POZNAN, Poland, June 18 – Italy’s preparation for their final European Championship Group C clash against Ireland on Monday is at risk of being derailed by a biscuit.
The 2006 world champions sit third in their group after 1-1 draws against Spain and Croatia.
They trail both of those by two points with pointless Ireland already eliminated.
Italy’s preparations should be firmly concentrated on getting the victory over Ireland that should prove sufficient to send them into the quarter-finals.
However talk of a “biscotto”, or biscuit in English, has got Italian nerves jangling and conspiracy theorists clamouring foul play before even a ball has been kicked.
Should Spain and Croatia draw 2-2 in Gdansk then they will both qualify for the quarter-finals at Italy’s expense, regardless of their result against Ireland.
It is because in the case of two or more teams finishing level on points, their head-to-head records come into play.
It was a similar scenario at Euro 2004 when Italy were ousted by a 2-2 draw in the final game between Nordic neighbours Sweden and Denmark.
Those two played a competitive match until the fourth goal went in and then seemed to both settle for the result that guaranteed their passage into the knock-out stages.
That has become known as a “biscotto” in Italian as it is the term used for an arrangement between two parties at the expense of a third.
Its origin comes either from horses being doped by biscuits or the principle of dividing up a cake equally, according to Italian sources.
But whichever is the truth, the fact is the Italians are rattled and rather than focussing purely on Ireland, they’re being eaten up by the possibility of being crunched by a “biscotto”.
However, publicly they are not keen to voice their fears.
“We believe, we have to believe otherwise there wouldn’t even be any point in playing,” said midfielder Claudio Marchisio.
“Croatia are a very good team but I think Spain are the favourites in that match.”
Coach Cesare Prandelli said the first thing is to win their match against Ireland and only then will they need to cast an eye on events in Gdansk.
“We need to win the game and deserve to progress to the next round,” he said.
“We must not think about what happened eight years ago, we must not look for excuses.
“Spain have always produced a spectacle and played well, everyone wants to emulate them, why would they think about a biscuit now?”
Prandelli has said he will make three or four changes to the team and one of those looks all the more likely to be striker Mario Balotelli, who limped out of training on Saturday with a knee problem.
He was due to undergo tests on Sunday to see if he will be fit but was a candidate to be replaced by Antonio Di Natale – who scored their goal in the 1-1 draw against Spain after coming on for Balotelli – in any case.
Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque has vowed to play to win the game against Croatia but the question remains how they will approach matters if they are drawing with time running out.
Any kind of score draw would almost guarantee they win the group — unless it’s 1-1 and Italy beat Ireland by more than four goals.
Del Bosque may want to win the game but would he risk losing it when his side are guaranteed to progress with any kind of draw?
The bigger issue for Italy will be the potential banana skin that is former coach Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland, who certainly won’t roll over.
Trapattoni was the Italy coach in Portugal eight years ago and there would be a sort of poetic injustice perhaps were he to be the architect of Italy’s downfall this time around.
Although they are out, Irish captain Robbie Keane says they are determined not to go home without any points.
“Just pride, that’s all we’re playing for,” said the LA Galaxy striker.
“You don’t want to go home without any points on the board.
“It is important we regroup as a team and give the fans something to cheer about. It has been a difficult week for the team, not just me.