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By CHRIS ALTRUDA
(AP) -- LONDON (SE) -- In theory, it's all there for the taking for Italy to reach the European Championship quarterfinals.
In reality, it can all be cruelly taken away from the Azzurri - again.
Needing a victory and some help that could come from a variety of outcomes, Italy wrap up Group C play Monday in Poznan, Poland, against what they hope will be a dispirited Ireland squad playing for little more than pride.
Manager Cesare Prandelli's squad has played to a pair of 1-1 draws in Group C, leaving them third with two points heading into this match behind co-leaders Croatia and reigning Euro and World Cup champion Spain. The days of the catenaccio, however, are longed for in Poland, where the Azzurri failed to protect leads in both matches as their 3-5-2 formation born of necessity due to injurers and fallout from a domestic match-fixing scandal has failed to lock up three points.
Thursday's draw versus Croatia was arguably more disappointing given Italy had the run of play for nearly all of the first half before sitting back in the second, when Mario Mandzukic's goal from close range in the 72nd minute negated Andrea Pirlo's goal off a free kick in the 39th.
"The first half was how we should always play, and the second was how we should never play," Italy midfielder Claudio Marchisio said. "We've got to figure out what happened. Our strikers weren't able to press forward anymore."
Mercurial striker Mario Balotelli played better but again failed to display a finishing touch, which may result in Prandelli opting for Antonio Di Natale for this match. Di Natale replaced the Man City forward in both matches as a substitute and scored in the opening match versus Spain.
"He has huge potential, but he needs to improve," said Prandelli, who has hinted he may make as many as four changes, of Balotelli. "He needs to be more ruthless and pay more attention. These are the areas he needs to improve."
Balotelli hurt his right knee in practice Saturday and is listed as questionable for this match.
As Prandelli ponders whom to partner with Antonio Cassano, the Azzurri find themselves in an identical situation as 2004, when a 2-2 draw between Sweden and Denmark eliminated them despite not losing a group match. While the Italian media have already begun fretting about a similar arrangement between Spain and Croatia - a draw that ends 2-2 or higher eliminates Italy - Prandelli was quick to dismiss the notion.
"This is a controversy I have a hard time understanding," he said. "Over the past 10 years, Spain has enthused the entire world and everyone wants to copy them and you want me to think this squad is contemplating a (plot against Italy)? Whoever does that has problems. We don't need to look for excuses."
The simplest way for Italy to advance to the quarterfinals is with a victory and a non-draw in the other match to secure a second-place finish. They can still win Group C with a victory and a scoreless draw by Spain and Croatia. A 1-1 draw would require Italy to win 3-1, 4-2 or by at least three goals to advance ahead based on a better UEFA ranking.
The last time Italy failed to make the knockout round in successive major tournaments came in a dry spell from 1972-76, when they failed to qualify for the 1972 and 1976 European tournaments and made a group play exit from the 1974 World Cup.
Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni will again deal with the disappointment of leaving after group play from the Euro - he was caretaker of the unlucky Italian side in Portugal in 2004 - but Eire's nightmare scenario in Poland has been created by a lack of any semblance of defence that resulted in the dubious distinction of being the first team eliminated.
Another goal conceded in the early minutes opened the floodgates Thursday when Ireland were routed 4-0 by Spain, a scoreline that could have been more embarrassing without several quality saves from goalkeeper Shay Given. Ireland have allowed a tournament-worst seven goals through their first two matches, and the repeated breakdowns on defence have left Trapattoni at a loss and with worry since he is under contract to guide this team through 2014 World Cup qualifying.
"Something has changed. The assuredness with which we have played has changed between the qualifying process and the actual tournament," the Italian said. "Fear, tension has meant we made mistakes we didn't do at all in the qualifying campaign. You could see here the weight on the players' shoulders."
The only match between the teams in a major tournament was a 1-0 victory by Ireland in group play in the 1994 World Cup. Ireland also won 2-0 in a friendly last year in Liege, Belgium.
Updated June 17, 2012