Italy putting brakes on excitement

Italy's Antonio Di Natale celebrates after scoring a goal during their Group C Euro 2012 soccer...

Italy's Antonio Di Natale celebrates after scoring a goal during their Group C Euro 2012 soccer match against Spain at the city stadium in Gdansk, June 10, 2012. (Kai Pfaffenbach/REUTERS)

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:44 PM ET

Suddenly, the Italian national team has to diffuse the enthusiasm.

It was mere days ago that many Italian soccer fans were getting ready to throw themselves off the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. No, the drop won't kill you but the water will.

Anyway, that's the kind of despair football fans in Italy were feeling going into Euro 2012.

Then came Spain, the world champion, the defending Euro champion, the most dominant team in the world.

Then came Antonio Di Natale, the veteran striker who gave Italy the lead against Spain. Italy then hung on for a 1-1 draw in its tournament opener.

It was like being called to the tax office only to find out they owed you money.

It is astonishing what one better-than-average performance will do for a nation.

Now, Italian coach Cesare Prandelli has been forced to put both feet firmly on the brakes, stomping hard to slow down the runaway optimism.

"The compliments ... If Torres had scored in the end, the result would have influenced all the comments," Prandelli said.

The translation of the translation means if Spanish forward Fernando Torres had scored on some of the chances he wasted near the end of the game, the tune being played by Italian fans might sound a little more like a funeral dirge.

But the Spain game is done.

Thursday brings Italy's (newest) biggest game of the tournament when it faces Croatia in Poznan. A win by Croatia and it will be through to the next round. A win by the Italians puts them in a comfortable position to move on.

Croatia strikes fear into many teams. It is explosive and physically strong. A 3-1 win over Ireland removed all doubts about how dangerous the Croatians can be.

Coach Slaven Bilic has them believing they can win. He also has the parts to win, especially with a strong midfield led by soon-to-be-very rich Luka Modric and two-goal scorer Mario Mandzukic, and striker Nikica Jelavic.

Modric is the man who makes things run for Croatia. He is one of the most sought-after players in Europe, with prices as high as $48 million being tossed around on a transfer from Tottenham.

But never underestimate what a good result can do for a team and while it was only a tie for Italy, it was a good result.

More importantly, this didn't look like a typical Italian team and that's a good thing.

Prandelli has established plenty of movement with the ball. He's allowing midfielders and backs to come forward and, instead of absorbing punishment like those punching clowns that keep getting hit only to swing back up, he's asking his team to do some punching.

Andrea Pirlo looked rejuvenated in midfield against Spain. Thiago Motta and Claudio Marchisio fit right in.

Prandelli's biggest concern, though, is what to do up front. Will he dare start man-child Mario Balotelli again? Will he succumb to the enticing trap which is Balotelli's potential, compared to his results? Will he risk another absurdly apathetic Spain-like performance from him?"

"He's a young man, only 22 years old," Prandelli said. "He's on a path to finding maturity. I ask him to play simply, most of all to provide depth."

Right now that path to maturity is as long as the Appalachian Trail.

It is time Balotelli put on his big-boy pants. The world is often not a very nice place and you learn to deal with it. That's what being a professional is all about.

Balotelli has been given the opportunity of a lifetime. He is on a team with a coach who supports him, a team that is on the upswing in its rebuilding process and a team that is going to play a style suited to a big, strong striker.

The game against Croatia is vital for the rejuvenated Italians.

But it's also a big one for Balotelli. If he gets another chance to start, he'd better make the best of it.

You only get so many chances.


Videos

Photos