Euro 2012: Running Down Italy's Preliminary Roster
After a long, long wait, Cesare Prandelli has finally announced his 32-man preliminary roster for Euro 2012. Some are old standbys, some are uncapped rookies.
Prandelli will announce his final 23-man squad on May 29, they day that the final two friendlies for the Azzurri, against Luxembourg and Russia, get underway. Who on the 32-man roster will make that list? Let's look and guess.
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No surprises in the slightest here. Azzurri captain Gianluigi Buffon will be the starter barring an injury, which after the World Cup two years ago is something that no Italy fan wants to think about. Still one of, if not, the best goalkeeper in the world, Buffon always gives his team a chance to go far in a tournament.
Sirigu, De Sanctis and Viviano will compete to be his primary backup.
De Sanctis was Italy's third-choice goalkeeper two years ago behind Federico Marchetti, whose uninspiring performance (three goals allowed on four shots on goal) in Buffon's stead in South Africa has ushered him out of the national team picture.
At 35 he's unlikely to beat out Viviano and Sirigu—the last two keepers not named Buffon to start for the Azzurri—for the two reserve keeper spots. The last time Buffon sat on the bench, last year's friendly against Ireland, it was Viviano who got the start.
Sirigu, however, is younger and playing fantastically for his club.
He was the first player Prandelli turned to after the World Cup while Buffon recovered from his back injury, only to cede the regular No. 2 spot to Viviano after suffering an injury himself. His play for Ligue 1 nouvaux-riche PSG has made him a fan favorite for the club's fans, and has led them to within three points of the French title with one game remaining.
In my opinion he's the best option for the team after Buffon finally hangs up his gloves—although the way Buffon is playing, it could be another four to five years before that prospect becomes reality.
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Ignazio Abate (AC Milan)
Davide Astori (Cagliari)
Federico Balzaretti (Palermo)
Andrea Barzagli (Juventus)
Salvatore Bocchetti (Rubin Kazan)
Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus)
Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus)
Domenico Criscito (Zenit St. Petersburg)
Christian Maggio (Napoli)
Angelo Ogbonna (Torino)
Andrea Ranocchia (Inter)
The signature of Italian soccer has always been defense, and this team will be no exception. The starting back four—provided Chiellini is sufficiently recovered from the thigh injury he suffered on Sunday—will almost certainly be Maggio on the right, Chiellini and Barzagli in the center, and Criscito on the left.
It's nice to see Ranocchia back in the picture, but he faces stiff competition to make the team as a reserve center-back.
After the marked improvement he showed with Juve this season, Bonucci is a virtual lock to make the team. Ogbonna is a likely favorite as well, especially considering his ability to slide to the left when absolutely necessary.
Should Chiellini be unable to go to Poland due to his recent injury, my guess is Bonucci will take his place in the starting XI, leaving Ranocchia and Astori to fight for the last spot on the roster.
Abate will back up Maggio on the right. The only other natural left-back on the team is Balzaretti, so his inclusion is likely, but not entirely certain.
One of the interesting things about this set of defenders is that the center-backs are extraordinarily versatile. Ogbonna can, as said, slide to the left, and Chiellini grew up as a left-back before moving to the center with Juventus. Bocchetti is also able to play as a fullback.
I do have one slight problem here, which is the omission of Newcastle United's Davide Santon.
I think he's a better right-back than Abate is and would like to see him get more time with the national side. The two of them will likely be dueling each other for the starting job when Maggio, 30, fades out of the national team picture, and I would favor him to eventually win that job. I'd rather see him get a head start.
One way or the other, Italy's defense should again be stout.
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Luca Cigarini (Atalanta)
Daniele De Rossi (Roma)
Alessandro Diamanti (Bologna)
Emanuele Giaccherini (Juventus)
Claudio Marchisio (Juventus)
Riccardo Montolivo (Fiorentina)
Thiago Motta (Paris Saint-Germain)
Antonio Nocerino (AC Milan)
Andrea Pirlo (Juventus)
Ezequiel Schelotto (Atalanta)
Marco Veratti (Pescara)
Of the four uncapped players Prandelli has included in the preliminary side, three of them are midfielders. Giaccherini, Schelotto and Veratti have yet to make their senior international debut, and all three of them are players of great potential.
Of particular note in that group is Veratti. The 19-year-old's fantastic play in Pescara's 4-3-3 has keyed their Serie B run this year, which has them one point ahead of Torino for the title with three games left to play for both teams. His performance has been reminiscent of another midfielder on this list.
