Sunday, July 21, 2024

Euro 2024: Italy steal it at the death

One of the great things about football is how a late goal can change how you feel about a game.

To say I watched Italy versus Croatia last night feels a bit too passive. I endured Italy versus Croatia. This was not a good game of football. There were moments here and there, a header well saved in the first half was the best chance Italy could muster. Croatia continued to look like a team who have been around the block too many times, those old legs just unable to find the kind of zip needed.

Then in the second half a penalty for handball went their way. It’s difficult these days to fully understand what is and what isn’t handball, but this one looked fairly clear cut. Up stepped Luka Modric, and while his attempt wasn’t great, it was a fantastic save from Gianluigi Donnarumma – by far the best keeper at the tournament thus far, and he might have to keep that up based on what we’ve seen from Italy.

The ball was cleared, but Croatia kept hold of it and I thought the quality of the cross back into the box from Luka Sucic was superb. That resulted in a flicked effort on goal from Ante Budimir, but again Donnarumma produced a brilliant save. His defenders stood and watched on with admiration rather than reacting, and Modric pounced to put the ball home from close range and make it 1-0.

To be fair to Italy, they responded with some domination of possession and territory. They had 76% possession after the goal and had 7 shots. Croatia didn’t have a single attempt after they scored. The problem for the Italians was a genuine lack of quality once they got to the final third. Bastoni headed over from a corner when he should have scored, and that was the best chance. There was no spark, no zip, no bit of magic from anyone. The final pass, the final decision, was always poor. Long gone the days when some Italian sides had that special forward player with bit extra to help them find a way through.

They resorted to humping it long towards West Ham reject Gianluca Scamacca, truly the kind of football Sam Allardici would have deployed if the world had been more open to his tactical genius. There was just nothing up front. So, it’s probably fitting that the key moment involved a defender, 22 year old Riccardo Calafiori driving forward to try and make something happen after seeing those ahead of him fail time and time again. In the final minute of 8 added on, he played the ball out to Mattia Zaccagni on the left-hand side, and his first time finish could not have been better, nestling into the top corner and ensuring Italy’s qualification.

Did Italy deserve it? Not really, but then you think of that line from Unforgiven and remember that deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it. For Croatia then, a bitter blow. The nervous excitement on the bench as they looked like they were about to hang on for a famous win turned to tears in an instant. There was no sense that Italy were capable of that kind of quality in the previous 97 minutes, but that’s the beauty of this game. Even when the overall quality is poor, there is always the possibility of drama, and that has never seemed more true than in this tournament.

Croatia aren’t yet officially out, it’s possible given certain results going their way they could end up as one of the best third placed teams, but it’s going to feel like a horrible few days for them after that late sucker-punch.

In the other game, David Raya played as Spain beat Albania 1-0 to top the group. I had this on the laptop at the same time as the Italy game, but it’s too distracting to try and watch two games at the same time. The goal from Ferran Torres was nice, and overall I think Sylvinho’s work with the Albanian side has been pretty impressive – particularly when you look at the group they found themselves in.

Today, we have France v Poland (Kiwior) and Netherlands v Austria in the early games, and later on it’s Denmark v Serbia and England v Slovenia. I have to say I found the comments from Harry Kane and Declan Rice about former players/pundits quite strange. It’s not the job of the media to be cheerleaders and to give players a confidence boost by saying nice things about them.

Is there a tendency for sections of the English media to go a bit OTT? Yes, it’s a story as old as time, but the quality of the performances so far has been rightly and quite fairly scrutinised/criticised, and it’s up to the players to respond on the pitch. Let’s see if they can do that later, and if Southgate is brave enough to do what he really should do and drop Harry Kane.

You can join us for some Euro 2024 chat over on Patreon a bit later on, and there’s a new Arsecast Extra below if you haven’t had a chance to listen yet. For now, let’s leave it there.

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