Italy take on Croatia in what is probably their key game of the group stage at 18.00 CET at the Municipal Stadium, Poznan later today.
Italy have not beaten Croatia since they broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991, in fact, their only victory against them was in 1942. More recent records could also make ominous reading from an Italian point of view as Croatia beat Italy 2-1 in the 2002 World Cup and beat them twice in qualifying for Euro 1996, plus in two friendlies, the most recent in 2006.
Italian coach Cesare Prandelli flagged this game months ago as the most important in their group. With an impressive 2-1 victory over the Republic of Ireland under their belts Slaven Bilic’s men are sitting top of the group and no less than 3 points will do for the Italians. Spain will later take on Ireland in another must-win game and you would expect the world champions to take three points from Trapattoni's men, meaning by the time the final whistle sounds tonight we will have a much clearer picture as to who will go through and who will miss the cut, but for now it’s wide open and all to play for.
Di Natale score for Italy against Spain
Bilic is a tactically astute coach and his team are well capable of mixing things up. While physically dominating Ireland, they had a very attack minded approach with strikers Mario Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic netting all three of the team’s goals. Midfielder Luca Modrić, who at times seemed to ghost around the centre of the field ran the show the other night and more than likely, the Italians will nullify his influence by abandoning the three-man defence employed against Spain and reverting to the more traditional four-man defence, allowing Daniele De Rossi to fill his more natural midfield position.
Whether Prandelli will persist with the misfiring duo of Mario Balotelli and Andrea Cassano up front remains to be seen but Di Natale looked much the sharper when he came on and his well taken goal saw him put his hand up for a start in this game. Whatever the selection, Italy need goals and will need to take the game to the Croats.
We will probably see a more traditionally Italian, structured approch to this game but the need for goals on the part of the Azzurri, could make this exciting fare with the Azzurri commiting to attack while Croatia may be content to soak up the pressure and strike on the counter with arial prowess of Mandzukic a significant threat off long balls.
Tense stuff ahead for Italy but the prize is there for the taking. Victory will but them in the driving seat of this tough group so they must believe.
by Hugo Mc Cafferty