As our journey among the qualified teams to Brazil continue, we take our stop this time at the “Peninsula” to preview one of the game greatest, “La Squadra Azzurra”, Italy. After a rather embarrassing appearance in South Africa, the Italians will try to replicate the form they showed in Euro 2012 and achieve glory for the 5th time.
It’s the 18th time the Italians qualify for the World Cup, making them joint second with the Germans in teams with most World Cup appearances in history.
Their journey started with the 2nd edition which they hosted back in 1934 & won successfully. they went on to win the following World Cup too held in France in 1938, if anyone who should take credit for those first achievements should be legendary coach Vittorio Pozzo & Inter’s Giuseppe Meazza, who’s still considered one of the best Italian players ever despite the many talents that has played for the Azzurri.
After some negative showings in the World Cups 1950,1954,1962 & 1966 were the team were eliminated from the group stage, the Italians reached the final in Mexico 1970 after defeating Germany 4-3 in a game that till now still considered to be “Game of the century”, but they were defeated by one of the greatest Brazil teams 4-1. In Germany’s 1974 they didn’t survive the groups , but they were able to reach the Semi’s in 1978 & play for the 3rd place, but again they lost to Brazil 2-1.
In 1982, after almost 42 years, the Italians managed to win the World Cup again, despite going into the tournament with the famous scandal of Italian football, that led to the prosecution of team star Poalo Rossi & AC Milan being relegated. but despite all this & despite a very poor start that saw them draw their 3 games in the group stages, they managed to marsh on & win the tournament, beating Argentina & Brazil along the way, and Germany in the final, and Poalo Rossi turning from a prisoner to be into tournament top scorer & names like Enzo Berzott & Dino Zoff write their names in the history of football.
In 1986, they failed to defend their title & were knocked out in the second round. four years later, Italy organized the tournament, and expectations were sky high for the 4th title, but Diego Armando Maradona & co. put an end to the Italian dream in a famous game in the “San Poalo” stadium of Napoli, were the Neopolitani chanted for their favorite player over their national team! The Italians finished the tournaments 3rd after defeating the English team in the deciding game. In 1994, Roberto Baggio had turned into one of the best players in the world, leading his team to the final against Brazil once again, where the “divine pony tail” missed that famous penalty shoot-out, leaving the Italians bitter in the 2nd place. In France 1998, the penalty shoot-out again sent the Italians home, this time against home team & eventual winners ,France in the quarter finals.
In the first ever Asian World Cup in 2002, the Italians had the likes of Totti, Del Piero & Bobo Vieri among other big names on their roster, but they astonishingly lost to South Korea in the 2nd round in a game they still talk about till now & the referee who officiated it & a lot blamed for the disastrous result is behind bars right now in Colombia for drug dealing & game fixing!
In 2006, the hopes weren’t so high after yet another scandal, the “Calciopoli”, this time sending Juventus to Serie B, and several national team players being investigated for match fixing & betting, but Marcelo Lippi succeeded in isolating his team from the circus, and managed to repeat the same scenario of 1982, where he went on to win the tournament after a successful penalty shoot-out this time against the French in the final, and defeating the hosts Germany in a historic game in the Semis 0-2 with Grosso’s & Del Piero’s goals in the dying minutes of extra time.
In the last edition in 2010 in South Africa, Marcelo Lippi refused to revitalize the team and called up most of the team that won the 2006 World Cup, ignoring names like Antonio Cassano, who had media campaigns backing him for a spot in the tournament. Lippi’s team drew with Paraguay & new comers New Zealand & failed to beat Slovakia in the deciding 3rd game to crash out from the first round in one of their worst ever participation.
Usually the strength of the Italian team in the past came from it’s defense, and their current one is nothing but a good one too with the likes of Cheillini & Bonucci,and Gigi Buffon in goal, but what really marks Cesare Prandelli’s team is their midfield. along Spain, the Italians have the strongest midfield among all the teams qualified. Andrea Pirlo, Thiago Motta, Daniele De Rossi, Claudio Marchisio, Ricardo Montolivo & Marco Veratti are all among the best in their position, most of them has played with each other for long times & have “big” tournaments experience needed at this stage. this midfield made Spain’s “Tiki Taka” go non functional twice in the Euros & Confederations with it’s versatility & great tactical awareness. The wing players also in the Italian teams should be taken into consideration, Alessio Cerci had an amazing season with Torino this term, so did Romulo with Verona, a player who Prandelli likes a lot because of his flexibility & the multi roles he can cover. Antonio Candreva & Lorenzo Insigne were also phenomenal this season.
