Italy face Croatia on Thursday looking for their first win of Euro 2012 after an impressive showing against Spain, in which Cesare Prandelli’s levies took the lead and wasted a couple of golden opportunities to put the tie beyond their opponents’ grasp.
Their opponents should not, however, be underestimated: come to think of it, they were many a journalist’s favourites to progress instead of Italy because of the troublesome nature of the Azzurri’s preparations for the event.
Far from being what Gazzetta dello Sport call a “mina vagante” – an Italian term roughly translatable as a dangerous entity as likely to explode as it is to let Italy through without hindrance – Croatia are a methodically drilled, clinical team capable of beating anybody on their day.
And they play some rather attractive football, too: just ask Guus Hiddink’s Turkey, who quickly found themselves three goals behind at home in the play-offs.
Italy have also never beaten Croatia since the latter achieved independence in 1991 – this includes a painful defeat in the 2002 World Cup where Italy (coached by Giovanni Trapattoni) had even gone 1-0 thanks to Christian Vieri.
Prandelli has always handled Balotelli competently, which is more than can be said for the ageing (and slowing) Vedran Corluka, who will have a torrid time dealing with Super Mario’s unpredictable dribbles and changes of pace.
Picking up from where they left off from their 3-1 mauling of Ireland, a number of Croatians look likely to find a place on the scoresheet in Poznan, including Nikica Jelavic, who pips Mario Mandzukic in my book simply because of his superior movement.
Italy look strong in the air, but less able to deal with pace: with Mandzukic playing deeper and unlikely to get the soft goals he was gifted against Ireland, I can see his strike partner a second strike of the tournament at .
Talking of strikers, Mario Balotelli has a lot to answer for after spurning a glorious chance to put Italy in the lead.
He was quickly replaced by Antonio di Natale, who promptly netted in his place. I simply don’t see the Manchester City striker playing for 90 minutes, as he is a massive red-card risk.
Provided Balotelli starts – which seems likely, as Prandelli doesn’t tend to chop and change from one game to the next – the Azzurri marksman is good odds to seek forgiveness with the opening goal, which is priced at an interesting 13/2.
Backing him is a good way of chancing the free £25 bet you get for joining bwin.com, as possible of winnings of £187.50 are just round the corner.
He is, after all, a young player who learns very quickly and Prandelli has always handled him competently, which is more than can be said for the ageing (and slowing) Vedran Corluka, who will have a torrid time dealing with Super Mario’s unpredictable dribbles and changes of pace.
With Italy awful from set-pieces in the opening game and Croatia unlikely to find much joy against the towering presence of Giorgio Chiellini, Daniele de Rossi and Leonardo Bonucci, bwin punters may prefer to skip the defenders altogether and focus on two midfielders who left their marks on Sunday.
Claudio Marchisio was once more a prominent feature of the highlights package as he tore through the Spanish defence, only to side-foot straight at Iker Casillas.
These runs are becoming an integral part of his repertoire and I’m trusting him to make it third time lucky at 4/1, after he also wasted a one-on-one against Igor Akinfeev in the Azzurri’s recent friendly defeat by Russia in Zurich.
Elsewhere, Croatia’s Ivan Perisic regularly ran rings around John O’Shea in Poznan and could do the same against the frail Christian Maggio – he is tipped at a convincing 13/4 to leave his mark with a goal.
Recommended Bet: Balotelli to open the scoring @ 13/2
Follow Edo Dalmonte on twitter@DalmonteE