Euro 2012 is here! Italy find themselves in a group which ascertains several challenges without many positive assertions. They could crash out in the group stage, walking away from the competition severely humiliated, or could write their own fairy tale of lifting the trophy on 1st July, 2012. They aren’t favourites. Neither are they being considered as dark horses. But they are Italy; a niche team, entirely unpredictable in nature, a team which would make the titans of the competition take a step back in caution.
The Azzuri arrive in Poland-Ukraine with a stereotypical badge attached to them; a team which traditionally concedes fewer goals than any other. Cesare Prandelli’s team proved to have the meanest defense in qualification, letting in a meagre two goals in ten games. Another impressive feat achieved by the La Nazzionale is that they went undefeated during the qualification rounds. The team won eight of their ten games, drawing only to Northern Ireland and Serbia, both draws being obtained away from home.
Their staunch defense was met by a largely underwhelming attack. Antonio Cassano was the team’s top scorer with six goals, contributing to about 1/3rd of the goals scored by the Italians. They thumped Northern Ireland and Faroe Islands by scoring eight goals in these two games, whilst scraping past other oppositions. Paints a very sober picture, doesn’t it? It wasn’t quite as grim though. Italy ended qualification just behind Spain in possession statistics.
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Morgan De Sanctis (Napoli), Salvatore Sirigu (Paris St-Germain).
Defenders: Ignazio Abate (Milan), Federico Balzaretti (Palermo), Andrea Barzagli (Juventus) (doubtful-to be replaced), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Christian Maggio (Napoli), Angelo Ogbonna (Torino).
Midfielders: Daniele De Rossi (Roma), Alessandro Diamanti (Bologna), Emanuele Giaccherini (Juventus), Claudio Marchisio (Juventus), Riccardo Montolivo (Fiorentina), Thiago Motta (Paris St Germain), Antonio Nocerino (Milan), Andrea Pirlo (Juventus).
Forwards: Mario Balotelli (Manchester City), Fabio Borini (Roma), Antonio Cassano (Milan), Antonio Di Natale (Udinese), Sebastian Giovinco (Parma).
One can have few complaints about the 23 men chosen for the mission. Mattia Destro and Domenico Criscito were sent home after being dropped from the provisional squad. Destro is probably not ready to face the challenges of such an elite competition and Crisicito has to deal with certain legal hassles.
I did say one can have few complaints and I did mean that literally. The final squad lacks a primary forward, a target man to lead the line of attack. Mario Balotelli can play in that position, but he isn’t quite as effective as a centre forward. The omission of such a type of player could be a mistake Prandelli rues over in the near future due to the predictability of their attack. Alberto Gilardino, Giampaolo Pazzini or even Pablo Osvaldo would’ve added an element of verticality and physical strength to their front line, which could’ve come in handy against more fluid and physically weaker defenses.
Andreas Barzagli’s superb form earned him a call-up to the Italy squad ahead of Davide Astore, Salvatore Bocchetti and Andrea Ranochia. Barzagli impressed a respectable number of pundits and fans, but remained an unsung hero after Bonucci made the team of the season for several publications. But Prandelli duly rewarded the 31-year old by including him in the final 23-man squad. However, Barzagli picked up an injury in the friendly against Russia, which has sidelined him from action for the next 20 days. He could possibly exit the competition even before the ball is kicked, with Astori being lined up as the plausible replacement.
Much of Italy’s attack is built on diminutive, quick forwards who are relatively mobile. Prandelli prefers a free-flowing, shorter passing style of football, rather than a direct, long-ball strategy, which is reflective of the ‘possession’ approach Prandelli has executed since his arrival. Italy’s chosen midfielders are capable passers, some more than others, and there is a stark absence of an anchor man. This selection suggests that Prandelli’s would implement a fluid system, in which midfielders contribute to the attacking phases of the game, while passing the ball on the ground and into open spaces, rather than opting of an aerial, fixed route. Andrea Pirlo would be the playmaker in the centre of the park with Daniele De Rossi as his assigned body-guard. Depending on the opposition, Prandelli might opt to play Thiago Motta (if playing against a better team) or Antonio Nocerino/Claudio Marchisio (if playing an inferior opposition). Motta will provide the solidity and strong tackling skills while Nocerino/Marchisio would fill in the role of the box-to-box midfielder, capable of running into the box to pounce upon an opportunity.
