2014 World Cup Group D team previews: Italy
Italy’s two most influential players have a combined age of over 70, their most prolific striker is battling injury, and other key players are prone to wild swings in temperament.
Meanwhile, an unproductive youth system is struggling to replenish the talent pool, and despite his best efforts to promote younger players, coach Cesare Prandelli, 56, could end up fielding a starting XI with an average age of around 30.
Domestic football is in seemingly perpetual decline, many stadiums are in a dilapidated state, match-fixing continues to raise its ugly head, and the world’s top players have gone elsewhere.
Yet for all of Italian football’s problems, the four-time world champions remain a World Cup threat, and there is a sneaking suspicion that Prandelli, one of the game’s most likeable and eloquent coaches, will somehow come up with the right formula when it matters.
His first task is to steer them through a tough-looking first-round group against Uruguay, England and Costa Rica and make sure they do not suffer a repeat of their elimination at the first hurdle in South Africa in 2010, when they went home early following draws with Paraguay and New Zealand and a loss to Slovakia.
In nearly four years since, he has restored Italy’s credibility and largely succeeded in removing the histrionics and negativity from their game.
Surprisingly, he led them to the final of Euro 2012 and they nearly upset Spain in the Confederations Cup semi-final last year before losing on penalties.
Helped by a code of ethics, which he has applied implacably and led to Daniele De Rossi, Mario Balotelli and Dani Osvaldo being dropped at various stages, he has shown an uncanny knack for dealing with problem players.
Italy certainly have plenty of those. Balotelli, who seems almost certain to lead the attack, has managed to curb the worst excesses he showed at Manchester City since joining AC Milan just over one year ago, but is still prone to mood swings and often acts as if he is carrying the world on his shoulders.
Argentina-born Osvaldo, who scored four goals in the qualifiers, has left a trail of training ground rows and other controversies behind him in his turbulent career and missed out on the squad.
De Rossi, a superb all-around midfielder, also has a wild side, which has earned him a hatful of red cards during his career for Roma and Italy.
Italy fielded 40 players in the World Cup qualifiers as Prandelli searched for some younger blood, yet his side in Brazil are likely to feature plenty of old faithfuls.
Gianluigi Buffon, 36, remains the undisputed first-choice goalkeeper and is set to play at his fourth World Cup, while Andrea Pirlo, who will be 35, is still pulling the strings in midfield.
Pirlo, who like Buffon was in the 2006 World Cup-winning team, has helped Juventus dominate Serie A over the last three seasons and remains one of the world’s great free-kick specialists.
Despite their age, both players would be welcome in almost any other national team.
Other regulars in the qualifying campaign, such as Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini, Riccardo Montolivo and De Rossi, are all approaching or past their 30th birthdays.
Balotelli should lead the attack, although the second striker, if there is one, is one of many cards that Prandelli is keeping close to his chest.
Fiorentina’s Giuseppe Rossi would be the obvious choice, but the US-born striker, who missed Euro 2012, is recovering from a new knee injury. He was selected in the provisional squad, but his fitness is still in doubt.
He was Serie A’s leading scorer with 14 goals and had been enjoying a superb comeback season until he was struck down again in January.
On the plus side, forwards Mattia Destro, Ciro Immobile and Alessio Cerci have all been scoring goals regularly this season, giving Prandelli plenty of alternatives. Immobile was Serie A’s top scorer last season with 22 goals. Prandelli has also selected a wild card in Antonio Cassano. The veteran Parma forward is perhaps the most volatile of all Italy’s players, but possesses flair in abundance.
Italy do not have a set formation, but tend to tailor according to the opposition. They play a modern, dynamic game, with pressing and quick attacks.
The youth system has shown some signs of life recently with the emergence of players such as midfielder Marco Verratti and Destro.
It could also be argued that the decline of Serie A is a blessing, since it has given more chances for Italian players to play regular first-team football.
Italy emerged unbeaten from a tricky qualifying group, which included Bulgaria, Denmark and Czech Republic.
They were also unbeaten in Euro 2012 qualifying, and since Prandelli took over, they have lost only two out of 31 competitive matches – the Euro 2012 final to Spain and a Confederations Cup group match against Brazil.
Prandelli has removed the chip from Italy’s shoulder and has insisted there is no going back to the old ways of sitting back in defence and provoking the opposition.
For once, they may even have the neutrals on their side.
Five to watch:
Gianluigi Buffon, goalkeeper (Juventus); Age 36; 139 caps. Still one of the best goalkeepers in the world. The 2006 World Cup winner, who made his international debut in 1997, is set to play at his fourth World Cup and was also an unused squad player in 1998. Jokingly described as a “pensioner” by Franz Beckenbauer after a Champions League match last season. His mother was a discus thrower and his father a weightlifter. Overcame depression in 2003/04.
Giorgio Chiellini, centre-back (Juventus); Age 29; 67 caps. Linchpin of the Italy defence since Fabio Cannavaro quit international football after the 2010 World Cup and has won many admirers at home and abroad for his never-say-die attitude. Also presents a threat at set pieces. Collided with Cannavaro in a training session before Euro 2008, ruling his teammate out of the tournament.
Andrea Pirlo, midfielder (Juventus); Age 35; 108 caps. Deep-lying playmaker whose career found a second wind when he moved to Juventus after 10 seasons with AC Milan. The inspiration in Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning side, he missed two of their three games in South Africa through injury. An exceptional free-kick exponent who likes to dictate the pace of the game, although some regard his style of play as old-fashioned.
Daniele De Rossi, midfielder (AS Roma); Age 30; 93 caps. A dynamic midfielder, he can tackle, shoot and pass well, and is the squad’s leading scorer at international level. One of the 2006 World Cup winners, and much less volatile nowadays, but still prone to losses of temper and has fallen foul of Prandelli’s disciplinary rules three times.
Mario Balotelli, striker (AC Milan); Age 23; 29 caps. Ghanaian-born maverick who grew up with foster parents and later took Italian citizenship. Hugely gifted striker, but question remains as to whether his talents or unpredictable behaviour will prevail. Prandelli has generally shown enormous faith in him, despite some public warnings, and Super Mario performed well at Euro 2012. His time at Manchester City was eventful off the pitch as well as on it – for example, the day he set fire to his own house with fireworks indoors.
Follow us on Twitter @SprtNationalUAE
Published: May 25, 2014 04:00 AM