Three thoughts on Italy's 2-0 victory against Ireland, which sent the Azzurri to the Euro 2012 quarterfinals.
Cesare Prandelli has to start Mario Balotelli. Italy started the game with a center-forward partnership of Antonio Di Natale, 34, of Udinese, and Antonio Cassano, 29, of AC Milan. Alessandro Diamanti, 29, of Bologna replaced Di Natale in the second half before Mario Balotelli, 22, of Manchester City came on for the last 15 minutes. None of these various combinations looked remotely threatening against the poorest side of the competition through large spells of the match.
Cassano got the first goal with a fine, opportunistic header from a Andrea Pirlo corner but the Azzurri's lack of potency in the final third was troubling. One could argue that the real problems for Italy started in midfield, where a narrow diamond seemed to stifle the attacking instincts of the marauding Daniele De Rossi (AS Roma). Moreover, Italy relied too heavily on the fullbacks to provide width.
If the Italians want to get further in this competition, they will need to trust the mad genius of Balotelli, who scored on a great overhead kick that made it 2-0 for Cesare Prandelli's team. Balotelli's antics might be as confusing to his teammates as they are to the opposition but he's undoubtedly the one player who can conjure some magic. A fairly functional Italy can't afford to do without him. He will have to start in the quarterfinal, whatever Prandelli's misgivings might be.
The 3-5-2 system warrants another look. Christian Maggio (Napoli) and Emanuele Giaccherini (Juventus) were desperately missed on the flanks. Since Giaccherini can't really play as a fullback, Prandelli will reconsider switching back to the the flexible, difficult-to-play-against 3-5-2 system that brought Italy's best performance so far, against Spain. Without any true, wide midfielders or attacking midfielders except the majestic Pirlo, Italy could be better off playing a formation that looks retro on paper but has proved very modern and variable in practice.
Where does Ireland go from here? Defensive stalwart Richard Dunne, 32 and keeper Shay Given, 36, (both Aston Villa) have hinted heavily at stepping down after this tournament. The LA Galaxy's Robbie Keane, 31, also might decide that enough is enough. Damien Duff, Ireland's captain on the occasion of his 100th international, too, will be contemplating retirement. He's 33 years old.
Ireland will have to get used to life without the old guard. The likes of James McClean, 23, of Sunderland will get their chance to make this team their own. Qualification for the 2014 World Cup will be difficult -- Ireland is in a group with Germany and Sweden -- but not impossible. The runners-up spot is very much up for grabs.
The break with the past will be not complete, however, because manager Giovanni Trapattoni, at 73 years of age, will still be in charge. "They'll have to beat me up if they want me to stop," Trapattoni said one week before the tournament started. The Italian's contract runs for another two years, and despite some criticism about his selection and tactics, there is a widespread realization that the "Mister" has done as well as he could have with the limited talent at his disposal. Doing it all over again for the World Cup will be tricky, but as long as Trapattoni's hunger for the game remains insatiable, the future doesn't look nearly as bleak as three defeats without a goal in these Euros suggest.