Italy tried their best to get through a press conference without the name of Antonio Cassano and his views on homosexuality cropping up, though of course their audience would not let them. Time and time again the questioning was steered round to the same subject, in the end exasperating Cesare Prandelli so much that the head coach apologised for having to keep refusing to answer.
"Look, we don't wish to seem rude," he said. "We are normally very open to questions on any subject, but on the eve of a game it is customary to talk about football. We cannot keep talking about Cassano, enough has already been said. Now is the time to just smile and move on to the next question that happens to be about the game."
Cassano apart, there were two main talking points ahead of meeting with Croatia. The first was Slaven Bilic's suggestion that Luka Modric might be even better than Andrea Pirlo, which the Italian playmaker just happened to be on hand to discuss. "Bilic would say that wouldn't he?" Pirlo said. "Modric is his player and he wants to get a response from him. It is not really for me to say, of course, but I agree Modric is an excellent player." Prandelli suggested Modric needs to do a bit more in the game to bear comparison to a World Cup, Champions League and scudetto winner. "I too think Modric is a very good player," the Italian coach said. "But to say he is better than Andrea is a bit strong. I think he needs to start winning some trophies to justify that comparison."
The other perennial subject of interest was Mario Balotelli, who fascinates Italians and Croatians just as much as he does English football followers. "He has been concentrating very hard in training," Prandelli said, taking a leaf from Roberto Mancini's book and issuing a stock response to the inevitable query about what sort of mood the maverick striker might be in at the moment. No one ever wants to know what sort of mood Antonio Di Natale or Daniele De Rossi might be in, but with Balotelli the curiosity seems to be universal, perhaps because it is do difficult to imagine him concentrating very hard in training. Even Bilic added his rather elliptical thoughts to the general mix. "There is a circle and in one half there is genius and in the other weirdness," the Croatia coach said. "In between there is a fine line. Balotelli is a top-class player and sometimes he is a genius, but sometimes he does weird things."
Weird or not, Prandelli is currently evaluating Balotelli's importance to the Italy attacking line-up after Antonio Di Natale came on in his place against Spain and scored his side's only goal. The Italian coach admitted he was thinking of making at least one change to the line-up, and it is widely believed Balotelli is in danger of losing his place, although if Prandelli decides Cassano's head is not right after a couple of days of intensely negative publicity, it could be the Milan forward who misses out. "I have got a change in mind, a slight doubt that I am thinking about, but I will wait until the last minute to decide," Prandelli said. "Whatever starting line-up we go with I can say now that we intend to use all three substitutes, and to give each time to get into the match and make an impression," he added. "Substitutes are absolutely crucial in the modern game, as we saw against Spain if you use them right they can come on and make a difference."
On paper Croatia ought to be a more straightforward test for Italy than the World Cup holders, yet Bilic's team won their first match, and having only managed a draw in their own opener Prandelli's players are obliged to go out for victory this time. "We know Croatia very well, and and I would not say they are easier to play against than Spain," Prandelli said. "They are a completely different proposition, a very well-organised team who know each other so well they can actually change their formation during a game. But the main difference is that when we play them we will be trying to win, because that is what will be expected. When you play Spain these days, just about any team in the world will settle for trying to contain them."