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Semi-finalist profile: Italy

Expectations may have been low following a bumpy preparation, but Italy have slowly moved through the gears and are now eyeing a third UEFA European Championship final.

Semi-finalist profile: Italy
Semi-finalist profile: Italy ©uefa.com 1998-2012. All rights reserved.

Considering the way their preparations went, it is a minor miracle Italy have reached their fourth UEFA European Championship semi-final. Their 3-0 defeat by Russia a week before the start of UEFA EURO 2012 was the Azzurri's third straight friendly loss, while the victory against the Republic of Ireland which secured a place in the last eight was their first final tournament triumph in seven attempts. Yet Cesare Prandelli's side have begun to rediscover the free-flowing football that ensured they breezed through qualification unbeaten, and momentum is behind them.

Tactics: The Russia reverse and the calf injury that sidelined Andrea Barzagli for the opening two matches prompted Prandelli to switch from his customary 4-3-1-2 to a 3-5-2 formation, with midfielder Daniele De Rossi withdrawn to the centre of his three-man defence. Italy enjoyed possession aplenty and created myriad chances in this system but in both 1-1 draws, squandered 1-0 leads. With the return of Barzagli, Prandelli reverted to his preferred set-up, earning a first victory of the campaign against Ireland and control of their quarter-final against England.

Key man: Andrea Pirlo was Italy's creative force at the 2006 FIFA World Cup and his influence remains as strong as ever. Throughout the tournament he has pulled the strings from midfield with his extensive range of passing and weighed in with significant contributions, such as the defence-splitting pass to set up Antonio Di Natale's goal against Spain, his trademark free-kick against Croatia and his nerveless 'Panenka'  penalty in the shoot-out against England. Alessandro Diamante said: "Even when tired Pirlo is the best midfielder in the world."

EURO semi-final record:

05/06/1968 Italy 0-0 USSR (aet, ITA won on coin toss) (Naples)

22/06/1988 USSR 2-0 Italy (Stuttgart)

29/06/2000 Italy 0-0 Netherlands (aet, ITA won 3-1 on pens)(Amsterdam)

Basecamp: The Azzurri are thriving under Prandelli's 24-match tenure. The Italy coach works his charges hard in training, yet they are relishing the expansive game they play and clearly get on well. In one training session Mario Balotelli and Di Natale clubbed together to trip up Antonio Cassano. "Oi, so you want me to get injured do you?" he screamed as he tried to catch up with his laughing team-mates; rivals for a starting place, the strikers, like all the players, seem to enjoy each other's company. "The atmosphere in the camp is good," Cassano told UEFA.com. "My team-mates and I are having fun but in the end it's results that count."

Record in Warsaw: Cassano has good reason to remember Warsaw fondly, but he may be the only Italian footballer that does. The AC Milan striker scored his first international goal there on his Italy debut in 2003, though his side lost that friendly 3-1. The Azzurri's only previous match in the city was a 0-0 UEFA European Championship qualifying draw in 1975.

Italian clubs have not generally enjoyed their trips to Warsaw – six UEFA club competition games between Legia and Serie A opponents have ended with just one win for the visitors, FC Internazionale Milano prevailing 1-0 in the 1985/86 UEFA Cup. The remaining five games ended in two defeats and three 1-1 draws, with the most recent – for Udinese Calcio in the 1999/2000 UEFA Cup – watched from the bench by Italy reserve keeper Morgan De Sanctis.

Room for improvement: Prandelli is trying to stop his side from reverting to their "gut instinct of defending a lead". After squandering 1-0 advantages against Spain and Croatia, he identified an age-old trait he is trying to expunge. "We dropped too deep, we subconsciously thought we could protect our lead," he said. "That is the mentality we need to change." Also, while the Azzurri are deserving semi-finalists as they have dominated possession in all but one of their matches, they have drawn three out four, largely as a result or profligacy in front of goal.

The view from home: "The best Italy team since the World Cup in Germany have reached the semi-finals of EURO 2012 on penalties. Really they deserved to win well before then but the suffering makes the news of this extraordinary Sunday all the better. This is an Italy that won with heart, class and determination." (La Gazzetta dello Sport).

Manchester City FC manager Roberto Mancini, meanwhile, added: "In the second half and extra time they squashed England; they crushed them, took their breath away, ready for the final blow, which oddly never came. Let me tell you now: Italy will reach the final, where they will play Portugal."

Mission statement: "We can play progressive football. As long as we try to take the initiative we are a good side. We become a side with a thousand fears if we try to protect a result." Prandelli's plans are clear.