be humiliated by the upper tier teams. The best way to save yourself from a beating is to sit back and defend which makes for a lot of boring low scoring soccer, just like it did in South Africa two years ago. The 16 teams at the Euros may not all have the same chance at winning but all teams believe they have a shot. They have a lot more confidence in themselves and are familiar with all the competition. This allows for a more confident attacking style of play which results in more goals. Even the games that featured no goals – like the Italy-England quarterfinal or the Portugal-Spain semifinal – were very exciting and full of scoring chances and creativity.

Team of the Tournament: Spain

Throughout their reign as champions of Europe and the World, Spain’s midfield has been lauded as brilliant and credited for being the heart that pumps the team’s creative blood. This tournament cemented that fact. With the absence David Villa, their all-time leading scorer, Spain’s midfield picked up the scoring slack. Through dominance in ball control and possession and constantly creativity, Spain was able to get through every team they faced. Whether it was coasting or authentic struggling, Spain always got the job done. Which is exactly what champions do: Win.

Surprise of the Tournament: Italy

The finalists were on the wrong end of a final drubbing but the score doesn’t truly represent the distance between champions and runners-up. Italy showed quality that a lot of people didn’t know they had. Italy’s midfield worked like a machine. Andrea Pirlo received high praise for his creativity and ball distribution, but his midfield partners played the part of unsung heroes. Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio quietly and effectively did the dirty work needed to win balls, stop attacks and create room for Pirlo. The attacking duo of Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli worked great together and probably formed the tournaments best strike partnership. Hopefully, the Azzurri will be able to harness the momentum gained in this tournament and use that going towards the 2016 World Cup. They definitely have the resources to be a contender two years down the line.

Flop of the Tournament: Netherlands

When the draw for Euro took place in December of 2011 you knew one of the big three: Germany, Netherlands or Portugal, were going home early. There was always a chance it would be Netherlands, but it could not have been more of a disaster. The Oranje were shocked in their opening match when they finished on the wrong end of a 1-0 score line against Denmark and never seemed to recover. Despite being packed with talent and only two years removed from being finalists at the World Cup, the Dutch went home without registering a single point.

 

Goals of the Tournament:

5) Andrea Pirlo vs. England

4) Sami Khedira vs. Greece

3) Danny Welbeck vs. Sweden

2) Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs. France

1) Mario Balotelli vs. Ireland

 

My Best Moments of the Tournament:

Here are a few moments I`ll remember this tournament by.

Shevchenko: Showing the New Dogs Old Tricks

People figured Andriy Shevchenko`s inclusion on Ukraine`s 2012 Euro squad as nothing more than a swan song for a once great striker. But Shevchenko`s two goal performance in Ukraine`s opening match against Sweden gave the co-hosts one last taste of magic from their national hero and served as a reminder as to why he is one of the greatest goal scorers of the last generation. It was a perfect bow for a brilliant player.

Buffon: Singing it one more time with feelin`

Every time the camera panned across the Italian national team during the anthem and stopped at the end at captain and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, I`d get Goosebumps. No one sang the national anthem with so much conviction, pride, and patriotism. He said he thinks of his two great grandparents that died in the Second World War.

“This is the country where I live and I lost two great-grandparents in the war and this is my recognition of them, the recognition of how much they mean to me.”

It was something I`ll always think of whenever I hear the Italian national anthem.

 

Ronaldo: The Golden Boy Delivers

Ronaldo has enough going for him: Talent, looks, club and personal achievements. So, while it`s great for him to get some personal vindication, I think he`s had a pretty charmed professional life as it is. Who I am happy for are the long-time Portuguese Ronaldo fans. They have followed his club career and cheered for Manchester United and Real Madrid, but it was nice to see that their loyalty was rewarded when Ronaldo finally delivered for Portugal and had a great run to the semi-finals.

 

Balotelli: A Mother and Child Reunion

The picture of Mario Balotelli hugging his adoptive mother after Italy`s semi-final win over Germany was a beautiful emotional moment.  The picture was also iconic when you consider it`s the perfect contrast to a tournament that was marred with racism.

Super Mario & Italy’s Coming-of-Age

29 Jun

Mario Balotelli came of age yesterday at Euro 2012. I don’t know if it is something that is changing minds across a nation or a continent as a whole, but I know it has for a few –I’ve seen it first hand – and that already makes a world of difference.

