Sport Soccer

Sunday 18 March 2018

Majestic Pirlo fails to inspire Italians


No fan ran on to kiss him as they did after the victory against Ireland, but for Slaven Bilic this was a bigger result.

Croatia's charismatic manager predicted that, should his side break out of their group, they might run wild -- and they are now very close.

In the deepest contrast, Italy will have to beat Ireland next Monday, something they achieved in the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup, but which was beyond them four years later. If the result is New Jersey rather than Rome, then they will have failed to get out the group stage for the second successive tournament.

As they had against Spain in their opening fixture in Gdansk, Italy scored first only to be pegged back and finished the weaker side.

They will return to Poznan on Monday with everything at stake and heavily dependent on Andrea Pirlo's continuing brilliance.

But in so many ways, it was a big decision for coach Cesare Prandelli to keep faith with Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli.

Because of the colour of his skin, Balotelli has had to "prove" his credentials to be considered a genuine No 9 for the Azzurri more than others. It was also his substitution by Antonio di Natale that triggered Italy's breakthrough against Spain.

The Italy manager's faith was rewarded with a series of sloppy passes. Prandelli had urged him to do his talking on the pitch but, if so, this was a barely audible mumble.

There was, nevertheless, time for one fizzing drive that hissed over the crossbar on the hour before he trudged off to whistles to be replaced once more by Antonio Di Natale.

It is hard to imagine Balotelli starting against Ireland. Here, as in Gdansk, the substitution produced a goal, but this time it went against the Italians. A cross from Ivan Strinic caught Giorgio Chiellini out of position and Mario Mandzukic, on the six-yard line, steadied himself and drove into the roof of Gianluigi Buffon's net.

Mandzukic, who learned his football under Miroslav Blazevic, who managed Croatia to third place in the 1998 World Cup, had wrecked Ireland in the opening game and now he had damaged Italian hopes.

In more than the scoreline, this was a repeat of Italy's opener. As they had done against Spain, Prandelli's team were good enough to exert a real measure of control early on.

As the best player for Rostov, one of the Russian League's poorest teams, Croatia's goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa is used to busy evenings. He had just made a superb double save from Claudio Marchisio when he was finally beaten.

Pirlo's free-kick curled and dipped over the four-man wall and beat Pletikosa at the near post that the wall should have protected, a point he made immediately after he had clawed the ball out of his net.

For the 33-year-old Pirlo, this was another jewel in a glittering season. The nearest equivalent for Milan's decision to release him to Juventus would be Tommy Docherty allowing Denis Law to exchange Manchester United for City. The artist's touch that helped Juventus to the Serie A title was evident, not just for the goal but in the corner that Adriano Cassano headed just over.

The opportunities came and went, but Italy continued to weaken and Bilic, who began his six years at his country's helm with a win over Italy, in the end must have been disappointed not to have earned a repetition. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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