Every team has a fulcrum, a player on which their game hinges and whom being without seriously compromises their play on the field. For Italy, that player is Andrea Pirlo.
Without his set-piece skill and pinpoint passing, the Italian attack quite simply grinds to a halt.
There is no greater example of Pirlo's importance to the Azzurri than the debacle that was Italy's performance at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. After suffering a thigh injury during a friendly right before the tournament, Pirlo missed the first two matches of the group stage against Paraguay and New Zealand.
The result was a complete meltdown.
The Italian attack consisted of little more than getting to the wing, sending in a cross and hoping it found the head of Alberto Gilardino or Vincenzo Iaquinta. Italy scored only two goals, both from set pieces.
But after Pirlo came onto the field, Italy was a changed team, creating serious chances and putting the ball into the net three times from open play—although one goal was controversially called back for offside.
Pirlo is often called l'architetto (the architect) by the Italian press, and the way he builds the Italian attack, it is a very appropriate name.
By the Numbers
In 10 years with AC Milan, he averaged nearly 40 games per season in all competitions, scoring 44 times for a .11-goals-per-game strike rate. After his free transfer to Juventus this past season, he played in all but one of the Bianconeri's Serie A matches, scoring three goals and leading the league with 13 assists.
On the international level, Pirlo made his senior debut in 2002, quickly becoming one of the mainstays of the Italian side. He's been capped 89 times for the Azzurri and scored nine times, most recently in September of 2010 in a 5-0 Euro 2012 qualifying victory against the Faroe Islands.
He has appeared in major finals at both the junior and senior level: He was the captain of the U-21 team that won the 2000 European Championship and reached the semifinal in 2002. He has also played in two Olympics, in Sydney in 2000 and on the bronze-medal winning side that played in Athens in 2004.
His first major international at the senior level was Euro 2004. The crowning moment of his international career came two years later, when he led the Italians to the 2006 World Cup title.
After scoring a goal in the team's opening game against Ghana, he assisted on Fabio Grosso's extra time winner in the epic 2-0 semifinal win against Germany. In the final, he assisted on Marco Materazzi's 19th-minute equalizer from a corner kick, then scored Italy's first penalty in the shootout with a daring attempt straight down the middle.
He was named the Man of the Match for the final, was awarded the Bronze Ball and named to the tournament All-Star team.
He was again in the side for Euro 2008, scoring a goal from the penalty spot in the 2-0 victory over France that qualified the Azzurri for the knockout stage. However, he was suspended for the quarterfinal match against Spain due to yellow-card accumulation—a serious blow to Italy's attack. The game ended scoreless, with the eventual champions Spain prevailing on penalties.
The next year he was again on a big international stage, as the 2006 world title qualified the Azzurri for the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa. Despite the team not advancing beyond the group stage, Pirlo led the tournament in completed passes.
After leading the national team to qualifying for the World Cup with a game to spare, his injury before the tournament effectively scuttled Italy's chances of advancing.
What to Expect
Pirlo has been in absolutely fantastic form this season. His move to Juventus was initially opposed by incoming Juve boss Antonio Conte because he didn't think he'd fit into his tactics. But in a testament to Conte as a manager, rather than trying to jam Pirlo into the tactics he already had, he adapted his system to fit Pirlo's skills, and l'architetto flourished.
As already mentioned, he led Serie A in assists and most of the season absolutely dominated the field of play.
In Poland, he'll play the role that has made him famous: a deep-lying regista who will use his skill at both the short and the long ball—the latter of which he is easily the best in the world at delivering—to key the Italian attack.
He will also be relied on to supply pinpoint delivery on the set pieces and free kicks that have made him famous.
Some smaller, provincial sides in Serie A attempted to get physical with Pirlo as a way of denying him the space needed to deliver his passes, a tactic that resulted in a slight dip in form for both Pirlo and Juve.
Should opponents try to do the same at the Euros they will find it difficult, as longtime national teammate Daniele De Rossi figures to play a huge role as Pirlo's cover in the midfield.
Pirlo's influence on Italy's qualifying campaign for the Euros can't quite be seen in his statistics. He started nine matches, including the abandoned match against Serbia. In the eight that were completed, he played in all 90 minutes, scoring one goal on a gorgeous free kick to cap off a 5-0 win against the Faroe Islands and notching one assist, which came in the same game.
His impact on the rest of Italy's qualifying campaign was more subtle but was just as important. He often picked up a "hockey assist" by making the pass that led to the pass that led to the goal. His conducting of the offense spurred the Italians to 17 goals in their nine completed games.
What They Say About Him
"Pirlo is a silent leader. He speaks with his feet." —Marcelo Lippi, former Italy manager (h/t Sports Illustrated)
"Andrea Pirlo is the best midfielder in Italy, perhaps even the world, and I admit to always watching him on TV in a bid to understand my similar role on the pitch." —Marco Verratti, 19, Pescara midfielder and Juve transfer target (h/t Goal.com)
"Andrea Pirlo can do more with one touch than most other players in the world." —Fox Soccer Channel analyst Christopher Sullivan during in-game commentary