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Expansive Italy fall at final hurdle

Italy cast aside their reputation for defensive football for a game rich in creativity, guile and excitement at UEFA EURO 2012, winning friends along the way if ultimately not the final.

UEFA EURO 2012: Italy's story ©Getty Images

They say that no one remembers the losing finalists but the football played by Cesare Prandelli's progressive side at UEFA EURO 2012 will live long in the memory as Italy cast aside their reputation for defensive football for a game rich in creativity, guile and excitement.

In a nutshell
Prandelli's charges came through a baptism of fire in their opening match against Spain but that 1-1 draw against the world and European champions was the platform upon which the remainder of their campaign was built. Inspired by their outstanding architect-in-chief Andrea Pirlo, the Azzurri improved game by game, entertaining the neutral in the process with their expansive brand of attractive football. Italy created chances galore, but for all their wonderful approach play Croatia, the Republic of Ireland, England and Germany were never put completely out of sight. The four-time world champions eventually met their match in Spain.

High point
Although the draw with Spain and the penalty shoot-out victory against England were both successful tests of character, the superlative semi-final success against Germany was the high point. Joachim Löw's side had been lauded for their attacking prowess and installed as favourites, yet after weathering the early storm it was Italy who emerged triumphant. The peerless Pirlo again pulled the strings in midfield, the 'blocco Juve' defended the Azzurri goal defiantly and Mario Balotelli came good with two exceptional strikes. The only blot on the copybook was Federico Balzaretti's handball that gave Germany a last-minute lifeline from the penalty spot but the late tension only served to make this team's victory taste all the sweeter.

Key man
Pirlo was Italy's creative force at the 2006 FIFA World Cup and his influence remains as strong as ever. Throughout the tournament he pulled the strings from midfield with his extensive range of passing, a trademark free-kick against Croatia and his 'Panenka' penalty in the shoot-out against England. He won three Carlsberg Man of the Match awards and, as Cesare Prandelli said: "He is one of the best midfielders in the world. Others may get forward and score more but the consistency he shows over 90 minutes is extraordinary."

Hope for the future
Headlines followed Balotelli in the Italian, English and Polish newspapers before and throughout UEFA EURO 2012 and they will doubtless do so long after he has left. Goalless in his opening two matches, the 21-year-old responded to being dropped for the final group match with a goal that sealed victory against the Republic of Ireland. Although he missed several chances in the quarter-final against England, his two unstoppable goals did for Germany and SuperMario's pace, power and unpredictability will make him a mainstay of the national team for years to come.

Vital statistic
15 – the number of competitive matches unbeaten under Prandelli, until the UEFA EURO 2012 final. For all the talk of their attacking verve, the Azzurri are a very hard side to beat. It took Spain two attempts to lower their colours.

Final word
"As long as we play football we are a good side. So long as we try to take supremacy in midfield we are a good side, but if we try to protect a result we become a side with a thousand fears. I have to compliment my team because they really played an excellent tournament."
Coach Prandelli sings the praises of his Azzurri squad.