Never has a football team’s history been better summed up by the expression “nipped in the bud”.
Though some may be surprised to find Europe’s most decorated World Cup side (with four trophies to Germany’s three) behind France in bwin’s list of potential European Championship winners, Italy’s Euro 2012 odds of 12/1 are, ultimately, simply recognition of the fact that the Azzurri often struggle to get past the group stage. The thing is, they’re dangerous beasts the further a tournament progresses.
Italy have been knocked out at the first stage of the Euros twice in their last four appearances, losing out to eventual finalists Germany and Czech Republic in 1996 before falling victim to UEFA’s complicated rulebook in 2004, when Sweden and Denmark needed (and duly got) a 2-2 draw in their last game to knock Giovanni Trapattoni’s men out.
This tradition even goes back to some of Italy’s most illustrious World Cup campaigns: in 1982, for example, Enzo Bearzot’s eventual champions barely scraped past the first round, eking out three miserable draws with some pretty drab football.
While Italy have won reached eight semi-finals and won four editions (a conversion ratio of 50 per cent), Germany have reached the last four on twelve occasions, winning only three trophies, making them only half as efficient as the Azzurri.
This may go some way to explaining why Cesare Prandelli’s men are priced at a preoccupying 23/20 not to make it past Spain, Ireland and Croatia, odds that are far bigger than many of the other big nations in the draw.
The calendar won’t help Italy either, as the Azzurri will kick off against defending champions Spain on June 10th in Gdansk, before facing a talented Croatia side four days later, and Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland last.
In other words, the Azzurri will face their toughest opponents when they will likely be at their weakest, before meeting a dangerous Croatian side who will have probably taken all three points from Ireland, and may consequently be under less pressure to win.
Though this may sound slightly pessimistic, unless Balotelli & co win at least one of their first two games, their fate may not be in their own hands by the time they line up against Ireland in Poznan on June 18th.
Even with two draws, Italy will need to win against Ireland and hope Croatia and Spain don’t just need a draw to go through, as Denmark and Sweden did back in 2004.
Putting the worst-case scenario aside, Italy are still good odds to win their group (3/1), a hardly ridiculous proposition considering that Azzurri have already beaten an ageing Spain side in a friendly, whilst no team (especially not one which is soon to face Antonio Cassano and Fabio Borini) should have to lay its foundations on the creaky Simunic-Lovren axis, a partnership which has “slip-up” written all over it.
Prandelli also boasts an impressive line-up, a side with enough creative edge (Cassano, De Rossi, Balotelli, Marchisio et al) to break any defence and make its passing play count. For the first time since the early 90s, Italy seem to prefer a more generous, more inventive brand of football, a factor which may take their opponents by surprise.
History also teaches us that though Italian sides generally tend to start poorly, they generally get better with time. Despite ultimately playing a very average brand of football, Italy’s 1994 side eventually reached the World Cup final, having lost their first game to (guess who) Ireland.
Moreover, whether they come first or second, Italy will avoid the worst by likely facing one of England, France or Ukraine, hardly the toughest teams Euro 2012 has on offer.
Ultimately, then, it’s a smart idea to take those 12/1 odds on Italy winning now, rather than wait for them to drop if the Azzurri survive their group. By then, Prandelli’s men will surely be a completely different proposition, and prove that when push comes to shove, they are far more effective than most at coming out on top.
A good way of measuring this is to consult World Cup history: while Italy have won reached eight semi-finals and won four editions (a conversion ratio of 50 per cent), Germany have reached the last four on twelve occasions, winning only three trophies, making them only half as efficient as the Azzurri.
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