Italian Football Federation (FIGC) vice-president Demetrio Albertini believes the Azzurri's opening match against Spain was an important step in the development of a team committed to playing good football but warned of Thursday's opponents: "Croatia are a side to fear."
Albertini was just 17 when he made his debut for AC Milan at the dawn of a glittering career that took in three European Cup wins and five Serie A titles. Now 40, the former international midfielder occupies himself with the fortunes, and future, of Italian football, and as one of the guardians of calcio he has been pleased by the start the Azzurri have made to UEFA EURO 2012, holding Spain 1-1.
"The first thing to say about the Spain game is what a beautiful match it was – all the emotions the players gave us," Albertini told UEFA.com. "It was a great advert for football, with two teams who have such a glorious history and wonderful players, playing a very open game. There were chances for both sides and in the end it was a draw both can be satisfied with."
As someone who played in four major international tournaments, including two UEFA European Championships, Albertini is well placed to judge the ability of Prandelli's squad and so far he has been encouraged by the progress made since Italy's disappointing 2010 FIFA World Cup campaign.
"This is a side that has built something new over the last two years," he said. "It isn't easy to create a new style but in this team the best has been brought out of individuals in a system of play that has been successfully developed by the coach. Unfortunately we were only able to play three matches in the last six months so it was difficult to carry the work forward, but the coach made the best of a difficult situation."
The difficulties posed for Prandelli in the build-up to UEFA EURO 2012 included an injury to key defender Andrea Barzagli in the final warm-up game and three successive friendly defeats. Yet Prandelli addressed the situation by changing his favoured 4-3-1-2 formation to a 3-5-2 and converting midfielder Daniele De Rossi into a central defender for the opening match. It was a bold move, but one which, Albertini says, the coach was able to make because of his ability to communicate ideas to players.
"He made the players understand that it isn't a formation that determines results but the performance of the players. Daniele is a case in point. He moved back into defence, but proved what a great player he is by doing so successfully."
Quite whether De Rossi is asked to interpret the same role in Italy's next fixture, against Croatia in Poznan, remains to be seen. However, Albertini is under no illusions about the size of the task facing Prandelli's charges. "We always knew Croatia would be the crossroads in this group. Despite being third favourites in the section on paper they proved how good they were by winning 3-1 [against the Republic of Ireland]. The hardest match is always the next one you have to play and we must approach it with humility as we did the last."
Though Italy have yet to beat Croatia in five previous meetings, the FIGC vice-president is nonetheless confident the Azzurri can end their hoodoo. "Even Spain didn't have a good record against us before the last EURO [when Italy lost on penalties in the quarter-finals].
"In football, traditions can change, otherwise we wouldn't bother turning up. We want to change this record we have with Croatia. We know we have to work hard so we don't just play well but we win. Croatia are a side to fear, we always knew they would be tough opponents and they will be again."
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