Italy vs. Ireland Thoughts (“It’s A ‘Trap'”)

Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni has not lost to Italy in any of his team’s three encounters against his native country (photo via Sky Sports)

Italy heads into Monday’s clash with the Republic of Ireland in need of a win and help to advance to the knockout rounds of Euro 2012. A full list of qualification scenarios can be found here (via ESPN), but Italy’s simplest route to the next round is as follows: 1. Defeat Ireland; 2. Have Spain or Croatia win in Monday’s other game.

Italy must win; a loss or draw will eliminate them. And although they can still advance if the Spanish and Croatians draw, the situation gets muddled if this is the case. Also, if the two teams draw by a score of 2-2 or higher, Italy is eliminated regardless of what they do against Ireland (Spain, Italy, and Croatia would be level on 5 points in this event, and Spain and Croatia would progress by virtue of a higher goals scored total in common games between the three.)

The prospects of a 2-2 draw knocking out a victorious Italian team on Monday has fueled distinctly Italian, yet ultimately unfounded paranoia in Italy that Spain and Croatia will collude to get this result that will send them both to the next round.

But for all the concern over Spain and Croatia, the fact remains that their game is irrelevant as far as Italy is concerned if the Azzurri do not pick up all three points vs. Ireland.

Ireland, the first team to be mathematically eliminated from Euro 2012 thanks to their 4-0  loss to Spain on Thursday, are not highly regarded. Nevertheless, they could pose trouble for Italy.

Former Italy manager Giovanni Trapattoni has not lost to Italy since taking over Ireland, having drawn with his home country twice during 2010 World Cup qualification, and defeating the Azzurri 2-0 in a friendly last June.

Ireland play a defensive style, lining up a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1, content to sit deep, defend and attempt to counter-attack.

This will put the onus on Italy to create chances and attack.  Contrary to typical stereotypes about Italian reactive soccer, under manager Cesare Prandelli, the squad has played a positive style, putting a premium on possession and technical ability.

Still, the fact remains that Ireland’s style of play has at least the potential to pose problems for the Italians. Consider recent fixtures for Prandelli’ squad, which include consecutive 1-0 defeats to Uruguay and the United States.

On these occasions, the Italians lost despite seeing the majority of the ball, as they failed to convert possession into goals.

If Italy falters on Monday, this will almost certainly be the story again, as Ireland has had the least possession of any of the sixteen teams in Euro 2012, according to WhoScored.

From a tactical standpoint, there has been intriguing speculation that Italy could revert from the 3-5-2 formation it deployed in the first two games of Euro 2012 back to the 4-3-1-2 that Prandelli had favored during the months leading up to the tournament.

Football-Italia reports that the Italians practiced in the latter formation during practice Saturday.

It will be interesting to see how Italy responds to this change, given that the bulk of Italy’s defenders are used to playing with a three man backline for their clubs. The defensive trio of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, and Andrea Barzagli (who could make his Euro debut Monday, according to Football-Italia) comprised Serie A’s most successful defense for Juventus, as the Bianconeri only conceded 20 goals during the campaign. Also, Christian Maggio plays as wingback in a three man defense for Napoli, as opposed to playing as a traditional fullback (though due to relatively poor form, Maggio could get dropped form the squad for Monday; possible replacement Ignazio Abate is better suited to a four man backline).

The use of a 4-3-1-2 also invites the question of who will play behind the strikers as trequartista. Italy lacks a traditional Number 10, so possibilities include Ricardo Montolivo, Sebastian Giovinco, and Thiago Motta.

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