As the Final Draw for UEFA EURO 2008 was made last December, the football world took a sharp intake of breath. FIFA World Cup™ holders Italy, runners-up France, and the Netherlands had been thrown together in Group C, which was instantly proclaimed as the toughest section. Experts agreed that, in this clash of titans, the fourth team in the group, Romania, were there to make up the numbers and had virtually no chance of progressing to the knockout stages.
Football, though, has a habit of disregarding the formbook, as shown by Romania's impressive progress so far in this championship. After draws in their opening two games (0-0 against France, 1-1 against Italy), Victor Piturca's charges are occupying second spot behind the already-qualified Netherlands and have the quarter-finals firmly in their sights.
In an impressive performance against reigning world champions Italy, the eastern Europeans more than held their own over the 90 minutes. Despite creating numerous chances, Romania will surely rue the one they squandered in the 81st minute, when Adrian Mutu's penalty was superbly saved by Gianluigi Buffon.
"I'd like to apologise to the fans. We might have been
through already to the quarter-finals if I'd converted my
penalty," confessed a frustrated Mutu after the game. No one
in the Romanian team, however, was pointing the finger at the
"We're not angry with Adrian. He played really well and managed to inspire and carry the team several times during the game," said his captain Christian Chivu. "We should be thanking him for his contribution not laying the blame at his feet. We're happy with the draw. We might even see a better Romanian performance against the Netherlands."
For Piturca, the display brought contentment and confidence in equal measure. "Ok, we didn't win, but it's still a very good result," said the Romanian coach. "We've played both the World cup holders and the runners-up and still have every chance of progressing to the knockout phase. If we play like that again in our last game, we can go through."
Thanks to a superb performance by Buffon, Italy can still harbour hopes of progressing. The Juventus goalkeeper had already shown his class on several occasions during the game before saving Mutu's penalty in spectacular style. "Buffon was fantastic," said Italy's coach Roberto Donadoni, "but praise must go to the whole team. Italy were better than Romania. We played an excellent game and carved out a lot of chances. Unfortunately, we only came away with a draw but we're still in the race."
Azzurri's final game is a repeat of the Germany 2006
Final against France. This time, though, the encounter is more
about survival than glory, with both teams trying to avoid the
humiliation of an early exit.
In spite of that ignominious possibility, Italy captain Alessandro del Piero insisted "the team is in good shape" - a sentiment echoed by team-mate Luca Toni: "We believe we can make the quarter-finals. We've had one defeat and one draw, now it's time for the first win," said the top scorer in the Bundesliga in 2008.