Italy coach Roberto Donadoni is counting on history repeating itself as his embattled squad fight for Euro 2008 survival against Romania here on Friday.
The Italians have a good record of recovering from sluggish starts and ensuring they reach a peak towards the business end of major tournaments.
Never before have they had to bounce back for a setback quite as traumatic as Monday night’s 3-0 demolition by Holland. But Donadoni was quick to remind his critics that, as a player, he was part of a squad who suffered a shock defeat by Ireland in their opening match at the 1994 World Cup before ultimately only losing the final on penalties.
“We got out of that situation in America in the only way you can — by working hard, having the desire to hit back and understanding the mistakes that you’ve made,” the former AC Milan midfielder recalled. “We must do that again.”
Despite his defiant insistence that the defeat by the Dutch was just one of those nights when everything that could go wrong did, Donadoni is expected to take his selectioner’s scalpel to the Italian line-up with almost half the side that started on Monday facing relegation to the bench.
Although the left-sided forward Antonio di Natale was Italy’s brightest performer in the first hour of Monday’s match, their cutting edge was far sharper once he had been replaced by Alessandro del Piero and the other two substitutes, Antonio Cassano and Fabio Grosso, also made a strong case for promotion.
But for the heroics of Edwin van der Sar, the Italians may well have turned the contest into a real fight in the final quarter of an hour and del Piero, in particular, made a compelling case for a recall to the starting XI.
That could mean a tactical reshuffle as the Juventus forward is happier playing off main striker Luca Toni, which would mean Italy reverting to the traditional 4-4-2 line-up that Donadoni has generally eschewed, or even a system in which Cassano and Toni play ahead of del Piero.
Marco Materazzi’s hesitant display in the slot normally filled by injured captain Fabio Cannavaro means changes in defence are certain with Juventus centreback Giorgio Chiellini expected to come in and Grosso tipped to start at left-back.
Gianluigi Zambrotta, one of the untouchables in Donadoni’s side, would then switch flanks with Christian Panucci dropping out.
Despite the pasting they have taken from the press and the sense that, back home, the tomatoes are already being left out to rot in preparation for the squad coming back early, the mood in the Italian camp has remained upbeat.
“We want to wipe out the bad start we’ve made,” Zambrotta said. “Everyone is totally focussed on getting the win we need.”
Romania have been widely written off as no-hopers in group C but the reality is that, during their qualifying campaign, Victor Piturca’s squad took four points out of a possible six over the same Dutch side that took the Italians apart.
“If Italy lost to the Netherlands — it shows they can be beaten,” argued Daniel Niculae, the Auxerre striker who partnered Adrian Mutu in attack for the Romanians in their goalless draw with France.
Neither striker got a sniff of a chance in what was a turgid encounter but the Romanians, who were counter-attacking their way to success long before it became the vogue in European football, are expecting to create more openings against an Italian side obliged to push forward in search of three points.
“They are the ones with all the pressure,” said Cosmin Contra, a right-back who plies his trade for Getafe in Spain’s La Liga. “If they don’t beat us they could be going home. But we also know that, if we don’t lose, we’ve got a great chance of going through.”
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