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Italians worry Spain and Croatia could conspire to keep them from advancing at Euro 2012

Martin Rogers
Yahoo Sports

Italian soccer fans fear their national team's hopes of Euro 2012 glory could be ruined by an extraordinary conspiracy masterminded by archrival Spain.

Going into its final game in Group C on Monday, Italy must defeat the Republic of Ireland to stand a chance of progressing to the quarterfinals. But even then, the Azzurri could be foiled if the group's other finale between Spain and Croatia ends in a 2-2 draw.

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Leonardo Bonucci (left) and Andrea Pirlo know Italy's destiny is out of their hands. (AP)

The tournament's tiebreaker system means that such a result would eliminate the Italians, irrespective of the margin it defeats Ireland. While players from both Spain and Croatia rubbished suggestions that collusion could take place, bookmakers slashed odds on a 2-2 result from 18:1 to 5:2.

Making things worse for Italy and its nervous supporters is that they have been in this position before. At Euro 2004, a 2-2 draw between Sweden and Denmark knocked Italy out of the competition amid wide-scale accusations that the game had been fixed.

"Having been burned once before, we are entitled to be fearful," said an editorial in the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni was in charge of Italy back in 2004 and admitted the Italians were right to be concerned of a stage-managed outcome between Spain and Croatia.

"Italy has to worry about their game, that has to be their focus," Trapattoni told a press conference. "I am the Ireland manager now and that has to be my priority, but you are right to ask these questions and it is important that the people at (governing body) UEFA keep a close eye on it."

Italy's problems arose when it failed to beat Croatia in its second match, drawing 1-1. A draw against Spain, the defending European and World Cup champion, was a more than acceptable start to the tournament, but now an early exit is looming as a serious possibility.

Despite the insistence of the Spanish and Croatian camps that there will be no fix, the issue will not go away. The most recent news conferences of each of the three teams were dominated by questions over whether a 2-2 conspiracy will take place.

[Related: Slideshow: Best shots of 2012 European Championship]

"A 2-2 could happen," Spain defender Raul Albiol said. "Just as a 1-0 or a 0-1 could happen, but there is no pact, no fix, nothing like that. We will try to win as always. So will Italy, so will Croatia. I do not think the Italians really think that and we do not feel insulted at the suggestion.

"We are very relaxed about it. We know that a draw will be enough but we want to win and go through at the top of the group. The Italians can rest assured that we will play to win."

Italy was given an unwelcome reminder of how easily Euro 2012 groups can become a tangled mathematical mess during Saturday night's final matches in Group A.

Greece sprung from the bottom of the group into the quarterfinals by beating Russia 1-0, a result which knocked the Russians out of the tournament on a tiebreaker after the two sides finished level on points. The Czech Republic also progressed as group winner, thanks to a 1-0 win over co-host Poland, which was eliminated.

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