|Ibra scores through a stupendous back-heel against Italy (Euro2004)|
Take World Cup 2002. Italy had swept aside Ecuador in their opening fixture 2-0 with two blistering goals from Christian Vieri. Against Croatia in the next game, a draw would have been an acceptable result. It started well enough when Vieri (who else?) put Italy in the lead via a looping header. However, scandalous refereeing that saw two perfectly good Italian goals ruled out and a spirited resurgence from Croatia ensured Italy lost 2-1. Italy barely made it into the next round after Alessandro Del Piero salvaged a point against Mexico in the final group game and Ecuador unexpectedly beat Croatia.
Two years later, Euro2004 was to prove similarly tortuous. Italy's first game against Denmark had ended 0-0, and they needed to beat Sweden to maintain some purchase on the group. All seemed to be going to plan when Antonio Cassano headed them into the lead before half-time. However, five minutes from time Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored a preternatural back-heel goal, which meant a 2-2 or higher score draw between Denmark and Sweden would render Italy's last group game against Bulgaria meaningless. The 2-2 infamously materialized, and Italy were sent crashing out despite a 2-1 win over Bulgaria.
Even Italy's victorious World Cup 2006 campaign featured a farcical 1-1 draw against the United States. Italy beat Ghana 2-0 in their opener but their second game against the United States encapsulated their schizophrenic nature perfectly. After taking the lead through Alberto Gilardino, Italy magnificently collapsed. First, Cristian Zaccardo scored an own-goal (the only goal Italy conceded from open play during the entire tournament) and then Daniele De Rossi decided to confirm the misery by elbowing Brian McBride and drawing blood and a red card. Within minutes, Italy had squandered their advantage, and made their final group game against the Czech Republic much more complicated than necessary.
Though Italy started Euro2008 with a disastrous 3-0 loss to Holland, their second group stage game against Romania should have galvanized them. However, they fumbled their way to a 1-1 draw, needing Gianluigi Buffon to save a penalty to keep them in the tournament. In the next game, they defeated France 2-0 to go through, but could have avoided that do-or-die situation.
Italy's World Cup 2010 performance was a total shambles so is barely worth mentioning. However, in Euro2012 the accursed second game came back to haunt Italy again. After drawing Spain impressively in their opening game, Italy could only draw Croatia in the second group stage game even after an Andrea Pirlo goal courtesy of a free-kick. The 1-1 result meant Italy needed to count on Spain and Croatia not drawing 2-2 or higher--an eerie repeat of Euro2004. Luckily, Italy beat Ireland, and Spain beat Croatia, meaning Spain and Italy went through to the next round.
Tomorrow, against Costa Rica, Cesare Prandelli's Italy are favourites by a huge margin, but are being cautious. Daniele De Rossi has already opined that the game will be Italy's "most difficult" of the group stage, not least because it will be played at 1pm in the Recife heat. Italy played Japan in the Confederations Cup last summer in the same venue, and they remember the airless surroundings acutely well.
However, the weather can be no excuse. After Uruguay's win over England today, Italy have a prime opportunity to seal progression, and to avoid the final-day drama they have become so accustomed to over the last decade. Here's hoping for a convincing win.