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Redemption but no glory for Italy

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KIEV, Ukraine, July 2- Italy may have suffered a footballing lesson in the hopelessly one-sided Euro 2012 final against Spain but before a ball was kicked in that game they had at least achieved some sort of redemption.

Italy arrived at the tournament on the back of three straight defeats, albeit all in friendlies, and with expectations at their lowest in decades.

For a team that have been crowned champions of the world four times — a record bettered only by Brazil — Italy are not used to tackling challenges without a reasonable expectation of emerging victorious.

And yet when they turned up at their base in Krakow on June 5, there was no-one who proclaimed, at least publicly, that they believed a run to the final and eventual success was anything other than a pipe dream.

Even optimistic talk of the lucky match-fixing omen was kidding no-one.

Italy had won their last two World Cups, in 1982 and 2006, in the aftermath of an ugly affair but even though the shame of Calcioscommesse — football-betting — was making headlines back home, superstitious belief in a glorious destiny was confined only to sensationalist media headlines.

And yet in the space of just under a month, Cesare Prandelli’s team have re-emerged from the doldrums to become, once again, one of the major footballing forces they have become so accustomed to.

In the six years since Italy last lifted a major trophy they had scraped through their Euro 2008 group only to be edged out by eventual winners Spain in the quarter-finals.

Then two years after that, and despite the return of World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi, Italy were humiliated in South Africa.

Paired with what seemed on paper one of the easiest possible World Cup groups, they crashed out after finishing bottom of a pile containing New Zealand, Slovakia and Paraguay.

Fans were in despair, the federation vowed to start again from scratch and Prandelli was appointed to bring a fresh approach.

That he did, and in no insignificant manner.

The stylish 54-year-old was not just the catalyst but also the brains and driving force behind a revolution in Italian football.

The ultra-defensive catenaccio style of the past was slickly swept out the door and a new dawn of positive, attackng, possession football was ushered in.

Italy made short work of what could have been a tricky qualifying group, reaching the finals with two games to spare as Serbia, Slovenia, Estonia and Northern Ireland battled for the play-off scraps.

And despite the blips in their flaccid friendly showings, Prandelli stuck to his guns and urged his side to keep playing.

Although they began the tournament as virtual outsiders — or at least outside the main favourites — they earned many new fans and plaudits for a surprisingly proactive approach.

That served them well as they beat Ireland 2-0 in a vital group game that saw them reach the last eight, where they totally outplayed England before needing the penalty lottery to progress.

They reached the pinnacle in a brilliant semi-final display against Germany in which the artist Andrea Pirlo displayed his full range of cultured footballing genius.

That neither he nor his team-mates could reproduce such an effort in the final was due entirely to one of the greatest ever performances by perhaps the best team of all time.

And while they stumbled, somewhat drastically, at the final hurdle, their store has been set.

This is a side that will kick on from here with a bright and talented coach and a new attacking optimism.

They are not there yet but Italy are well on their way back to being the title protagonists they have always been in the past.

And much of that is due to the assured serenity and tactical acumen of the classy Prandelli, who luckily for Italy has vowed to soldier on.

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