Group of Death stays alive
Alex Dunn was both surprised and relieved by the excitement generated by Italy's draw with Romania.
By Alex Dunn
Last Updated: 13/06/08 10:41pm
If Group C really is the 'Group of Death' then Romania versus Italy should have been the game that pushed the armchair supporter into an early grave, but on the contrary what ensued was arguably the finest match of the tournament to date.
Like Greece in claiming glory four years ago in the same competition and Rangers in advancing to the final of this year's Uefa Cup, Romania's defensive mantra had been dubbed 'anti-football'.
In grinding out a 0-0 stalemate in their opening game against France, Victor Piturca's side stole a point but not the hearts of the neutral as Romania retreated so far back one supporter complained a player had stolen his seat in the stand.
With Italy if nothing else masters in the art of defending, this was the game in which you secretly wished your girlfriend in a pique of football intolerance would steal the remote and demand to watch Location Location.
Following an insipid opening game 3-0 defeat to Holland - a loss which brought stinging criticism from not just an agitated Italian press but also from the sanctuary of the dressing room - it was no surprise Italy coach Roberto Donadoni made changes to both personnel and formation.
In switching from a 4-3-3 that looked languid and aged against the youthful Dutch, Donadoni was brave in leaving his popular midfielder warrior Gennaro Gattuso on the bench as Alessandro Del Piero was promoted to partner Luca Toni in attack in a 4-4-2 formation, which gave full-backs Gianluca Zambrotta and the recalled Fabio Grosso licence to roam on the overlap. And roam they did as Toni - Italy's upmarket version of Robert Rosario - was given a steady supply of tantalising crosses.
On another evening he would have taken home the match ball but tonight as he nurses a well earned Moretti, he'll be left to reflect on a linesman's erroneous flag that ruled out his legitimate header on the stroke of half-time, while rueing the performance of the outstanding Bogdan Lobont in Romania's goal.
Romania were far from cavalier in their approach but tidy in possession and with Fiorentina's Adrian Mutu looking hungry to cause misery against his adopted homeland, the world champions never seemed watertight at the back. No more so than ten minutes after the interval when Zambrotta's calamitous loss of concentration allowed Mutu to nip in on his short header back and expertly clip the ball beyond Buffon.
Standing on the cusp of elimination Italy swarmed forward but rather than retreat into the shell that still houses coma-victims from the France game, Romania kept on with a forward thinking mentality that made for an invigorating contest. Christian Panucci's leveller looked likely to trigger an onslaught from the Azzurri but it was Romania on 90 minutes that were left to rue the game that got away.
Referee Tom Henning's award of a penalty may be all the vogue following Howard Webb's decision the previous evening but perhaps Buffon's inspired save from Mutu's spot-kick was God's way of saying you can't really give spot-kicks for every pull or tug in the box.
It's been quite a month for the former West End playboy, who must now not only find Chelsea the trifling £9.6million he owes them, but also reflect that his profligacy from 12 yards could prove Romania's undoing.