But Adrian Mutu’s strike didn’t quite go where it was supposed to and Italian keeper Gianluigi Buffon, a man who has seemed to be in goal for Italy forever, got first his hand and second his boot on the ball to keep it out and Italy in.
Buffon leapt to his feet, pumping his fist in the air triumphantly. It might have been the first real passion the Italians had shown in the tournament thus far. At the time you were left to think that surely that was it—the turning point for Italy. That the Azzurri would burst forward and steal the result back from Romania.
However, the Romanians—well organized and determined throughout—held off what surge Italy managed to muster. It ended tied--a result that must disappoint Italy and satisfy the Romanians. For now, they still have the tournament in control. A Romania win in its final match and the quarters beckon.
Italy is left to wonder. Is the magic gone? Is the team too old? Was there really any magic to begin with (Italy didn’t really look like world champions in 2004 until they actually were)? An old foe, France, equally as wounded and confused, is next for Italy. Both teams must win to have a chance. Both teams must hope that the least heralded team in the group doesn’t steal the quarters away from both.
But, those are worries for another day. Today, Italy could only marvel at how close it had been. And thank its goaltender for giving them another chance to move on. The Euros can be forgiving. For a contender like Italy, just getting to the knock-out stage can be enough. Three wins there and no one remembers today.
The expectations are off now. All the pressure has shifted to Holland, Portugal and Spain. Those are the teams expected to be standing on the final day now. Italy has shown before that it can grow in a tournament until it emerges as champions. For the Azzurri’s fans it’s that hope that they must hold onto now.
It seems like a long shot but all you can do in this tournament is to stay alive. As long as you are still in the game you have a chance. And, at times rotten play aside, Italy is still in the game and is most certainly still dangerous.
Today: (Ok, tomorrow) Sweden and Spain hash it out for top of the group while Russia and Greece try to stay alive. In some ways the Russia/Greece game might be the most interesting. Despite Sweden’s win Spain looks to be the class here. How well Russia performs will tell us a lot about just how good Spain is. Was the Spaniards four goals a mirage made possible by porous defense? Or, a sign that Spain is a real player this year?