In this section we run the rule over all 32 nations competing at this summer’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Today we turn our attentions to England’s first opponents, and 2006 winners – Italy.
Group D – Italy
FIFA World Ranking – 9
Manager – Cesare Prandelli (Italy)
How they qualified…
Italy cantered quite comfortably through the qualifiers, scoring roughly two goals a game and going unbeaten on their way to the top of Group B. Away draws with tricky teams like Denmark, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic either show a level of experience and nous, or a lack of killer instinct depending on your point of view. But the Italians rarely give their best until the second round of a tournament proper.
What are their chances?
With four World Cups to their name, more than any other nation except Brazil, Italy has probably earned a degree of respect on the international stage. Yet a look at most of the available odds for the 2014 trophy will show them placed in various positions behind Belgium, France, even Colombia. Recent results haven’t been hugely impressive, with a friendly loss to Spain in March leading to a string of draws against Germany, Denmark, Nigeria and, erm, Armenia. Mind you, something similar was probably said in the lead-up to Euro 2012, a tournament they rode into on a three game losing streak, but still ended up making the final. Their performance in last summer’s Confederations Cup, where they lost to Spain on penalties but arguably outplayed the world champions, was much more encouraging.
Italian football has been changing over the past few years. Gone is the stereotypical reliance on ‘catenaccio’ and defensive play. Cesare Prandelli has brought a considerable degree of tactical flexibility to the national setup, centred around attacking intent. Whether it was a 4-4-2 diamond, a more common 4-3-3, 4-3-2-1 or their signature 3-5-2 setup, the Italian side of the past few years has looked a lot more exciting, using speedy wing play and an industrious midfield centred around Andrea Pirlo to pleasing effect. Some teams have taken to putting a huge amount of pressure on Pirlo, which does go a good way to stifling the Azzurri, but with dynamic talents like Stephan El Shaarawy and Mario Balotelli up top, there is a danger that over-comitting to the middle third will leave opponents open at the back.
Then, of course, there is the fact that Italy, like a select few other nations (mostly just Brazil and Germany) seem to have a knack of sucking up their nerves on the big stage and performing at crunch time. It’s not a guarantee of success, but it does guarantee you can’t count them out. Just look at what happened in 2006.
Three Key Players…
Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus)
Indisputably the greatest goalkeeper of the century, Buffon is now Italy’s all-time record holder in terms of caps – 139 to his name, recently overtaking former captain Fabio Cannavaro.
Now Buffon himself wears the armband. The 36-year-old has been as imposing as ever this season, helping Juventus keep 19 clean sheets including an amazing stretch between late October and early January where they only allowed conceded one goal in 10 league matches. This form has led them to the top of Serie A. The one real blot on another great season came in early October when Juve collapsed from 2-0 up to 4-2 down at Fiorentina, leading some to question Buffon’s form and age. After the game, however, Cesare Prandelli stepped in, saying:
“For me, Gigi is the best goalkeeper in Italy, the No.1.
“He will be our first-choice during the World Cup in Brazil. There’s no issue with Buffon. Gigi has our utmost faith.”
That’s job security for you. Prandelli recently handed a cap to Genoa’s 21-year-old Mattia Perin, an outstanding young talent, but not one for this summer. PSG’s Salvatore Sirigu is the main competition, but at 27 years of age and with around 130 caps fewer in his possession, he’ll have to wait his turn, too. Brazil will probably be Buffon’s swansong, at least on the World Cup stage, but there is no telling just how long the iconic stopper can go on for.
Andrea Pirlo (Juventus)
From a player who may not be guaranteed to start every game to a man who is the focal point of everything Italy do.
One of four or five current players who were part of Italy’s World Cup-winning side of 2006, Pirlo, now 34 and with 108 caps under his belt, has grown in importance as his years have advanced to become perhaps the most appreciated deep-lying playmaker in the world.
Cesare Prandelli has assigned a huge level of responsibility and importance to the veteran. No matter the formation used, Italy’s style of play generally revolves around protecting Pirlo in the midfield, then using either wing-backs or wide attacking midfielders to create space and options for him to pass to.
The virtues of Pirlo do not need to be repeated. Class oozed out of him all through Euro 2012, especially against England, who seemingly had no answer for the grizzled lynchpin. But just to prove he’s still got it; Pirlo has completed on average 70 passes a game this season, more than any other in Italy’s top division apart from Daniele de Rossi. His pass success rate of around 90% is quite remarkable, given that he is surrounded at that level by centre-backs and defensive midfielders who normally pass sideways and backwards under less pressure. He also has more accurate through-balls this season than anyone else in Serie A.
But at his age, will Pirlo be able to hack it in the Brazilian heat? Against England in Manaus, the midday temperature will be high, and the humidity levels will be up there with his passing accuracy numbers. How well Italy protect and provide options for their crown jewel will be pivotal.
Claudio Marchisio (Juventus)
It’s hard to pick just one of Andrea Pirlo’s midfield partners as key, but given that they’re clubmates, Marchisio gets the nod over Riccardo Montolivo, Thiago Motta and a host of others.
A product of the biaconeri youth system, Marchisio has been at Juve for his entire career. That combined with his huge work ethic has seen him compared to Roma’s de Rossi on more than one occasion. The 28-year-old all-rounder is a neat signifier of what is expected of, and delivered by, many of Italy’s midfielders under Prandelli. Whether he is lined up next to Pirlo in the centre of the field, on the wing in a wide 4-3-3, defensively, or even as an attacking midfielder, Marchisio’s job is to do the hard running so Pirlo doesn’t have to.
That’s not to make him sound like a faceless drone. Marchisio is an excellent player – two-footed and useful at shooting from range. He has the fitness levels that will be required to survive the Brazilian heat this summer – he simply doesn’t make much of a splash statistically. But he is in the top five Juventus players this season in terms of tackles and interceptions, normally the exclusive territory of centre-backs, and the same can be said of his passing success rate.
Italy has a wealth of varied talent to deploy in its midfield, however a great deal of them lack international experience. Players such as Andrea Poli, Marco Verratti, Alessandro Florenzi and Antonio Candreva have never been to a tournament with the Azzurri before (the Confederations Cup really doesn’t count). Between that and the tough group Italy have been given, leaders like Marchisio will become more important than ever.
If they were an item of clothing, they’d be…
A designer shirt- perhaps not given the respect they deserve because they’re always around, they’ve nonetheless proven to be a reliable and classy option for decades. Whether they succeed or fail, they tend to look good doing it.
Winners in 2006, disgraced in 2010, what’s in store for the Azzurri in 2014? Do England have much to worry about in Manaus?
Italy’s first game of the tournament takes place against England on 14th June.