Confed Cup: Unhailed Italy happy with progress

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NO MATTER how Italy fare in tomorrow’s third-place match against Uruguay, the players can head home from the Confederations Cup with their heads held high, aware that they are a team on the rise with the World Cup a year away.

After threatening to draw level with hosts Brazil in their final group match, Italy outplayed World Cup holders Spain for long periods of Thursday’s semi-final – even without their top player Mario Balotelli – before going down 7-6 in a penalty shoot-out following a draining 0-0 draw.

“I take pride in what we’ve done,” Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon said. “It’s not a time to celebrate but I think a lot of people have appreciated the way we play.”

The semi-final was nothing like last year’s European Championship final, when Spain routed Italy 4-0. “We went beyond expectations,” Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini said. “We’ll return to Brazil next year knowing that we can beat even Spain.”

While the 35-year-old Buffon and the 34-year-old Andrea Pirlo still form the backbone of Italy’s squad, coach Cesare Prandelli has topped the team up with several players virtually unheard of outside Italy.

Players like winger Emanuele Giaccherini, who often doesn’t start at Juventus but who set up Balotelli’s winner against Mexico and scored against Brazil; Christian Maggio, the only Napoli player among the Azzurri, whose 80th-minute header and potential equaliser thundered off the crossbar against Brazil and whose first-half shot against Spain was stopped only with an expert reflex save by Iker Casillas; Alessandro Diamanti, who toils in relative obscurity at Bologna but who shone at Euro 2012.

Prandelli has also asked for more out of veterans like Daniele De Rossi and Chiellini. Normally a midfielder, De Rossi played at centre-back in the second half against Spain, while Chiellini is occasionally moved from his usual centre-back spot to full-back. “I’m not Roberto Carlos but I give my all,” Chiellini said memorably before Italy’s first match against Mexico.

And then of course there’s Balotelli, a player most managers have struggled to keep on course but someone who has always shown his best under Prandelli.

Balotelli was sent home with a strained left thigh after the 4-2 loss to Brazil and Italy could only imagine what the match against Spain would have been like if he had been fit.

Balotelli’s winner against Mexico displayed his rapidly improving talent and brute strength and his acrobatic volley set-up of Giaccherini’s goal against Brazil was a thing of beauty. Balotelli is also Italy’s top penalty taker. He has scored 18 out of 18 in his career with Italy, Inter Milan, Manchester City and AC Milan.

Italy could have used him in the shoot-out against Spain, when Leonardo Bonucci fired high to set up Jesus Navas’s winner. “Now I want to spend an entire year training from the penalty spot,” Bonucci said. “Because I don’t want to repeat that at the World Cup.”