Italy Vs. Croatia, 2012 European Championship: Another Tough Task For Italy

POZNAN, POLAND - JUNE 13: In this handout image provided by UEFA, Andrea Pirlo of Italy talks to the media during a UEFA EURO 2012 press conference at the Municipal Stadium on June 13, 2012 in Poznan, Poland. (Photo by Handout/UEFA via Getty Images)

Italy and Croatia square off in a match that will be all about neutralising Andrea Pirlo and Luka Modric.

Croatia can secure progress out of Group C with a win against Italy on Thursday, but the Azzuri will have something to say about that. Italy were impressive against favourites Spain, holding them to a probably-deserved 1-1 draw in their opening match. The Croats will present an entirely different challenge to tiki-taka, however - Italy struggled when Vicente del Bosque played a true centre foward against their makeshift back line for the last fifteen minutes, and Slaven Bilic's side is not exactly lacking in striking talent.

Expect Everton's Nikica Jelavic and Wolfsburg's Mario Mandzukic, who scored three goals between them in Croatia's 3-1 trot past Ireland, to give the likes of Daniele de Rossi and Giorgio Chiellini some major issues. Although it was Manduzic who got the brace against Ireland, Jelavic might well be the more dangerous player - he's been in phenomenal scoring form for both Everton and Rangers for some time, and has an aggravating habit of finding himself unmarked no matter how many defenders are tasked with keeping an eye on him.

At the other end of the pitch, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano form a dangerous partnership in their own right, and with Italy expected to get far more of the ball against Croatia than they did against Spain the centre back pairing of Gordon Schildenfeld and Vedran Corluka, neither of whom was overly impressive against a far less potent Ireland. If Croatia want to stem Italy's attack, they'd do well to hit it at the source: Andrea Pirlo.

Spain, bizarrely, refused to close Juventus' Pirlo down when he was on the ball, allowing the 33-year-old all the time he needed to pick the defending champions apart. Pirlo was the man responsible for Antonio di Natale's opening goal in that fixture, and that wasn't the only brilliant pass he played. Pirlo completely ran the show (a performance akin to Luka Modric's display against Ireland), and none of Croatia's midfielders seem particularly suited to stopping him.

If I were Slaven Bilic - and I'm not, because I am not a professional badass - I'd instruct one of Mandzukic and Jelavic to drop back and harass Pirlo whenever Italy have the ball. The other can go annoy Daniele de Rossi for good measure. Although Italy do have a brilliant midfield, Pirlo is the heart of the team's play and needs to be stopped if Croatia want a result here.

Similarly, Italy will need to figure out a way of stopping Modric from tearing them to shreds. Presumably, that job will fall to Thiago Motta, who certainly has the engine to chase the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder all over the pitch. Stop Modric, and Croatia's possession game falls apart. It's easier said than done, though - Modric is a slippery character who's more than happy to invite a challenge and then glide past his opponent, and Motta will have to be very disciplined in order to stop him. That's not necessarily his strong suit.

Both teams are full of impact players, and both Bilic and Cesare Prandelli will be devoting plenty of time and thought into countering the other side's key men. The team that succeeds in doing this without compromising their own strengths is going to win this match.

Key Matchup - Srna Vs. The Italy Left

Darijo Srna is one of the world's best right backs. Not many people have noticed this, on account of him playing for Shakhtar Donetsk, but he's an absolutely phenomenal attacking player with no shortage of defensive nous. With Dominic Criscito out thanks to the match fixing scandal, Italy have basically zero left-sided with to counter him with. They attempted to play Emanuele Giaccherini there against Spain, but it was pretty obvious that he was a central midfielder being deployed out of position. Look for Federico Balzaretti to come on in his stead, although it's far from clear if he has the ability to shut Srna down either.

Player To Watch - Mario Balotelli

Normally, we'd give this to the most talented, influential player on the pitch. Not this time. Mario Balotelli's an excellent striker, no doubt, but he's worth watching just for the entertainment value. The tantrums, the random moments in which his mind seems to completely turn off, the occasional demonstration that he has the ability to be one of the best footballers on the planet... if nothing else, he's interesting, and you should keep a close eye on him.

Projected Lineups

Italy (3-5-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Giorgio Chiellini, Daniele de Rossi, Leonardo Bonucci; Federico Balzaretti, Thiago Motta, Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Christian Maggio; Mario Balotelli, Antonio Cassano.

Croatia (4-4-2): Stipe Pletikosa; Ivan Strinic, Gordon Schildenfeld, Vedran Corluka, Darijo Srna; Ivan Perisic, Luka Modric, Ognjen Vukojevic, Ivan Rakitic; Mario Mandzukic.

Monty the Psychic Metal Disk says: Italy, 2-1. Pirlowned

Game Date/Time: Thursday, June 14th, 12:00 p.m. ET, 7: p.m. local

Venue: Poznan Municipal Stadium, Poznan, Poland

TV: ESPN (U.S. - English), ESPN Deportes (U.S. - Spanish), BBC 1 (U.K.), TSN (Canada)

Online: ESPN3

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