“Come on” Italia, Euro 2008 is served!!!! After a match of incredible suffering the Azzurri managed to beat a valiant Scottish team at Hampden Park, and earned a well-deserved qualification to the European championships. After a first half of masterful display (rewarded by the very early goal of Luca Toni), the Italians had their breath cut out by the Scots’ physical strength (and Barry Ferguson’s tally) in the second. However in the last quarter of the game (following an excellent scoring chance for either side) the Azzurri stuck their knife into the Scottish hearts when Christian Panucci placed his header past Craig Gordon in stoppage time, sending Italy through to Austria/Switzerland.
68 seconds: that’s how long it took the Azzurri to send a clear message to the 52,000 Scottish fans of Hampden Park. Alex McLeish’s men knew this match wasn’t going to be easy, but they probably weren’t expecting Gianluca Zambrotta to take a fast throw for Antonio Di Natale, and the latter to send a low cross for Luca Toni that the Bayern striker flicked right into the top corner, all this before the first 2 minutes of play had even passed. 1-0 Italy.
The Azzurri could even have doubled the lead just a minute later, when Toni got through on the left and centered for Mauro Camoranesi, whose instep finish from 12 yards missed the crossbar by inches. Clearly, this was a start to the match beyond Donadoni’s wildest dreams, and certainly one which threw Alex McLeish’s plans right down the toilet. The Scottish coach was expecting to make this a mind game, and take away the playing space from the Azzurri. Instead, Toni’s goal opened an abyss in the Tartan Army‘s plans, who were now forced to show their teeth very early in the match.
Scotland’s initial 4-1-4-1 formation (with James McFadden as the lone striker) tried to reorganize, and to put pressure on the Azzurri central line, but with little effect at first. In the 13th minute, Toni could have doubled his team’s lead by exploiting an Andrea Pirlo through ball and slamming a close-ranger on the 1st post. Gordon saved into corner.
Eventually, after the shock of the first 15 minutes had passed, Scotland woke up and offered the best they had in store: high pressure, fast transitions, and wing plays ready to feed the ball forward for header lay-ups or finish: boring but effective. In the 16th, the Scots screamed for a handball P.K. when Lee McCulloch’s effort was deflected by Zambrotta, but the Italian wing-back had his arm well against his body, no go. These were tough moments for the Azzurri though, because their opponents were collecting one corner-kick after the other, putting the Italian defense under pressure. First Barry Ferguson sent it miles over the bar in the 17th, then the Scots’ aim got a little better just a minute later: on yet another corner-kick, Alan Hutton’s header missed Gigi Buffon’s post by a hairsbreadth!
At this point for Italy, the match had inverted its drive compared to the exciting first few minutes Donadoni’s men had displayed. For some reason, the Azzurri were entrenching themselves behind their own defense, and the result in terms of midfield playmaking was detrimentally evident. In the 30th, yet another Ferguson chance made Italy realize that it was about time to react, and give a stab of their own. It worked: a minute later, Camoranesi got through on the wing and got a shooting chance after his crossing attempt was intercepted. The ball rebounded on Di Natale, setting up a close-range effort for Massimo Ambrosini, which parried by Gordon turned into a perfect assist for Di Natale for the tap-in. 2-0? Nope, because the linesman decided that the Udinese striker was offside, even though replays showed he was in line with the last defender. Tough call for Italy.
The half ended on a 1-0 scoreline for Italy, a deserved lead if you count the numerous chances obtained by the Azzurri and the valid goal being called off. However, Scotland certainly hadn’t been a mere spectator, and this match was anything but over. In fact right before the break, the Scots should have tied things up: on yet another… yep you guessed it, corner-kick delivery, Barry Ferguson found the noggin of Alan Hutton who adjusted his header past Gigi Buffon. It would have been a goal, had it not been for the “right-spot-at-the-right-time” placement of Andrea Pirlo, who saved the shot right on the goal line! A very close shave for the Italians.
In the 2nd half, the technical gap between the two teams once again became evident to all, save for the supporters of Hampden Park who were singing their heart out with “Flower of Scotland”. Even ex-Rangers man Gennaro Gattuso had donned his magic boots for this one, because the gnarly Milan midfielder began distributing key passes here and there, such as in the 56th when his cross found Di Natale ready for the volley, but fortunately for Gordon one of his defenders parried the shot.
Following that chance, the game’s momentum shifted once again, and Italy progressively let ball possession slip away from them. All in all, it wasn’t such a bad deal for the Azzurri who could then exploit all the space created by their opponents on counter-attacks. However, if technique and experience weren’t going to lend the home team a hand in this match, good old Scottish pride would: in the 65th, exploiting a free-kick 25 yards out, James McFadden slammed his shot right onto the Azzurri wall, whose deflection landed to McCulloch in perfect position. Less perfect however was the midfielder’s finish (right at Buffon from close-range), but fortunately for Scotland the Italian goalkeeper could only parry the ball away as far as Ferguson, and this time Hampden Park could erupt as the ball was slammed into the net. An even more fortunate circumstance for the home team, considering that at the time of McCulloch’s shot, Ferguson was clearly offside.
With the score now tied 1-1, Donadoni decided it was time to make some changes: out TotÃ² Di Natale, in Vincenzo Iaquinta to bring more weight to the Azzurri front. Meanwhile, McLeish tried to push his men to obtain the victory goal by inserting another striker into the mix (in Kenny Miller for midfielder Scott Brown).
The final quarter of this match was to die for. Litterally. Especially when McFadden wasted an open-net opportunity after a set-up by Miller in the 81st, or when Panucci inexplicably missed his header from a perfect Pirlo free-kick delivery in the 88th. Fortunately for the Azzurri, the AS Roma wing-back would redeem himself shortly after. On yet another Pirlo FK, the cross by the AC Milan midfielder found the noggin of Panucci, who adjusted a perfect parabolic header onto Gordon’s far post. 2-1, Scotland’s heart was in pieces, and the Azzurri through to Euro 2008.
Marco Pantanella writes for the mCalcio blog