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Never, ever write off the Italians

They have a habit of making critics eat humble pie

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It was always so easy to write off the Italians.

Despite a solid Euro 2012 qualification campaign their national team was only two years removed from the implosion of the World Cup, and as they broke camp in late May another match-fixing investigation seemed to cast a pall over their preparations.

On the personnel side of things the call-up of Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli -- he of the botched pyrotechnic experiment that nearly burned a house down mid-season -- looked certain to be an invitation to distraction while the inclusion of Antonio Cassano -- who in November underwent a heart procedure that kept him sidelined more than five months -- appeared a gamble, and an optimistic one.

A pre-tournament loss to Russia validated the scepticism and the worst-case scenarios. An early exit surely loomed for the Azzurri.

That was almost a month ago. In the 29 days since Italy have gone about showing their critics as fools, their doubters as fair-weather. A 1-1 draw with Spain in the Group C opener legitimized their campaign, and subsequent wins over Croatia, Ireland, England and Germany has put them in a position to lift the trophy when they meet Spain again in Kyiv on Sunday.

If the idea of Italy as European champions was improbable at the outset of Euro 2012, it is currently somewhere between probable and likely.

How quickly things change in international football.

And yet, how much they stay the same. An underrated Italian side with squad issues and problems back home is hardly a unique set of circumstances for a national team that has a habit of confounding expectations. You'd think we'd have learned by now.

But what makes this Italy side particularly compelling is the number of storylines -- positive ones -- it has provided throughout the competition. Balotelli and Cassano are two of them.

With three goals ahead of Sunday's final Balotelli is the tournament's top remaining scorer and the odds-on favourite to win the Golden Boot. His two goals against Germany, each scored in remarkable fashion, enhanced his reputation as a big-game player and his behaviour in Poland and Ukraine, mostly composed and restrained, has won him no shortage of admirers.

When he embraced his adoptive mother after the final whistle on Thursday we saw a human side of Balotelli he had heretofore kept to himself. We witnessed a young man maturing before our eyes.

Cassano, meanwhile, has started all five of Italy's matches so far.

That he has been the heartbeat of the Azzurri attack is a pleasant irony, and his assist on Balotelli's opener against Germany -- created after he deftly spun off his marker -- was the powerful, bulldog-ish striker at his very best.

Then there's Andrea Pirlo. Released by AC Milan last summer, the 33-year-old won the Scudetto after a terrific season at Juventus and transferred that form to the international stage. He has been the best player at Euro 2012, and his exquisite ball distribution the past three weeks has turned him into a surprise contender for FIFA's Ballon d'Or.

Put it all together and you have a team that's extremely easy to root for. No cold, unemotional, robotic Spain here. This Italian side is the antithesis of everything that has made the reigning world and European champions so successful and, at the same time, so unwatchable and impossible to love.

Where the Spaniards are mechanized, the Italians are spontaneous, unpredictable. And they've once again reminded us of one of soccer's great lessons: never, ever, write off the Italians.

jerradpeters@gmail.com Twitter @peterssoccer

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 1, 2012 C8

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