All this names give Prandelli a variety of options considering his tactics, he can shift easily from a three man defense to four, play with three midfields & two wings as in 4-3-3 formation or play with a Trequartista and two strikers as in 4-3-1-2, something he had done often in his successful Euro participation back in 2012, and also in the Qualifications, but depending on the final 23 list called, we will be able to see which formation will he adapt in Brazil, something that has been causing a buzz in the media lately, the final 23 names, due to the variety of talents & names he possesses, some sacrifices has to be made , already names like Diamanti, Osvaldo, Gilardino & Giaccherini have been dropped despite been a regular call ups before, their were calls for the inclusion of veterans like Luca Toni, who had an extraordinary season with Verona, or Francesco Totti, but Prandelli looks like he has already made his mind about most of his list already.
Well, this team doesn’t has much of a weak point, if there’s something that should worry the Italian fans, it may be their “Prima Punta”. Despite the presence of many impressive names on the list called, but they still lack a “Poalo Rossi” or a “Schillaci” in the roster. Mario Balotelli with no doubt is one of the best talents across Europe, but you can never trust him with all his personality & mental problems, till now he failed to prove he can be depended upon in difficult times, and with a poor season with Milan too, it’s still to be seen in what state Mario will be in the World Cup.
Ciro Immobile has impressed this season with Torino, finishing as top scorer of the league, but he’s untested on the international level yet, same as Mattia Destro of Roma, whether they would step up their game & carry their club form into the “Nazionale” is still to be seen. Peppito Rossi is back after a lengthy time out with injury & he looks to be out of shape & may not be ready in time, something that will hurt the Azzurri a lot because Prandelli likes the Fiorentina forward a lot, and sees a partnership between him & Balotelli as ideal. Antonio Cassano remains a wild card for the “Azzurri” as he did in the past Euros, despite fitness issues, “Fantantonio” remains an important assets with his raw talent.
Another department that the Azzurri seems lacking a bit is the Full Back position, Prandelli always depended on Maggio & De Sciglio, both who are back after lengthy injury spells, forcing him to call Darmian from Torino & Pasqual from Fiorentina to cover the deficiency, though it’s probably none of them will go to Brazil & probably Romulo could be deployed in this position on the right & Cheillini occupying the left back position if the main names fails tim regain form.
Andrea Pirlo remains the beating heart of the “Squadra Azzurra”, as wine, the ex- Milan & Inter player gets better with age, at 35 years of age, he’s still considered as one of the best players across Europe, being named Serie A player of the year last term. since moving to Juventus, he helped them to 3 consecutive Scudetto titles , and despite not playing his best season this year, he still made a record for himself , leveling Mihajlovic’s record for the highest number of free kicks scored in Serie A with a variety of superb goals like the ones he scored against Napoli, Lyon & Cagliari just to name a few.
His deep lying midfielder role or the “Regista” as the Italians refer to it is instrumental for the Italian team, the whole tactics and game play is built upon his pin point passing game & thorough vision, add to this his lethal free kick abilities, Pirlo remains Italy’s main player to watch in the World Cup.
Cesare Prandelli will hope to add his name to the list of great Italian coaches like Pozzo, Berzott & Lippi whom managed to lead Italy to glory, a difficult but not an impossible feat to achieve.
Prandelli, 56 years old, started his coaching career in the 90’s with Cremonese, after that he had stints with Atalanta, Lecce, Verona , Parma & Roma, the last which lasted only for days and the he left to take care of his wife who was battling cancer back then. his best period was with Fiorentina, whom he managed to lead them twice to the Champions League after finishing 4th twice in the league. he stayed with the Viola for 5 years where he managed to transform them for relegation battlers to Champions league qualifiers & building a team of young & exiting players like Vargas, Jovetic & Osvaldo.
He took helm of the Azzurri in 2010 after the failure in the World Cup, and he started rejuvenating the team, keeping just a few of the old guard like Buffon & Pirlo, and introducing new names like Bonucci, Marchisio & Balotelli to the scene. his best achievement with the “Azzurri” was reaching the final in Euros 2012 but his team was beaten 4-0 in the final by Spain, but nonetheless, he has succeeded in creating a strong team which has tactical flexibility and strong defense that managed to eliminate tournament favorites Germany back then in the Semi finals.
Prandelli introduced his famous code of ethics to the national team, where any player that gets banned or sent off with his club won’t be called to the national team, something that caused controversy lately because the role didn’t come to action against some players, Cheillini to be named, who got suspended for three games, still he got a call for the World Cup, raising voices that the Mister was biased to players of his old team, Juventus.
Italy remains always one of the contenders for any big tournament they participate in, even if they aren’t in their top shape, but with the experience they have along the years, they should never be written off. Drawn in a tough group with England, Uruguay & Costarica, they’ll probably be able to go through their group and with Group C teams ( Greece, Colombia, Cote D’Ivoire & Japan) are In their way, a Quarter final spot seems feasible. Winning the tournament may be difficult for the Azzurri, but a place in the Semi’s would be an acceptable achievement for them.