The four time world champions arrive at FIFA World Cup 2014 not amongst the general favourites. Determined to correct the embarrassment of 2010, the Azzurri have been drawn in the group of death alongside Uruguay, England and Costa Rica. Since the debacle in South Africa four years ago, Italy have been revitalised under the former Fiorentina tactician, Cesare Prandelli. However can Italy decorate their emblem with an illustrious fifth star?
A stroll down World Cup memory lane and we learn that Italy have usually relied on the collective instead of the individual. They trust experience and are always tactically equipped. They possess tournament intelligence while traditionally being slow starters, although this notion may be vanquished under Prandelli. Euro 2012 was a resounding success for Prandelli’s team but the road to the Estádio Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday the 13th July 2014 is by no means an easy journey.
Let’s take a look at Italy’s World Cup chances by assessing their squad’s strengths and weaknesses.
- Squad composition
The Italians possess an adequate blend of youthful talent and experience. Veterans such as Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Daniele De Rossi and the evergreen playmaker Andrea Pirlo will once again form the back bone of the team. Besides their undoubted ability, it will be their experienced minds, tournament knowledge and winning mentality that will drive the Azzurri forward. Coupled with this, Italy will blend in some youthful, talented, rising stars. Mattia De Sciglio, Marco Verratti, Alessio Cerci and Ciro Immobile are amongst the players who will be looking to both etch their name into Italian football history and also cement their squad status for years to come.
- Coach Cesare Prandelli
As alluded to already, Prandelli has revolutionised the Italian national team. His excellent work and achievements cannot be stressed enough. This has also been highlighted in the Italian football association (FIGC) extending his contract by a further two years prior to the World Cup commencing. Prandelli will now remain in charge of the team until after Euro 2016.
Prandelli inherited a team in turmoil following the disappointment of 2010 but has embarked on a project that has seen Italy once more rise amongst the heavyweights of international football. His tactical approach, vast knowledge of the game (assisted by a successful playing carer), flexibility and somewhat unique brand of football by Italian national team standards orchestrated a run to the final of Euro 2012. En route Italy disposed of a German side who many had predicted would win the tournament or at least qualify for the final. Italy’s joy was smothered by Spain in the final but Prandelli had taken the national team on a giant leap in the right direction.
Prandelli is a poster child for discipline with a few of his big name players familiarising themselves with his now infamous “Code of Ethics”. Mario Balotelli, Daniele De Rossi and Pablo Osvaldo (not in World Cup squad) all fell victim and were dropped from the squad at some point due to breaching Prandelli’s ethics code. Discipline is of course key in tournament football and Prandelli will ensure that the entire squad remain focused on only the end goal.
Perhaps Italy’s biggest advantage and an extension of the importance of Prandelli, is Italy’s style of play and tactical versatility. Italy has displayed a distinctive ability to adopt various formations and adapt depending on the game circumstances or opposition. In the Euro 2012 group stages, Italy employed a 3-5-2 formation with success and stifled a highly dangerous Spanish team. In the lead up to the World Cup Prandelli has used a 4-3-1-2 and a 4-3-2-1 formation in friendlies against Ireland and Luxembourg respectively. The side is also well capable of using a 4-3-3 setup. There is of course a downside in perhaps not having a settled approach but as long as Prandelli’s charges clearly understand their roles in the different approaches, this versatility could be a vital weapon at the World Cup.
- Big game players and match winners
A lot of the fanfare surrounding the Italian squad will focus on Mario Balotelli. Negative or positive, coming off a poor season or in good form, the bottom line is he is Italy’s go-to-man and a star. He lit up Euro 2012 and is capable of exploiting dangerous positions and producing moments of magic. World Cups produce heroes and Prandelli will be hoping Mario makes this tournament his tournament. Aside from Balotelli, Italy know they can always rely on the likes of Pirlo and Buffon. Both players have seen it all before and Italy will look to them for inspiration.
Pirlo’s role as the Regista is as key as ever:
Perhaps Italy’s x-factor is Antonio Cassano. The Parma forward has drifted in and out of the international scene and at the age of 31 will be making his first World Cup appearance. Cassano seems to have turned his personal life around, displaying a new sense of professionalism and reaping the rewards. A good season with Parma, a cameo performance in the friendly against Ireland and what Prandelli saw during the training camp was enough to earn the forward a spot in the final squad. Importantly Cassano may just be the catalyst to bring out the best of Balotelli. The two combined to good effect during Euro 2012 and seemed to have an almost telepathic understanding in the recent friendlies against Ireland and Luxembourg.
Ricardo Montolivo unfortunately suffered an injury in the friendly against Ireland and will not feature at this year’s showpiece. Despite an ordinary and difficult season with AC Milan, Montolivo has been a firm favourite and integral part of Prandelli’s setup since he took over.
The big news in Italian media of course was the omission of Guiseppe Rossi from Prandelli’s final squad. Whether justified or not, Prandelli was the closest man and also the one entrusted to critically assess Rossi’s condition heading into the tournament. With not much football under his belt Rossi was always fighting against the clock. If the World Cup was a month later or if Rossi had returned from injury a few weeks earlier than he did, perhaps we would have finally seen the much anticipated Rossi – Balotelli combination at the World Cup.
- Best and settled eleven
While Italy have a core group of players mentioned above who will undoubtedly start come the World Cup, Prandelli does not seem to have found and settled on his complete best eleven as yet. Of course Montolivo’s injury has affected his plans and barring the six or seven core players, Prandelli is probably still contemplating his starting line-up for game one against England.
- Best tactical approach
In the same manner of settling on a best eleven, Prandelli has also been tinkering with his formations in the lead up to the World Cup. As mentioned this may be an advantage for Prandelli but he also needs to establish clearly what the default or best case scenario will be. In the friendly against Luxembourg, Prandelli experimented with three different formations during the 90 minutes. Change is good but sometimes too much of a good thing can be bad and this can unsettle the players.
How far can Italy go?
Italy’s credentials will be put firmly to the test from the get go. An opening game against England and playing Uruguay in South America means Italy have little room to falter. Qualification from this group means a possible tie against another South American team and dark horse Columbia. This will also prove to be a difficult examination. Should Italy come up against Greece, Japan or Ivory Coast in the second round they should have enough quality to progress further. The quarter finals are where the odds become exponentially tough as potential opponents will be hosts Brazil or champions Spain, should they respectively top their groups. The semi-finals may thus prove a hurdle to far for the Azzurri at World Cup 2014.
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