Riccardo Montolivo: Finding His Place In Italy's Squad

KIEV, UKRAINE - JUNE 24: Riccardo Montolivo of Italy misses the goal with his penalty in the shootout during the UEFA EURO 2012 quarter final match between England and Italy at The Olympic Stadium on June 24, 2012 in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Riccardo Montolivo has been a divisive figure in the Italy squad over the past two years. In Euro 2012, it seems the playmaker is finally fulfilling his potential.

Riccardo Montolivo is a man most Italia fans love to hate. A promising player when young, the midfielder has never quite lived up to the high expectations pinned upon him -- or so most in Italy would say. No matter how many times those whose views are not hidden behind azzurri-tinted glasses point out his passing ability and calmness on the pitch, most are still unwilling to give him a chance.

Of course, this could have something to do with the fact that ‘Monty' was brought in as a replacement for the injured Andrea Pirlo in the 2010 World Cup. While the Fiorentina-turned-AC Milan man certainly does have the capabilities to orchestrate the midfield, he's never going to be able to live up to the standards of the maestro, and he was left fighting an uphill battle from the start. When the world crumbled for Italy in South Africa, Montolivo took what was likely more than his share of the criticism.

Most seemed to believe that Monty would have a bench role in Poland / Ukraine, coming in to relieve tired legs, particularly those of Thiago Motta. Then came the friendly against Russia, played less than two weeks before the Euros began. Cesare Prandelli gave the start to Montolivo, and soon the wrath of supporters could be heard in nearly every corner of the globe. ‘Monty is invisible'. ‘Monty doesn't care'. ‘Monty's not fit to wear the shirt'. ‘Monty is $%*#'. Napoli's Morgan De Sanctis and Christian Maggio rightly shouldered the blame for the 3-0 loss, but it was clear Montolivo wouldn't be the choice to start at the top of Italy's midfield.

And so instead came Thiago Motta, a man who nobody in their right mind would call a trequartista. The Paris Saint-Germain man didn't do anything spectacularly wrong, but his main task seemed to be getting the ball to Pirlo -- no real creativity to be found there, nor ability to move play forward on his own. Still, when news came out that, despite Thiago Motta being fit to play against England, Montolivo would start in his place, the moaning started immediately.

Italy's game may have been hindered by the Three Lions' insistence on hunkering down and playing for penalties, but the azzurri played far better than they had in the group stages. Granted, this was mostly to do with Pirlo and England's complete lack of ability to shut him down, but some credit must be given to the system employed, Montolivo's role within it, and his ability to exploit that role.

Sure, Monty missed his penalty, and had Italy bowed out, that would likely be all anyone would remember of the midfielder. Instead, the miss can be overlooked in favor of the skills he brought to his first start in Euro 2012. He even showed a bit of vital passion during the match, punching the pitch after missing a chance and tearing up after his penalty miss.

Perhaps it's that Prandelli has finally figured out how to use Montolivo, who played under him when he was coach at Fiorentina. Rather than keep him as a deep-lying playmaker, Monty has moved up the pitch, assuming more of the true trequartista role. From here, he's been able to link up well with Mario Balotelli up top, while also sending the ball out wide to stretch the space. His intelligent passing and awareness of the game allow him to create goal-scoring chances for others, particularly SuperMario. Clearly, this is a position that Montolivo can embrace, a place where he can thrive.

But the last match showed Montolivo's ability to adapt and thrive throughout the midfield. In the semifinal, Germany were quite reluctant to give Pirlo the space he had during regular time of Italy's match against England. That's wise, of course, considering the superb skill Pirlo has demonstrated throughout the tournament. And so Joachim Löw gave Toni Kroos the task of neutralising the deep-lying playmaker, an assignment that worked well for maybe fifteen minutes (you know, those first fifteen minutes, where it looked as though pundits would be right and Germany would be heading to the final). But then Pirlo and Montolivo exchanged positions, with Pirlo pushing higher up the pitch, and Montolivo dropping back and exploiting the space on the left.

Germany paid the price, and we all saw how: a beautifully-placed long ball from Montolivo found Balotelli in acres of space, and the striker took advantage, smashing in a divine shot for his second, the one that would ultimately knock Germany out of the tournament. The playmaker did well to create other opportunities, both for Balotelli and for Cassano, even forcing Manuel Neuer into a save off his own shot. But it was he who was pulled for Thiago Motta this time around. Was it an issue of saving his legs for the final, or does Prandelli have other thoughts for Spain?

Spain, after all, have an infuriating midfield, one that has yet to be completely shut down by the opposition. If Prandelli wants to try his hand as succeeding where everyone else has failed, his choice will surely be Motta, but at what expense? Italy will lose much of its creative play, and a partnership that has been blossoming between Pirlo and Montolivo. As of yet, only Portugal has succeeded in reigning in the reigning champs, and they did it by showing no fear. It's up to Prandelli to do the same this time, keeping a creator on the pitch and turning up the pressure.

After this week, Italia fans are warming to Montolivo. Keeping him in against Spain could be his chance to truly get under their skin and into their hearts.

We'll have features, news updates and live coverage of the match in our Spain vs. Italy, Euro 2012 StoryStream. For more on Euro 2012 and the entire world of football, follow @SBNationSoccer on Twitter.

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