I have long been a fan of Mario Balotelli. I became one the moment Super Mario burst on to the Italian soccer scene in 2008 when he scored a brace for Inter Milan against my beloved Juventus in a Coppa Italia match.

Maybe it was the contrarian in me, but I knew that a player who looked so different from the usual mould of how people picture an Italian and an Italian soccer player would stir up controversy among Italian soccer fans. I knew at some point this guy was going to be a difference maker and I knew I was going to back him from that moment on.

Balotelli celebrates his second goal vs Germany in the semi-finals

Players of color have represented the Italian national soccer team before. Matteo Ferrari and Fabio Liverani come to mind, but Balotelli is different, he wasn’t going to be a utility player, he was never going to get a few call-ups and then fade into obscurity on the long list of players who had a cup of coffee with the Azzurri: He was going to be a superstar – even if at times you didn’t know if he’d shine bright like a sun or explode like a supernova.

Balotelli, 21, was born in Palermo, Sicily to immigrant parents from Ghana. When I heard some of the comments from Italian media, soccer fans in Italy and even from local fans in Canada that Balotelli wasn’t a true Italian or should go play for Ghana, I felt saddened and ashamed that anyone, let alone Italians, would feel this way. I also felt a little insulted: I am also a son of immigrant parents. I was brought up in a family that taught me to respect and value the traditions of my parents but also taught me a deep and passionate love for the country I was born in. I would be heartbroken had I been told (had I ever had the chance to represent Canada) that I wasn’t a ‘true Canadian’ and that I should ‘go represent Italy’. I looked at Balotelli, who was born in Italy and fostered and raised by Italian stepparents, Francesco and Silvia Balotelli, and I thought, this guy is just as if not more, Italian than I am Canadian. Why is anyone questioning if he should represent Italy or if he’s a true Italian?

“Why Always Me” Balotelli asks on shirt directed the British Tabloids

Italy is becoming – much like Canada always has been – a mosaic of people and cultures. As trivial as sports can seem on the grand scheme of things, it is the great equalizer. Sport knows no color. Immigrants who could not speak the language when they came to North America and struggled to adjust and be accepted into the Canadian/American way of life found acceptance and community when their children started playing sports – hockey, Little League, etc. – and a common bond was formed between parents, immigrant and non. Just like how Marijan and Slavica Sakic came to Canada from Croatia (Yugoslavia) and saw their little Joe become a Canadian hockey icon or how Italian immigrants Giuseppe and Rosalia Di Maggio saw their son Joe go on to become one of if not the greatest to ever play America’s Pastime, sport is the great equalizer: it has broke color barriers, destroyed intolerance and prejudice and united people in communities.

I saw a change happen in people over the last couple of weeks. I don’t know how grand of a scale the change is, but I’ve seen it. Some are Italian immigrants, some are first generation Italian-Canadians, and some are Italians in Italy, when they saw Mario Balotelli play and ultimately score for Italy, they didn’t look at him as the Ghanaian guy who plays for Italy; they looked at him as an Italian. They looked at him like one of them, representing the green, white and red as proudly as any other player donning the Azzurro shirt of the Nazionle.

Super Mario hugs his adoptive mother. He dedicated both his semi-final goals to her.

The story of Mario Balotelli and his coming-of-age with the Italian national team at Euro 2012 is a perfect contrast to a tournament that started-off by showing the ugly side of humanity through racist chants, taunts and banners inside the stadiums and training grounds. People are good. We should never doubt ourselves, we just need to find a common bond, and sometimes it can be as simple as a stupid little ball being kicked around a massive patch of grass to help us realize we’re all the same.

Iberian War: Portugal vs. Spain

27 Jun

The first semi final of the Euro 2012 features the Iberian War between defending European and World champions Spain and neighboring Portugal. The two teams last met in a major competition just two years ago in the round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Spain came out on top 1-0 with a 63rd minute David Villa goal.

Spain’s Cesc Fabregas has been converted to a striker for the tournament.

But David Villa was left off the squad due to injury and Spain is having a hard time figuring out who can fill his position. Spain has juggled between Fernando Torres and midfielder Cesc Fabregas in the starting striker role and have so far depended on scoring by committee as five different players have found their way onto the score sheet for the Spaniards. Spain has received a fare share of criticism for less than impressive performances in the tournament so far and have even being labeled boring. But Spain did not come to Ukraine and Poland to entertain, they came to win.