I have harped on the importance of Andrea Pirlo to the Italian national team in several articles before this one, so I will not bore readers with that again. Suffice it to say, should Veratti continue his impressive play, Italy may finally have answered the question as to who Pirlo's successor will be, regardless of whether he is taken to this tournament.
Besides Pirlo's obvious starting position as the deep-lying playmaker, De Rossi is an absolute lock to be in the starting XI. He'll act as cover for Pirlo deep in the midfield, and will be relied on as a physical presence that will disrupt opposing midfielders and their attacking rhythm, particularly in the opening match against Spain.
Marchisio is another lock as a starter after his fantastic breakout year with Juventus. He'll take a more advanced role to aid in the attack.
The fourth starting midfielder is more of a mystery.
Schelotto and Giaccherini are natural wingers, but Prandelli's tactics usually rely on the full-backs to push up the wings rather than the midfielders. Motta would be a good choice—he is a physical presence with good creative abilities. Nocerino's breakout season as an advanced midfielder in Milan's system also makes him a candidate.
Montolivo is definitely on the squad, but he'll likely start on the bench. Like Pirlo, he's much more effective as a deeper-lying regista. He did start in a more advanced role in last year's friendly win against group opponents Spain, and Prandelli may decide to go with what worked 10 months ago, but it's awkward having two registe on the field, and Montolivo isn't a natural trequartista.
Speaking of trequartiste, I do find it slightly surprising that Alberto Aquilani has been omitted from the list here, especially at the expense of wingers like Schelotto and Giaccherini who don't seem to fit into the team's tactics as well.
Aquilani's career was revitalized on loan at Juventus two seasons ago, but this past season—a further loan from Liverpool to Milan—was marred by injuries, and he wasn't nearly as effective, which is probably the reason why he's not here.
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It's truly surprising to me that Antonio Cassano was able to make this squad. When he had surgery for a minor heart defect in early November, I didn't expect to see him back on the field until next season. However, he returned to training about six weeks ago and has played well since returning to the field for the rossoneri.
Italy's leading scorer during qualification with six goals, his return is a huge boost to a forward line that would otherwise have been completely devoid of experience on the international stage.
Cassano's strike partner for most of qualifying, Giuseppe Rossi, will be missing this tournament after retearing his right ACL several weeks ago. Whether it was his own efforts to return as quickly as possible that contributed to the setback or his club, Villareal, rushing him back to prevent relegation, it will be a huge loss for the Azzurri.
Prandelli's imperative over the friendlies in May and June is to figure out who will partner Cassano during the tournament.
My choice for that would be Sebastian Giovinco. The Atomic Ant was easily the best forward on the field for Italy during their February loss to the United States.
He constantly got underneath the shoulders of defenders trying to mark him and slipped in behind the back line. He didn't get much help from the Turkish refereeing crew—of the nine offside calls against Italy in that game, at least three were fairly obviously incorrect—but his form with Parma has been spectacular.
He is due almost certain to move from Parma this year, and a good tournament could cause his value to skyrocket—a decent piece of motivation.
I'm glad Prandelli finally got wise and called up Antonio Di Natale. The fact that Di Natale has not been called up since the World Cup is inexcusable.
It seems as though there was no other issue than his age that was holding him back—Prandelli has seemed determined not to fall into the trap Marcello Lippi did two years ago, when he relied far too heavily on older players.
Di Natale's form has been too good to ignore for years—80 Serie A goals over the last three seasons and consecutive capocannoniere titles in 2009-10 and '10-'11. He is often considered an underperformer on the international stage, but he brings a huge amount of experience and quality in what is surely his final international tournament.
One huge problem that I have with this selection is the inclusion of Balotelli. There is no doubt that he is probably the most natively gifted striker Italy can call upon, but his baffling lapses in discipline and focus are a danger to this team.
Being reduced to 10 men is a dangerous prospect at any level. In a major international tournament it can be a death sentence. Balotelli indeed brings a massive amount of skill to the team, but he is a red card waiting to happen—something that Manchester City seems to have figured out, as it looks likely that he will be moving on from Eastlands this summer.
There could be a huge reward to Balotelli playing, but there is also a massive risk, one that I don't think is worth taking.
For the friendly against the US, Prandelli only brought four forwards. If he keeps to that, then Borini and Destro are odd men out.
Should Prandelli take five, my pick would be Borini.
He looked very dangerous when given his first senior cap against the US. He took four shots, two of which found the target and were denied by fantastic saves by American superkeeper Tim Howard, without whom the US would have been thrashed in that match.
Destro is a promising prospect, but he's only gotten consistent first-team action for one season. While he has been impressive on his loan spell with Siena (via Genoa), I think he needs another season of seasoning before getting his first cap. His time will come though, and soon.