Prandelli’s current selection makes it difficult to implement his preferred 4-2-3-1 system due to the absence of a lone forward. Fabio Borini and Antonio Di Natale are capable of playing as no. 9’s, but both these strikers bring out the best in them whilst playing beside a primary striker. Prandelli is likely to adopt a 4-3-1-2 formation with a prima punta (primary striker) leading the line of attack and Antonio Cassano playing off him. Trequartista (no. 10) is one of the spots open for contention, with the likes of Alessandro Diamanti, Riccardo Montolivo and Sebastian Giovinco vying for the role of a starter. Much of the width will be provided by the full-backs, who would probably play as wing-backs given their natural style. Christian Maggio, Federico Balzaretti and Ignazio Abate are all attack-minded wing-backs and are excellent going forward.
Alternately, Prandelli might play a 4-3-3 by using Emanuele Giaccherini and Mario Balotelli as wing-forwards/inverted wingers with Di Natale/Borini playing as the centre forward. However, Prandelli would resort to this formation due to the failure/ineffectualness of the 4-3-1-2
Recent reports suggest that the injury to Barzagli has forced Prandelli to experiment with a 3-5-2 in training, pushing De Rossi further back into the heart of defense, a role similar to the one he mastered at Roma under Luis Enrique. Maggio’s defensive horror show against Russia has further strengthened Prandelli’s doubts over starting with full backs in a four-man defense.
Some of these players are virtually un-droppable, namely Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini and Antonio Cassano. These players would surely start, if fit. Leonardo Bonucci had a superb second half of the season and his understanding with Chiellini has improved over the last two years. The club connection would fortify the central defense and with the world’s best goalkeeper behind them, Italy are unlikely to concede goals by the dozen. It is hard to predict the midfield and the attack, as Prandelli has not yet signalled a confirmation. Irrespective, I still think Prandelli will start with a 4-3-1-2 adhering to the core competencies of the squad, especially in attack.
Possible Line-up (4-3-1-2)
Gianluigi Buffon (GK)
Federico Balzaretti (LB)
Giorgio Chiellini (CB)
Leanardo Bonucci (CB)
Christian Maggio (RB)
Claudio Marchisio (LCM)
Andrea Pirlo (CM)
Daniele De Rossi (RCM)
Sebastian Giovinco (CAM)
Antonio Cassano (ST)
Mario Balotelli (ST)
Many consider him as Europe’s best signing of the season. I may not go that far, but I do think he is the best signing Juventus made in July, 2011. Without Andrea Pirlo, Juventus may not have impressed in such authoritative manner. He proved to be the heartbeat of the side which carved teams open repeatedly. His individual statistics put him in the same league of Mesut Ozil and Xavi.
A reinvigorated Pirlo will step on the football pitch, perhaps not as exhausted as he might have been had Juventus played in Europe. Pirlo will be asked to demonstrate his elegance and slice open oppositions consistently. His flair, intelligence and experience will be rudimentary for Italy’s progression. There isn’t another player, Montolivo included, who could perform this duty with immaculate efficiency.
The rising star of Italian football with a head full of madness; if Mario Balotelli plays to his full-potential, he can singlehandedly destroy defenses. His terrific combination of power, agility, speed and skill is mind-boggling, and the prospect of a tasty partnership with Cassano could wreck havoc in the tournament; in a good way, I hope. Indeed, my hopes drip of optimism, but his opportunity is right there for him to take. He hasn’t made the splash internationally as yet. This just might be the tournament when Europe meets the real Mario Balotelli.
Italy are pitted against Spain, Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland and the fading Croatia. Spain (11.06.12) might be one of the finest teams on the planet, but constantly struggle against (mediocre) Italian oppositions. Spain’s lack of decisiveness in front of goal would inevitably be felt in David Villa’s absence. Add to that a tentative defense, Spain will appear vulnerable at the back. Italy could sneak a point(s) against the mighty Spaniards in the opening game.
Croatia (15.06.12) should be three easy points. No disrespect meant.
The tricky game will come against wily old Trap’s Irish boys (19.06.12), who would make life increasingly difficult for the Italians. The Irish don’t lose many games. As a matter of fact, they lost just once in qualification, and that was against group winners Russia. Italy’s weakened attack may just fall short of breaking down a well structured Irish side.
Italy are likely to exit the tournament without winning it for the second time (they hosted and won the tournament in 1968). The squad is raw and comprises of largely average players. There aren’t many stars or players competent of delivering consistent performances. They should clear the group and hope for a favourable opponent in the quarter finals (one of France, England, Sweden, Ukraine). But the semi-finals is as far as they can go. That being said, this is Italy we’re talking about here. They could defy the odds and go all the way as well.
Follow Rajath Kumar on twitter @rajathkumar