Xabi Alonso celebrates his second goal against France. Yes, Spain has a Javi, Xabi & Xavi on the roster.

Spain has rattled off three straight victories since their opening game draw against Italy. The defending champions have scored eight goals in their first four games of Euro 2012, which equals their tournament total from the 2010 World Cup; not bad for a team that’s supposedly ‘slipping’ in quality. Spain will definitely try to dominate the ball possession in the semi-finals by moving the ball around like only they can. Portugal surely won’t be as accommodating as the French were in the quarters. Xavi, Iniesta, David Silva and Xabi Alonso have been solid in the midfield and will continue to be the creative heart that pumps the lifeblood of Spain’s national team.

Portugal has also ripped off three straight victories since their opening match set-back; in their case, an opening game loss to Germany. Portugal topped the Czech Republic 1-0 in the quarterfinals, although the score does not truly reflect their performance. The Selecção dominated the Czechs and if it wasn’t for an on-form Petr Cech and a couple of goalposts, Portugal could have won by three or four.

Portugal may not be as deep as Spain, they do have something Spain

CR7

doesn’t; in fact they have something or rather someone no one else has: an en fuego Cristiano Ronaldo. After starting slow and raising the usual doubts with his first two performances, CR7 has come out like a man possessed in the last two matches. If Portugal is to get by their Iberian rivals, Ronaldo will have to continue to play the best soccer he has in a Portugal jersey.

However, they are not just Cristiano. He receives a lot of the credit but many have contributed in getting Portugal to the semifinals. Pepe, Bruno Alves and Fabio Coentrao have been great in the back for the Portuguese and Porto midfielder Joao Mountinho has been a linchpin in their midfield.

Portugal midfielder Joao Mountinho

It will be interesting to see how this game eventually takes shape. Spain will be knocking the ball around but will have to be very careful of Portugal’s ability to counter. Ronaldo is terrifyingly fast on the break and Spain will have to stay on their toes to make sure they do not fall victim to a quick counter attack. Spain can’t depend on Ronaldo not continuing his latest form; they have to do their best to keep him ineffective. The longer this game stays close, the better the chances Portugal could shock the Spaniards. It will serve Spain best to get up early and their spot in the driver’s seat. But an early lead would be the wish of any squad, but no squad can protect the ball like the defending champs.

Any fan not invested in either side should be hoping for an early goal from one of the teams. Viewers will be in for a treat if these two squads are forced to open up and display their flair. If only we could be so lucky.

Prediction: This game will be a battle. While many are counting Portugal out, they will give Spain all they can handle. I’ll go with the defending champs in this one, but there is a definite potential for an upset and maybe even extra time. 2-1 Spain.

Azzurri put England to the Sword

25 Jun 212361-italy-euro-2012

The Azzurri went to Kiev to win, and win they did.

Dominating the match and controlling possession, Italy came at England from all angles; creating chances and keeping the English defence on guard for 120 minutes. Despite having 64 per cent of ball possession and 35 shots – 20 of them on target – Italy was pushed to the brink and forced into penalties by a stubborn England squad that worked hard and gave it their all protecting their net.

Italy’s midfield magician Andrea Pirlo, rebounded from an off-key game versus the Irish and was back to orchestrating the Italian attack that almost always looked like the aggressor throughout the 120 minutes. The Azzurri make no secret that Pirlo is soul of their attack. Teammates looked to get him the ball immediately and left its dispersal up to him.

Italy underutilized their fullbacks in their game against Ireland but really took advantage of them in their game against England; using Federico Balzaretti often, as he constantly posed a threat down the flanks.

The Azzurri had plenty of chances to score and started it off with a Daniele De Rossi rocket off the post in the 3rd minute. It would have been great to see him score a Stevie Gerrard-esque cracker in front of Gerrard considering the Roma midfielder lists Gerrard as his idol.

Striker Mario Balotelli did a fantastic job making runs that got him behind the English defence on a few occasions to receive Andrea Pirlo through balls. Milan midfielder Antonio Nocerino as well as De Rossi both missed glorious chances from within 10 yards from the net; De Rossi slotting his wide and Nocerino having his one-on-one with Joe Hart blocked.

