With just more than two months to go until the 2012 European Championship, it is almost time for Europe's top national sides to select their rosters.
For Italy, a squad coming off an utterly disappointing effort at the 2010 World Cup, this selection will be particularly interesting.
The Azzurri were one the oldest squads in South Africa, and the team's early exit turned out to be a swan song for many of its older members. Thus, June's tournament in Poland and Ukraine will be the first major international tournament for many of the nation's young talent.
That said, Italy will not be lacking veteran presence, as the team will still feature leaders such as Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo.
Barring a drastic and sudden change in philosophy, the Azzurri will lineup in a 4-3-1-2 formation this June, as this has been the preference of manager Cesare Prandelli. Here is what his lineup could look like when the games begin.
Buffon has been a mainstay in the Italy goal for the better part of the past decade, and this will continue this summer. The 34-year-old has been in top form this season for unbeaten Juventus, leading Serie A in both clean sheets (15) and goals against average (0.52). Granted, "Gigi" has had the benefit of a strong defense in front of him (more on that in the next slide), but we should not deny him credit for these impressive numbers.
Other Italians warrant consideration, including Milan's Christian Abbiati and Paris Saint-Germain's Salvatore Sirigu, but given his strong current form, as well as a stellar past for the Azzurri, Buffon ultimately deserves the starting role this June.
Prandelli has a number of options in the center of the defense, but it is incredibly likely that the back two will be a pair of Juventus teammates.
Under manager Antonio Conte, Juve has featured a three-man central defense, utilizing the talents of Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. This trio has been very successful this campaign, and the Bianconeri have accordingly conceded the fewest goals in Italy this season.
With the national team using a two-man central defense, one player will have to be the odd man out. Prandelli has some flexibility here, and has the option of choosing experience.If this is the case, it will be Chielinni (50 caps) and Barzagli (28 caps) getting the nod over Bonucci (13 caps and no appearances in a World Cup or European Championship).
Alternately, Prandelli can include all three players in the lineup, placing Bonucci and Barzagli in the center, and using Chielinni at left back, where he has played in the past.
In Prandelli's 4-3-1-2, the full backs have an important offensive—as well as defensive—role. This is a rather narrow formation, leaving it up to the left and right backs to provide width.
Domenico Criscito, currently of Zenit St. Petersburg, and Napoli's Christian Maggio fit this bill. Maggio, a wing back for Napoli who will play right back for Italy, brings especially strong attacking skills to the position.
Criscito is a well-balanced player, offering a mix of offensive and defensive skill at what Jonathan Wilson has called "the most important position on the pitch."
The lack of natural width in Prandelli's formation make it imperative for the full-backs to get forward, swing in crosses and serve as a passing outlet on the flanks. Criscito and Maggio should be able to answer this call.
AC Milan's Ignazio Abate warrants consideration here as well.
When it has possession of the ball, Italy starts and ends with Pirlo.
The prototypical deep-lying playmaker is instrumental in dictating play, utilizing pin-point passing and has an uncanny ability to read the game. Pirlo has been fantastic for his new club Juventus this season and will look to carry this into the Euros.
It is possible that he could have an extra chip on his shoulders, having been absent upon Italy's elimination in its last two major tournaments.
Pirlo was suspended for the Euro 2008 quarterfinal against Spain, and missed almost all of the 2010 World Cup; the fact that the Italy attack looked largely disoriented in both instances is further proof of Pirlo's worth.
In order to allow Pirlo to focus on playmaking, Prandelli will deploy at least one holding midfielder to compensate defensively. Roma's Daniele De Rossi fits this role, bringing energy and intensity, as well as veteran leadership to the table.
The third midfielder could be one of a number of different players, including (but perhaps not limited to) Antonio Nocerino, Thiago Motta, Riccardo Montolivo and Claudio Marchisio.
Marchisio could be a valuable option, given his versatility, offering both a defensive presence and offensive option from the midfield.
Cassano's inclusion in the squad is far from a given. The AC Milan playmaker has been sidelined since October with a heart condition, leaving his status for the Euros in limbo.
However, Football Italia is reporting that Cassano has resumed regular training with Milan, which would presumably leave the door open for a return this season and thus also the European Championship.
There are other options here if Cassano is not fit by June.
One is promising Parma player Sebastian Giovnico. Provided Cassano is healthy, though, he is Italy's best option to play "in the hole" in the 4-3-1-2. He is adept at both scoring and creating chances for others.
Prandelli also has the option to deploy Cassano in a more advanced role, and play a versatile midfielder such as Montolivo or Marchisio behind the strikers.
A player in this mold would be better suited to dropping deeper and assuming more defensive responsibilities. Prandelli has frequently gone this route in recent friendlies and qualifiers.
Once again, there is a major injury question mark for a key member of Italy's attack.
American-born Giuseppe Rossi is a questionable pick for the tournament, having suffered a knee injury in October which has kept him out ever since. This is a shame given that the strike partnership of Rossi and Mario Balotelli has the potential to be truly dynamic.
While it is difficult to predict whether the Villareal striker will be available, Football Italia reports that Rossi will attempt to return within the next six weeks.
Balotelli's inclusion in the squad is not a given either. Despite undeniable talent, the Manchester City striker has a reputation for on—and off the—pitch antics, putting him at odds with Prandelli's "honor code."
It was for this reason that Balotelli missed Italy's friendly against the United States in February. Still, when he is on his game, he can be a world-class player. If he is in the lineup, the Azzurri will be better for it.
If one or both of these players remain unavailable, Giampolo Pazzini and Alessandro Matri are possible replacements.
With 10 goals to his credit this season, Matri is the third leading scorer among Italian nationals in Serie A, behind only Fabrizio Miccoli and Antonio Di Natale.
Despite not appearing for the national team in quite some time, Prandelli should consider Di Natale for the squad, seeing as he is the two-time defending capocannoniere, and is second in goals scored this season. Other options up front include Fabio Borini and Pablo Osvaldo.
The previous slides present one possible lineup, with a handful of alternative choices, but it is far from an exhaustive list of the possibilities.
Given the injury question marks mentioned and the amount of time remaining until the tournament, the selection process is bound to have a few twists remaining.
Obviously, as with any discussion of this nature, there is plenty of room for debate. If you have other ideas, be sure to leave a comment.