Now it was Group C's turn with all the drama.
Italian manager Cesare Prandelli decided to change his formation and went with a 4-1-3-2 instead of the 3-5-3 that they did well with in the last two games. Secondly, he decided to move Daniele De Rossi back to the midfield instead of anchoring the back three. Finally, instead of having distractions with Mario Balotelli and his yellow card, he elected to start Antonio Di Natale. Their focus had to be to win... and hope for a Spain or Croatia win.
What's weird is that before the matches today, the scoreboard was being tested and someone put on the screen Spain 2- Croatia 2. Why is that weird? Italy is dealing with yet another match fixing scandal. The reason for group final games being played at the same time was to stop shenanigans like that from ever happening again. Wouldn't it be something if UEFA would fix the Spain v. Croatia match with a 2-2 tie which would eliminate Italy even if they won because of goal differential? The world was watching...especially every household in Italy.
The games started and Spain gingerly attacked the goal. Only Ireland went out hard at first. Of course, Ireland had nothing to lose except respect from their 30,000 unbelievably supportive fans. They had a chance to score within one minute and botched it. After 20 minutes, the scores remained 0-0. With that result, Spain would advance along with Croatia. Play on.
Controversy hit in the 26th minute. Mario Mandžukić from Croatia was able to dribble into Spain's penalty box by initially beating Sergio Ramos. Ramos came back from behind and clearly went in cleats up and hit 'Super Mario' in the foot taking him down. The Turkish referee Cüneyt Çakır ruled that it was not anything, either a dive or a foul. With all of the gamesmanship going on, especially with the Italians, perhapse instant replay would be an asset here. Last night, during the NBA Finals, I liked the way they were able to check the replay to determine whether or not Derek Fisher's shot was a 3-pointer during the break. I know that controversy is part of the lore of soccer, but I do feel bad for Croatia. A PK going in would have gotten them into the quarterfinals.
In the 35th minute, Italy struck first blood. They got a corner and Andrea Pirlo's kick to the near post was driven by Antonio Cassano and ricocheted off of Ireland's goalie Shay Given's hand winding up at the other side of the net. Italy 1-0. If the game ended at that moment, we would have had a three-way tie for first place and the tie-breaker would have had eliminated Croatia.
Well halftime came and went and I know La Roja's Coach del Bosque is a calm fellow, but he must have been thinking about what if Croatia had scored. Spain came out of the locker room with the strong possibility of being eliminated if Croatia could muster up that goal.
In the 58th minute, that nightmare nearly came true. Ivan Rakitić headed a well placed cross directly to legendary Spanish goalie Iker Casillas. He deflected the ball off of his defender Sergio Busquets. That ball went right back to Ivan Rakitić who headed the ball right back to target. This time Casillas was not there and Xabi Alonso was able to clear the ball away from harm's way. Wow. Croatian fans had their hearts in their throats but no goal.
The next 15 minutes saw Spain happy with settling for a tie, Italy determined to keep their 1-0 lead and be satisfied with it. The Irish were coming with everything they had. They had to. How could they lay an egg and disappoint their fans who were, by far, the most sporting of the tournament. Coach Trappatoni, who coached the Italian team earlier in his career, had to show that he was coaching to the best of his ability not giving his home country a free ride. Trappatoni put in the younger stars his fans wished were on the field on their prior losses. And they kept on coming. Italy's veteran keeper Gianluigi Buffon kept his goal clean even after Ireland placed some impressive shots upon him.
In the 78th minute, Croatian substitute Ivan Perišić put a quality shot on Casillas, and the Real Madrid keeper was up to the task. Time was running out for Croatia.
Deep into regulation the scores remained the same. Then, both Italy and Spain separated themselves as the top teams of the group. Two substitutes went down in history scoring those goals. The Spanish goal came in the 88th minute from the MVP of Spain [in my opinion] Andrés Iniesta who broke through the Croatian defense who hadn't learned from others before them. Croatia held their hands up trying to influence an offsides call. None was made for Iniesta was on-sides. Iniesta passed the ball forward but to substitute Jesús Navas who was even with him when the pass was made. Even goalie Stipe Pletikosa raised his hands that Navas was offsides instead of diving trying to stop or distract his shot. Navas said thank you and placed the ball into the open net. If the game ends now, Spain would be on top of the group and Italy would be second.
The last goal of the group was scored by none other than Azzuri's 'substitue' Mario Balotelli. Yes, Balotelli came in and I wonder why Coach Prandelli put him in. To satisfy Mario's ego, or to make sure this game had one more goal because of the pressure the Irish were giving them. Whatever the case, another Italian substitute Alessandro Diamanti took a corner kick and placed it straight to Balotelli who, in dramatic fashion, hit the ball waist high and drove it past Irleland's goalie Shay Given. Mario's teammates ran to him to keep his mouth shut so he could play in the next game. Who knows who Mario wanted to shout at, but his teammates saw that he is indeed valuable to the squad and they also know that he has no self-control. What a pity for he is a great player.
Full time came and went and now we have Spain winning the group and Italy is runner-up. They await the winners of the games tomorrow between England-Ukraine and Sweden-France. It should be fun!
We talked about today's matches on our radio program tonight: Monday Night Futbol on WGSO 990 am. You can listen to it in it's entirety at this link: http://wgso.com/?cat=81
God Bless All of You!
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