The shootout was intense as both countries have had more than their fair share of shootout exits from major competitions. Italy probably only trails England (and maybe Holland) in this unflattering stat that is slathered in heartbreak. After both Balotelli and Gerrard converted their country’s first shots, Ricardo Montolivo placed his shot wide of the goal allowing Wayne Rooney to convert and put the English up ahead. Andrea Pirlo’s penalty shot needs special mention. The testicular fortitude and confidence it takes to “Panenka” a penalty shot when trailing in a shootout is incredible. And was most definitely a tide turner as it seemed to unsettle the English and re-energize the Italians. The evidence of this was apparent as England’s next two shooters, Ashley Cole and Ashley Young both missed, Cole smashing it off the bar and Young being stopped by Gianluigi Buffon. Antonio Nocerino scored for Italy and Alessandro Diamanti tucked home the winner to send the Italians through to the semi-finals.

England was outmatched but they did have a fighting spirit that’s to be commended. A team that was written off by their own countrymen and media did the most with what they had and over performed in the process. Their counter-attack looked dangerous at times and their defence stood its ground for the most part. Was their sit back and counter strategy a product of having Roy Hodgson take over managerial duties just two matches before the tournament, or is it something they plan on developing. It might not be a bad idea if England tried to perfect that counter attack. Rooney and Walcott have great speed and perhaps when Frank Lampard joins the team after he recovers from injury, he and Gerrard can help orchestrate that.

England does not have the personnel to play a possession game, but could be deadly with a finely tuned counterattack. We’ll see what England looks like in World Cup Qualifying. Interestingly enough, their first post-Euro friendly match is against Italy on August 15.It would have been a shame had England topped Italy in the shootout. The Italians deserved to win in every aspect of the match and ultimately did so. Italy has their work cut out for them in the semi-finals where they are set to face tournament powerhouse Germany on Thursday.

*It should be said that UEFA messed up on the scheduling for the quarterfinals. The Spain/France game should have been on Friday seeing as the winner met whoever came out of Thursday’s Portugal/Czech game. Germany/Greece should have been played on Saturday, the day before the Italy/England game as the winners of those two were set to play each other. You now have a tournament where both semi-finals feature a team that has had 48-hours more rest than their opponents when you could have lowered that to 24-hours with just simple, common sense planning.

For random thoughts during the games and throughout the tournament you can follow me on Twitter @davec4pone

Making a Case for Greatness

22 Jun 986560-cristiano-ronaldo

Being the best gets you on Youtube. Being the Greatest gets you in history books.

Cristiano Ronaldo is on fire. He has risen to the occasion in Portugal`s last two games – virtually both knock-out situations – and scored the goals that carried the Selecção to the quarter-finals and then to the semis.

This by no means defines how good Ronaldo is; he`s been this good for a long time. He`s been one of the top two players in the world for half a decade.  These last two performances don`t add to the argument if he`s the best in the world; that argument can swing to either side depending on the goal spree Real and Barca go on that week. But the argument these last two performances start to define is: Is he Great?

There is a difference in sports between being the best and greatness. Being considered one of the best or the best is judged on skill, talent, and stats. Greatness takes into account all the things in being the best and combines them with the immeasurable: leadership, rising to the occasion, ability to inspire awe, etc.; those moments that differ for each of the greats, yet are still tied together by the fact they are all moments that define them forever and grant them the immortality that comes with being synonymous with the sport forever.

You can argue who the best is in hockey. Is it Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin? When it comes down to who`s the Greatest, it`s Crosby hands down. Who`s the best quarterback of all time: Marino or Montana? Arguments can be made for both. But as far as who`s the greatest, it`s Montana. And while Ronaldo is not yet in conversation as the Greatest, he is using Euro 2012 as the major reference point on his footballing Curriculum Vitae. His performance in the last two matches will one day be a part of what is used to consider him among the greats like Maradona, Zidane, (Brazilian) Ronaldo, etc.

He has won plenty at the club level; but he did it while playing for Manchester United and Real Madrid. If a team can afford to shell over €94 million for you like Real Madrid did, it can afford to surround you with enough talent to win everything at the club level. It will be what CR7 does while wearing the Portugal jersey that will ultimately define his greatness.

It is not fair to say either Portugal wins Euro or it means nothing towards Ronaldo`s legacy. These major tournaments come along once every two years and a player would be lucky to play in many of them, let alone win one. Portuguese fans will love him and remember him as their Golden Boy regardless of what happens in this tournament, but they are getting to a point where the need to win is growing in urgency.

