Italy returned to World Cup qualifying action on Tuesday against Denmark at the San Siro. The Azzurri began the day at the top of Group B on 7 points, looking to extend their lead with a difficult test against the second seeded side in their group.
Coach Cesare Prandelli made several changes to the lineup that defeated Armenia 3-1 on Friday. Gianluigi Buffon failed a late fitness test and was thus replaced by Napoli keeper Morgan De Sanctis, whilst Mario Balotelli recovered from a bout with the flu to assume Sebastian Giovinco's position in attack. Giorgio Chiellini, Ignazio Abate, and Federico Balzaretti replaced Leonardo Bonucci, Christian Maggio, and Domenico Criscito respectively as the three of four defenders were rotated. Ignored Juventus hitman Nicklas Bendtner led the Danish in opposition, despite having played only 10 minutes in the current league campaign.
Match Action Summary
The Danes started brightly, monopolizing possession in the early stages and claiming the first scoring opportunity as Bendtner headed wide from the centre of the box inside 2 minutes. Soon after, an ill-advised back pass from Chiellini forced De Sanctis to desperately clear with Christian Eriksen quickly closing in on the veteran keeper.
The Danish onslaught continued as Eriksen soon came knocking again, the Azzurri requiring a flying save from De Sanctis to stay level. Despite Claudio Marchisio having gone to ground with an injury, play persisted and a furious penalty area scramble finally ended when Balotelli stepped in to smash the ball clear.
Italy finally began to grow into the match after the 10 minute mark, with Pablo Osvaldo controlling a long ball, cutting inside, and releasing a drive that was blocked away by his ex-Roma teammate Simon Kjaer.
On 19 minutes, Claudio Marchisio nearly gave Italy the lead despite a dismal start, but Kjaer heroically surged backward and headed the Juventus man's fierce shot from a Balotelli pull-back off of the goal line.
3 minutes later, Osvaldo had a wonderful chance, as an Abate cross floated untouched through the Danish penalty area, only for the enthusiastic Oriundo to agonizing head wide of the back post with the keeper nowhere to be found.
Balotelli found himself in controversy in the 24th minute, engaging in a wrestling match with Bendtner in an effort to recover the ball with both players on the ground. The referee immediately quashed the encounter, but clearly held up one finger to the Manchester City striker as if to suggest that he would be given only one more chance before a booking was necessary.
After some concerted defending that required a last-ditch Abate clearance and a reaction save from De Sanctis, Italy were back on the front foot with Federico Balzaretti unleashing a rocket from distance that Kjaer did well to put out for a corner.
At the other end, Nicolai Stokholm headed over from a corner as the two sides continued to jab relentlessly in search of an opener.
On 33 minutes, Italy finally broke the deadlock in a moment of dual brilliance. Instead of controlling an incoming pass, Balotelli audaciously flicked the ball with the outside of his boot to the unmarked Riccardo Montolivo whilst being dragged down by Daniel Agger, and the Milan midfielder made no mistake in smashing a low drive from the edge of the area past the rooted keeper.
The Azzurri were playing with a regained sense of purpose, and continued to push forward despite having just taken the lead. Only 4 minutes after Montolivo's opener, Andrea Pirlo controlled from a short corner, beat his defender, and whipped in a cross for Daniele De Rossi to head in on the bounce. It was the Roma midfielder's third goal in his last four international matches, however De Rossi was soon after booked and will miss Italy's next match as a result of accumulated yellow cards.
The Azzurri pulled back, defending in numbers with a mind to protect their lead going into the half, but instead conceded at the death on a marvelous volley from William Kvist that beat De Sanctis at the near post from the middle of the penalty area.
Italy appeared to be headed for a disastrous collapse following the halftime restart, as only 16 seconds into the second half Osvaldo received marching orders on a straight red card. The ponytailed striker was shoved by Stokholm as he released a pass, and retaliated with a swing of his elbow, which was met with extreme disdain from the referee.
The Danes poured into the offensive third in numbers, feeling that an equalizer was only a matter of time with Italy reduced to 10 men. The Azzurri retreated, but Prandelli urged his men to take advantage of the counter attack.
The tactic paid off on 54 minutes with more individual splendor from Italy's stars. Andrea Pirlo carried the ball out of defense, and the visionary genius launched a fantastic long ball to the streaking Balotelli, who burst directly through the heart of the Danish back line. Super Mario faced down the onrushing keeper, toe-poking home at full stretch to send the San Siro into raptures and the rejuvenated Danes into utter depression.
With a 3-1 lead, Italy maintained defensive integrity while continuing to threaten on the counter. Balotelli nearly went clear on goal a second time, but was called for a foul as he rounded Agger with spectacular pace.
On 64 minutes, Michael Krohn-Deli came streaking down the left flank on the break, but was shut down by a great Barzagli tackle in a one-on-one situation. Not long after, Christian Eriksen found space on the edge of the penalty area, but blasted his finish over the bar. Chiellini gave away a foul in a dangerous situation as Marchisio made way for Antonio Candreva with a shoulder injury, but the Lazio midfielder cleared the ensuing free-kick from the wall.
De Sanctis was forced to rush off of his line multiple times as Denmark pounded the Italy defense with crosses, once fumbling a catch but recovering on his way to the ground.
