In each of Italy’s three major sports newspapers on Friday, the lead story wasn’t their costly 1-1 draw with Croatia, but instead how that result presents an opportunity for Croatia and Spain to progress at their expense.
At Euro 2004, Italy became the first nation in the tournament’s history to bow out of the group stage unbeaten despite collecting five points, and the prospect of the exact same scenario unfolding has petrified many Azzurri fans.
On that occasion, they, Denmark and Sweden all beat Bulgaria and drew with one another, meaning that the three-way tussle at the top was decided by head-to-head goals scored.
Italy had drawn 0-0 and 1-1 with their rivals, meaning that the Scandinavian pair’s convenient 2-2 draw in their final group game was enough to send both through and Giovanni Trapattoni’s side out.
Their current group has played out in an almost identical way, Republic of Ireland adopting the Bulgaria role and the other trio proving inseparable.
As Italy have drawn 1-1 with Croatia and Spain, a 2-2 or higher draw between those two will ensure that both reach the quarter-finals – the holders on top due to their superior overall goal difference – and eliminate Mario Balotelli and co.
Of course, there is nothing to suggest that either country will do anything other than go out on Monday with every intention of winning to not only guarantee qualification but first place.
However, a conspiracy theory is enough to unnerve Italians, who have a recent history of exiting competitions in odd circumstances, and excite punters, which is why the draw is shorter than usual at 17/10 and 2-2 is a 5/1 prospect.
It is worth noting that Italy were frightened of a fishy conclusion to their Euro 2008 group, in which a Holland loss to Romania would have dumped them out and seen Romania follow Holland through. On that occasion, the Dutch won 2-0.
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