Having the one of the best players in the world is no longer good enough for Portugal. They want to be champions. They find themselves in a sort of soccer purgatory where they`re considered one of the best soccer nations in the world, but are the only nation in that group without a title to show for it. As the pressure to win gathers it mounts itself on the shoulders of Ronaldo. Being a country`s hero is a heavy cross to bare and even heavier when you consider they`ve been on the brink of glory and fallen short over the last decade. The hopes and dreams of a nation rest on his shoulders more than they do on Messi, Rooney or anyone else from the soccer elite nations that have titles to look back on.

Ronaldo is defining his legacy at Euro 2012. He is stating his case for greatness. But if he can carry Portugal to European glory, he catapults himself into the annals of footballing history as one of the greatest ever.

On a side note, where CR7  ranks as a soccer players is trivial when you compare it to things he does off the field. Take a minute to look at this story about what Cristiano Ronaldo did for this boy who’s is battling cancer. Pure class, Cristiano.

For random thoughts during the games and throughout the tournament you can follow me on Twitter @davec4pone

Euro 2012 Quarter Final Picks

20 Jun

Portugal vs Czech Republic

Thursday, June 21. 1:45 pm (CST)

The Czechs bounced back from an early drubbing at the hands of Russia to beat Greece (2-1) and Poland (1-0). The Czechs haven’t been overly impressive, but the fact they shook off their Russian beating speaks volumes about their resilience. The Czechs are hoping to repeat their 1-0 victory over Portugal from the quarterfinals of Euro 1996; a tournament that saw the Czechs go all the way to the finals. Czech captain Tomas Rosicky missed the last group stage game versus Poland due to an inflamed Achilles tendon but has returned to training with his team. His availability for the quarterfinal is still yet to be known.

After a not-so-impressive performance versus Germany in their opening match, Portugal has improved every game. They won a slugfest with Denmark 3-2 and topped a disappointing Dutch side 2-1. Cristiano Ronaldo’s breakthrough performance against the Netherlands should have Portuguese fans excited that their captain is on his game, and when he is firing on all cylinders he’s one of the world’s most dangerous players. That being said, one performance is not a pattern, and Portugal will need CR7 to show-up once again.

Prediction: You can put the Czech-mark beside Portugal. Portugal wins and moves on to the semi-finals.

Germany vs. Greece

Friday, June 22. 1:45 pm (CST)

Germany navigated through the Group of Death unscathed and posted a perfect 3-0 record. Germany has definitely surpassed Spain as the tournament favorites going into the knockout stages. The Germans boast an incredible amount of talent in the midfield and attack and the fact that they might not have hit full stride yet is scary.

Greece came out of Group A when not many people have them a chance to do so. The Greeks accomplished that feat with their trademark hard work and commitment to defence.  Greece captain Giorgos Karagounis is suspended for the quarterfinals. He is their emotional leader and they will no doubt miss him in the midfield. The Greeks absolutely cannot afford the same slow start they had in their first two group matches against Poland and Czech Republic. Anything less than perfection against the Germans will spell disaster for Greece.

Prediction: Even a perfect Greece won’t be enough to derail the Germans. Germany marches on.

Spain vs. France

Saturday, June 23. 1:45 pm (CST)

Spain finished first in Group C as was predicted but didn’t sail smoothly through it. They did put a clinic on against Ireland, but Ireland seemed keen to lie down and take it. Italy gave the defending European and World Champions a hell of a match and Croatia frustrated the Spaniards. But Spain is still Spain. Champions know how to turn it on when it counts and with the knockout stages upon them, is this when we’ll see the real Spain.

France looked good in the first two matches. They pressed constantly and looked like the more hungry side against both England and Ukraine. France look to have come out the storm their national team has been through in the last two major tournaments. Incredibly, since Zinedine Zidane’s infamous head-butt in the 2006 World Cup Final, France has won only once in 10 tournament games (2-0 over Ukraine). They no doubt have a talented team. But is it enough to dethrone the kings?

Prediction: France will give Spain a fight. But in the end you have to go with the incumbents. Spain moves to face Portugal in an Iberian Battle.

England vs. Italy

Sunday, June 24. 1:45 pm (CST)

This is the match the world will be watching. England came out on top in Group D when many doubted they had what it took to even finish second. While the England’s performance hasn’t been all that attractive, it has worked for them. Wayne Rooney returned to the line-up in the last group game and will be a threat to the Italian defence. Steven Gerrard has been awesome in the English midfield and always seems to rise to another level in big matches.

