Buffon keeps Azzurri alive

Italy 1 Romania 1
ITALY are still in the European Championships. Just about. And Roberto Donadoni still has a job. Just about.

But it took a remarkable 80th-minute penalty save from Gianlugi Buffon to prevent Adrian Mutu getting his second goal of the game and giving Romania a shock but probably deserved victory over the world champions in a match full of drama, incident and controversy at the Letzigrund Stadium in Zurich.

Reeling from their heavy loss in the opening game, embattled manager Donadoni, as he had threatened, made no fewer than five changes from the side which had lost 3-0 to the Dutch. Out went central defenders Materazzi and Barzagli, general enforcer Gattuso and fellow midfielders Di Natale and Ambrosini. In came Chiellini and Grosso at the back and De Rossi and Perrotta in the middle while, in response to media and public demand, there was a starting place for the veteran Allesandro Del Piero as a second striker playing off frontman Luca Toni.

The Italians began brightly enough but their main tactic soon emerged as any and every attempt to find Toni in the air. And while the Azzurri dominated possession in the first half, the best goal chances still fell to the Romanians who showed much more urgency going forward than in their opening game against France.

The Romanians were also showing a refreshing tendency to shoot from distance, and impressive fullback Razvan Rat came breathtakingly close in the 28th minute with a 30-yard daisy cutter which whistled an inch past the Italian post. And it was the woodwork itself which had come to Italy’s rescue a little earlier, when Cristian Chivu’s long-range freekick deflected off Panucci only to come back off an upright with Buffon stranded.

At the other end, Fabio Grosso’s rampaging runs up the left flank ensured a steady supply of decent crosses for Italy which Toni singularly failed to convert, and when the Bayern Munich goal machine did finally find the net with his head — right on the stroke of half-time — it was only to have it wrongly ruled out for offside. But that was all the Italians could legitimately complain about at the end of a first half in which all the cheering and chanting was coming from the Romanian end of the ground.

A lively contest, which was only lacking a goal, suddenly produced two in a two-minute spell soon after the restart. The first came after a howler from Italian fullback Gianluca Zambrotta who failed to see Mutu lurking behind him as he headed weakly back to his goalkeeper. The Romanian number 10 needed no second invitation.

But the lead only lasted one minute. And it was a measure of Italy’s paucity of imagination in open play that it came from a routine set-piece, Chiellini heading a corner back across the goal where, after Romanian defender Gabriel Tamas had made a hash of his attempted clearance, Panucci was on hand to bundle the ball home from close range.

And still the game’s biggest talking point was to come when, 10 minutes from time, Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo awarded a penalty after he spotted Panucci with Daniel Niculae’s head in an armlock as they competed inside the box. With both sets of supporters holding their breath, Mutu stepped up to strike the ball firmly only for Buffon to repel the effort with the use of two limbs. The hand and leg of God had saved Italy but, on this showing, and the notable failure of the Del Piero experiment, it will take another miracle for the Azzurri to advance in the competition.

ITALY subs: Ambrosini for Camoranesi 85, Quagliarella for Del Piero 77, Cassano for Perrotta 58.

ROMANIA: Dica for Radoi 25, Nocolita for Petre 59, Cocis for Mutu 88.

Meanwhile, those other muted European big guns, Germany, are still trying to come to terms with their defeat by Croatia on Thursday, in a titanic battle which was a serious candidate for game of the tournament so far. That’s no consolation to Joachim Low’s men, whose aura of invincibility was badly dented by a Croatian side almost unrecognisable, in their lively, inventive approach, from the team which was lucky to edge past Austria in their first match.

As a personality sub-plot, there was also the eclipse in the technical area of Low by his Croatian counterpart Slaven Bilic, the one favouring crisply pressed white shirts and unnaturally black hair, while the other does a neat line in ear rings, loose ties and general slacker cool. That this was a victory for rock ‘n roll is underlined by the fact that Bilic found time in the run-up to the tournament to help pen Croatia’s official Euro 08 song, a lively little ditty which goes by the name of ‘Fiery Madness’. Quite.

With Ireland’s traditional obsession with ABE (Anyone But England), it takes a trip to the continent to remind the visitor that the vast majority of European nations are fixed on ABG (Anyone But Germany). Hence the joy in German suffering (schadenfreude) rampant even in Zurich after Thursday’s game on the other side of the border in Klagenfurt, as jubilant Croatian supporters emerged from the city’s Fanzone chanting, to the tune of ‘Yellow Submarine’, “Deutschland, Deutschland, Auf Wiedersehen.”

On the same night, there was a little blow struck for romance in Vienna, as the tournament’s co-hosts got what they deserved at the 11th hour with a converted penalty against Poland to register their first point on the board. Coupled with the German defeat in Klagenfurt, the result means that the Austrians, written off by nearly everyone before the tournament kicked off, have a chance to both eliminate Germany and qualify themselves when the two neighbours meet in the Austrian capital on Monday.

The odds are, of course, that normal service will be resumed by Michael Ballack and co but, in the unlikely event that it won’t, the reverberations will be felt all over Europe — and the schadenfreude, let me tell you, will be only deafening.


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