Saturday 21 October 2017

Daniel McDonnell: Trap's apprentice Prandelli comes of age on biggest stage

SO, IT'S a Group C final -- a fact that you suspect will be repeated more than once by Giovanni Trapattoni in the weeks and months ahead.

Italy were magnificent. Their stars delivered, executing a game plan which proves that you can stop the Germans without parking the bus.

Trapattoni's apprentice, Cesare Prandelli, has enjoyed a tournament that should cement his status whatever happens in Kiev on Sunday.

A month ago, a group of giddy Irish journalists sat in an Italian restaurant as the locals were dismantled by Russia in a pre-tournament friendly.

It capped a week where the match-fixing scandal had robbed Prandelli of his left-back, Domenico Criscito, and left a huge cloud hanging over their preparations. Pulling out of the competition was even discussed.

Their vulnerability offered hope. In truth, it is almost embarrassing to reflect on those feelings of optimism.

Prandelli has worked the oracle. And, in doing so, demonstrated that 4-4-2 can still work, albeit in a narrow diamond form.

The official UEFA teamsheet listed Claudio Marchisio and Daniele de Rossi as wingers, but they effectively operated as auxiliary central midfielders, providing the platform for Andrea Pirlo to get on the ball.

While the playmaker shone again, it wouldn't have been possible without the relentless endeavour of his assistants.

Tactically, Joachim Loew lost the battle. The horse had bolted when he attempted to change things at the interval. But the real story of this game was the Italian strikers. Prandelli can dine out on their achievements.

It's not just his boldness in defying modern convention by using two in every game; throughout the finals, he has displayed flexibility by rotating between various formations.

He started with a 3-5-2 against the Spaniards in Gdansk, and may consider something similar for the return meeting in Kiev. Yet he has always stuck with a pair of natural frontmen.

With Mario Balotelli suffering from injury before the Ireland game, he opted for Antonio di Natale, and there were some in Italy who wanted Prandelli to persist with that arrangement. Balotelli justified that decision here, a remarkable turnaround for a player who was dumped from the squad for the friendly with the United States in February.

Yet his recuperation pales in comparison to that of his strike partner, Antonio Cassano.

The 29-year-old has been ungovernable for long periods of his career. Trapattoni was just one of the managers who struggled to cope with him, and when the Irish boss arrived into the job to be met with a flurry of questions about Stephen Ireland, he pointed to his experiences with Cassano.

In Italy, any footballer displaying signs of selfish immaturity is labelled with the 'Cassanata' tag.

animal

His comments about homosexuals in a press conference a fortnight ago proved that the AC Milan star hasn't quite reformed his character completely, but on the pitch he is a different animal.

Marco Tardelli once described Cassano as a player who performs for the fans rather than the team. It's a different story now.

In this competition, he has put in serious hard graft, as illustrated by the twisting and turning that created the opener for Balotelli.

Due to a fractured relationship with Marcello Lippi, he wasn't present in South Africa two years ago when Italy exited in humiliating fashion, a group stage loss to Slovakia. When Prandelli was appointed, he immediately extended the olive branch and reaped the dividends.

Cassano only lasted an hour last night, in keeping with the other matches here, and understandably so given he was diagnosed with heart problems last November that put his career in doubt. The comeback adds another layer to his story.

Prandelli has got the best from him here, and again showed his flexibility in the manner he was replaced.

Ex-West Ham man Alessandro Diamanti was sent into the fray to provide additional defensive support, yet the subsequent arrival of Thiago Motta suggested a degree of ambition which manifested itself in a flurry of late counter-attacks.

Only for errant finishing from Marchisio and Di Natale, the margin of victory would have been greater and the injury-time nerves would have been avoided.

Where now for Germany? This reverse doesn't make their future any less promising.

Doubtless, the post mortem at home will ask if this generation have the mental strength to cross the finishing line, following on from their limp semi-final loss in 2010 and Bayern Munich's Champions League woes against Chelsea.

There is minimal consolation that Ireland can take from that ahead of the World Cup qualifying campaign.

Trapattoni may focus on the manner of the Italian goals, a directness which indicated that the heart of the German defence can provide some joy.

On the flip side, Loew has a plethora of attacking options and this may only accelerate the promotion of the unlucky ones who started this game watching from the sidelines, particularly Borussia Dortmund's Mario Gotze.

Still, they've never beaten Italy in a competitive match, so perhaps Trap will hope that his nationality can offer some kind of mental block.

The reality, however, is that the Italian squad is in a different stratosphere to our boys. If we didn't realise it before Euro 2012, we certainly know it now.

Irish Independent

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