The Azzurri looked brilliant against Spain in their opening match and have done enough since to warrant going through to the quarterfinals. Strikers Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano both hit the back of the net in their last game and hopefully for Italy both forwards have found their groove. The Italian back line will be without Giorgio Chiellini who has been ruled out with an injury so it will be interesting to see if Daniele De Rossi moves back to defence again after spending the Ireland match in his usual midfield position. Italy plays their best against the big teams in big matches, and England is a big team and this is a big match.

Prediction: English media is already looking forward to the Germany-England semi-finals. For their sake I hope they have a PS3. It may be my heart talking, but I’m taking the Azzurri for the win.

For random thoughts during the games and throughout the tournament you can follow me on Twitter @davec4pone

Italians not so Stylish but Get it Done

19 Jun

The image of a crying Antonio Cassano being consoled at Euro 2004 when he found out his winning goal was not enough to send

Cassano in tears after Italy exits Euro 2004

Italy through to the quarterfinals is burned into my memory.  So I couldn’t help myself when I felt extremely happy that it was his winning goal that put Italy through to the quarterfinals eight years later.

The positives don’t start and end there, but they don’t go very far beyond that. But let’s celebrate the positives before I dwell on the negatives.

Antonio Di Natale replaced Mario Balotelli in the starting 11 for the Azzurri after Balotelli was reduced to a bench role after picking up a knock in training. The little Neapolitan formed an effective attacking partnership with Cassano in the first half. You would have to think at least one of Di Natale’s chances in front would have gone in against a team not as hell-bent on parking the figurative bus in front of their own net like Ireland did.

 

 

Italy attacked well in the first half and created a few chances but failed to convert until late in the half when Cassano headed in an Andrea Pirlo corner kick to give the Italians a deserved lead going into the break.

Federico Balzaretti played well for Italy in the fullback position. He made frequent runs along the flanks and posed a threat from the wing on many occasions. However, Italy’s insistence on moving the ball though the crowded middle often left Balzaretti alone one the sides calling for passes that never came.

Once again, for the third straight game, Italy played Jekyll and Hyde in the later part of the match. Italy lost steam as the second half continued on. Ireland, who came into this match looking to defend and just get out of the game without repeating the same humiliation as the game before, actually started gaining confidence as the half went on and even on an occasion or two looked to equalize.

Andrea Pirlo had a rare off-form game vs Ireland

The Italian attack obviously runs through the magic feet of Andrea Pirlo. And as evident as that is when Pirlo is on his game, it shines even brighter when he’s off his game. The Ireland match was one of those days. Ireland pressured him and combined with an off game it rendered him ineffective for much of the match. This has to cause a little concern for later rounds. Not so much that Pirlo could have an off game, because that’s rare, but it’s simple soccer to try to closely mark the other team’s best player, and with Italy’s insistence on going through the middle, a well-marked Pirlo could take a big chunk out of the Italian offence. Italy will need to explore the sides going forward in the tournament as they have a wealth of fullbacks. Between Balzaretti, Christian Maggio and Ignazio Abate Italy has the personnel to cause headaches for opposing teams along the sides. Not to mention spreading out the field will naturally open up the middle. And if Pirlo has space in the middle to work with; that right there my friend is baby-making soccer.

Mario “Black Swagger” Balotelli doubled Italy’s lead in the 90minute with what has to be the goal of the tournament so far with an overhead kick on an Alessandro Diamanti corner. Balotelli, who did not celebrate, started to say something that was believed to be directed at Irish fans who jeered and taunted him when he was substituted in. However, his mouth was quickly covered up by teammate Leonardo Bonucci’s hand in fear the temperamental striker could pick up his second yellow of the group stages and rule him out of the quarterfinals.

 

Bonucci keeps Balotelli quiet and out of trouble after scoring a WonderGoal.

“He said something in English, so I’ve no idea what it was! Unfortunately, Mario is very instinctive and that is also his strength. Without that personality he wouldn’t have scored such a great goal,” said Bonucci in a post-game interview.

Italy will now meet the winner of Group D on Sunday, June 24. Italy will need to shake off a less than impressive group stage and rise to the occasion should they want to progress. The Azzurri have the talent, players and experience to go far in the tournament, but they simply need to play better than they have for their potential to be realized.

We’ve found a spy in the Irish Camp!

 

 

 

For random thoughts during the games and throughout the tournament you can follow me on Twitter @davec4pone

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