Montolivo found himself with space on the counter on 82 minutes and tested the keeper with a swerving drive from distance, but the Milan man was denied a second on the day by a double save from Stephan Andersen.
Denmark continued to press forward in the closing stages, but their resolve wore down as the clock ticked towards full time.
Balotelli left the pitch in the 89th minute to standing ovation from the San Siro crowd, having turned in a wonderful shift in all areas of the match, and was rewarded with a raucous roar of admiration from the Azzurri faithful.
After deep defending in stoppages, the final whistle sounded to secure the three points for Italy. Prandelli's men sit atop Group B on 10 points with the victory, 4 points clear of second place Bulgaria.
Denmark ran out with no intention of allowing Italy to control the match, dominating early proceedings with almost 80% of the possession inside the first 10 minutes. When Italy did touch the ball, the Danes pressured and harried with double marking, forcing errant passes and closing down any space for opportune runs off of the ball. Michael Krohn-Deli and Dennis Rommedahl were deployed on either side of trequartista Christian Eriksen to use their pace to run at Federico Balzaretti and Ignazio Abate on the flanks, creating chances to whip in crosses either for themselves or Michael Silberbauer and Lars Jacobsen on overlapping runs from the full-back position. This strategy worked wonderfully for the Danes early on, as Italy's defense looked in disarray with Nicklas Bendtner appearing dangerous with his head. The Azzurri seemed to lack a coherent set of tactics, only holding out under concerted pressure until they could establish a foothold in the match.
To counter the Danish onslaught, Prandelli began to encourage Balotelli and Osvaldo to menace the high defensive line being maintained by Simon Kjaer and Daniel Agger with forward runs, allowing Andrea Pirlo to quickly send the ball up the pitch, causing panic at the back for Denmark. This maneuver finally forced the Danish midfield backwards, giving Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio more space to operate in the middle, linking up with the strikers, or sending Balzaretti and Abate clear down the flanks. The match finally found a semblance of balance, and entered into a period of sparring between the two sides.
While Italy had finally begun to create chances in the offensive third, finding a final incisive pass to score became an issue. Even as space began to open up in midfield, Riccardo Montolivo continued to languish to deep in Italy's formation; he often held back beside Pirlo, or drifted out to the left on the same plane as Balzaretti instead of settling behind Balotelli and Osvaldo. When Italy finally broke through on 33 minutes through Montolivo's goal, it was a testament to his finally having positioned himself correctly. Slightly behind Super Mario, the Manchester City man was able to lay the ball off to the Milan midfielder, who found the confidence to snatch a glorious opportunity with elegant aggression.
Prandelli did not allow his players to rest after the opening goal, recognizing that Denmark felt sucker-punched and were clearly stunned at having conceded despite their early successes. Italy pressed in the manner that the opposition had following Montolivo's strike, thus winning the corner that lead to De Rossi's header. As with the first, the second goal was a product of the individual quality, with Pirlo and De Rossi both taking advantage of their strengths to give Italy a some much needed insurance. With William Kvist pulling one back for Denmark on the stroke of halftime, the importance of Prandelli's continued attacking strategy that provided the cushion became even more starkly apparent, and ultimately would define the match.
When Osvaldo was sent off just seconds into the second half, the Prandelli chose to maintain his lineup, simply playing as if Balotelli were a lone striker with Montolivo in the hole close by. With the man advantage and down a goal, the Danes were more free to posses the ball, and reverted to their strategy from early in the match with Italy content to sit back and only attack on the counter. Krohn-Deli and Rommedahl resumed running at the Azzurri full-backs, but without needing to control the match anymore, Prandelli gained increased defensive options. Abate and Balzaretti pushed back to reduce space on either side of the box, while the Italy tactician positioned De Rossi and Marchisio in slightly more advanced roles where they could press Denmark's wingers into double coverage on the outside whilst simultaneously being able to thwart in-cutting runs. Montolivo began to man-mark Eriksen in the middle of midfield, effectively cutting off any ground service to Bendtner. Offensively, Pirlo long balls to the inspired Balotelli became Italy's greatest weapon, as perfectly evidenced by the red card-defying third goal. Again, personal brilliance played a defining role in the Azzurri scoring, as without excellent delivery and an acrobatic finish, such would not have been possible.
Italy's defensive tactics left Denmark with only the option of continuously launching balls into the box with the hope that Bendtner would get away a solid header on one of the them, but to no avail. Chiellini and Barzagli placed the Juventus striker on an island, out-dueling their club teammate in the air and frustrating Bendtner into wasting opportunities due to his petulant and persistent fouling. Ultimately, Italy were successful in the match because they were able to adapt to situational football as necessary, exploiting Denmark's weaknesses in defense and attack, and concurrently taking advantage of their own counteracting potencies.
SerieAzzurri Calcio Man of the Match: Mario Balotelli, Italy (1 goal; 1 assist)
Stat of the Match: Italy had not played at the San Siro in 5 years, and move to 37-14-2 all time at the Giuseppe Meazza with the victory
Qualifying Implications: Italy increase their Group B tally to 10 points, 4 points ahead of second place Bulgaria