Italy holds out hope

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

ZURICH -- From the kiss of death to the breath of life.

That was the remarkable escape the defending world champion Italians managed to pull off yesterday.

Italy remains alive, if just barely, at Euro 2008.

It needed a little magic to avoid being the second team, behind host Switzerland, to be eliminated from the tournament.

Italy and Romania played to a 1-1 draw in Group C play. The point the Italians salvaged means a win against France in their last game Tuesday and no better than a Romanian tie against Holland will qualify them for the knockout phase. Holland already has won the group.

The Italian papers are producing headlines appealing to Dutch sportsmanship, asking them to compete hard against Romania.

The Italy-Romania game yesterday was emotional ping-pong. The Italians were trying to recover their pride and poise from a 3-0 defeat to Holland in the first game. The Romanians, who were never given much of a chance in this group, were sending out a message that they belong. They are doggedly determined and never stop running.

For every Italian move, the Romanians seemed to have an answer. It was the goalkeeping brilliance of Gianluigi Buffon that saved the Italians.

With the score 1-1 and 10 minutes left, Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo awarded Romania a penalty when Christian Panucci held Daniel Niculae.

The Italians were staring at the Grim Reaper 11 metres from their net.

Adrian Mutu whacked the ball and Buffon moved so quickly he almost dove too far. He managed to reach back and stop the ball. It was the final save in a series of brilliant saves Buffon made.

Romanian coach Victor Piturca was not surprised his team created so many chances against a traditionally tough Italian defence.

"I know it's not Italy's finest moments these days," he said.

Italian coach Robert Donadoni said he was pleased with how his team played.

"I thought Italy played better than Romania," Donadoni said. "The players are a bit disappointed. They feel they didn't reap as much as they sowed. But disappointment lasts only overnight."

The Italians wanted to pressure the Romanians by scoring first, but the tables were turned on them.

Mutu took advantage of Gianluca Zambrotta's horrible pass back to Buffon. It was short and Mutu took the ball and stuck it into the top of the net in the 55th minute.

The Italians didn't wait for the shock to set in. A minute later, Panucci tied it off a cornerkick.More chances followed but no goals.

Even though they brought in Fabbio Grosso and Giorgio Chiellini, the Italians were still vulnerable at the back. With so little constructive play from the midfield, the Italians have become predictable. They float the ball in the penalty area and hope Luca Toni can get to it.

Donadoni must consider starting forward Antonio Cassano in the game against the French. He came on as a substitute in the second half for the second game and, for the second time, he was Italy's best forward.

While the Italians have not been at their best, luck has turned away from them in this tournament.

In the Dutch game, they went down to a controversial goal by Rudd van Nistelrooy.

Yesterday, they had a good goal by Toni waved off.

"I don't discuss certain things," Donadoni said. "The referee was not as high a quality as the players' play. It was not his best day.

"But it happens. It happens to coaches and to players and it happens to referees."

And now Italy and its fans must go through the emotional grinder yet again.


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