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Croatia-Italy Preview

By TOM BENNETT

STATS European Football Writer

(AP) -- LONDON (SE) - Two of the standout teams from the first round of Euro 2012 matches meet in Poznan on Thursday evening when Italy play Group C leaders Croatia.

The Croats impressed in their 3-1 victory over Ireland on Sunday, while arguably the game of the tournament so far saw Italy hold their own against World and European champions Spain in a 1-1 draw in Gdansk. However, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli believes his team's second opponents at the tournament are the major threat of the group.

"The Croatia match will be decisive," he said. "They will cause us more problems than Spain.

"If we don't prepare properly, we'll be in trouble. I'm not worried, but I need to tell my players that although we played a good match, it could have turned in a second. We could have scored but so could Fernando Torres and if he had, we would be talking in a very different way today.

"Croatia will be a completely different proposition, and I think they will cause us more problems than Spain. They are unpredictable, and they can completely change from one match to the next. We will have to be even more prepared than we were for Spain.

"I will have to study Croatia closely but my colleagues have already told me they are a proper side. I need to analyse the scientific data we have collated to assess our players' fitness and I will make my decision from there, but in order to develop consistency, I don't want to change too much."

Italy have never beaten Croatia in five previous meetings, but the current Azzurri side is almost unrecognisable from previous set-ups. With Daniel De Rossi as sweeper at the heart of a three-man defence, Emanuele Giaccherini and Christian Maggio getting forward from the wide positions and a cultured midfield trio led by Andre Pirlo, Italy played some terrific attacking football at times against the Spanish and retained a major goal threat with two up-front throughout.

However, knowing that a win would see his team into the knockout stages, Croatia midfielder Niko Kranjcar saw enough in the opening match to be confident about his side's chances.

"I think we dominated for the whole 90 minutes, and we deserved to win," said Kranjcar. "The atmosphere was excellent.

"We gave our very best from the beginning until the end, because that's what we had to do. And I think our class was evident. The coach's tactics definitely worked. We believe in the whole squad, not just these 11 players, but everyone here, and also those who are injured, have class. And together with our coach, we are ready to make a great impression on this European Championship.

"We have done what we came here to do, which was to win the first match against Ireland. We thought we were the favourites today. Now we have a couple of difficult matches to come against Italy and Spain, where we are not the favourites, but in previous championships we have shown that we can handle them, especially if we have Danijel (Pranjic) and we do like we did today, then I think we can win."

The other teams in Group C are defending champions Spain and group underdogs Republic of Ireland who meet in Gdansk later on Thursday evening.

Updated June 12, 2012

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