The man with the plan.
Italy enters Euro 2012 with the hope of shaking off their dreadful performance at the 2010 World Cup.
In their title defense, the Azzurri drew to Paraguay and also shockingly stalemated with New Zealand. Their final group game, a 3-2 loss to Slovakia, cast them into last place in their group.
It was the first time the four-time world champions went winless at a World Cup. The early exit was a painful and job-costing one for then-manager Marcello Lippi, and the bitter end to international duty for a few members of Italy's golden generation.
Lippi's replacement, Cesare Prandelli, has revitalized the national squad by injecting youth into a system that favors attack-minded football. Italy cruised through their qualification group on the strength of their trademark defense, conceding only two goals in 10 matches, but also entertained with doses of attractive attacking tactics and skillful passing.
What awaits the Italians in Poland and the Ukraine is still a matter of some debate. Is it too early for a new batch of talent to emerge under the intense scrutiny of a passionate public and frenetic media?
Italy has intriguing and challenging fixtures in Group C. They face not only the defending champions, Spain, but also Croatia and an Ireland team that may lack in star power but is managed by Giovanni Trappatoni, an Italian with intimate knowledge of calcio all'Italiana.
Giorgio Chiellini has said that the thigh strain he picked up in Juventus' final league game two weeks ago won't prevent him from starting in Italy's Euro 2012 opener versus Spain on June 10th in Gdansk.
Good news to Cesare Prandelli and the Azzurri faithful.
Chiellini's presence in the back line was a major reason the Italians qualified with ease for the tournament, with Europe's best defensive record. Chiellini could play at left back or concede that spot to Domenico Criscito and move into the center back role. The other likely back four starters are some combination of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Ranocchia in the central defense with Christian Maggio out on the right.
The bench would be replete with solid options as well. Ignazio Abate can be inserted at right back; he's opportunistic on the right flank. Criscito has starred for Zenit St. Petersburg and in Italy's qualification campaign. Federico Balzaretti (Palermo), Salvatore Bochetti (Rubin Kazan), Angelo Ogbonna (Torino) and Davide Astori (Cagliari) round off the selections at this position. Whoever makes the final 23-man roster to be announced May 29th, Italy's defensive unit will be amongst Europe's best.
With Gianluigi Buffon to count on as well, Italy's defense has been, and remains, a source of stability. Where this team will succeed or fail is up front, where a group of talented but unproven—and potentially volatile—newcomers to the national side will shoulder the goal scoring burden.
Of the six forwards called into Prandelli's 32-man roster, only two, Cassano and Di Natale, have prior international tournament experience. The other four, Balotelli, Destro, Giovinco and Borini, all under 25 years of age, have 15 caps combined in the national jersey.
If their respective 2011-12 club campaigns are anything to go by, then the Italians should find the net using any number of striker combinations.
Balotelli, in a season when he was equal parts football prodigy and problem child, recorded 17 goals to help Manchester City end their 44-year title drought in England.
All of 21 years old, Mattia Destro scored 12 goals for Siena in Serie A, the most for a player of that age in that league since 1971.
Sebastian Giovinco had arguably the best all-around year in the Italian top flight. The Parma forward had 15 league goals to go with 11 assists.
Borini also impressed in his first year of regular action with Roma, his nine goals good for second in the capital club.
Last year's run of friendly matches and the pre-tournament warm-ups against Luxembourg (May 29th) and Russia (June 1st) should be the best indicators of which two forwards Prandelli will start in front of four midfielders and four defenders. But such is the crisis of continuity at that position, Guiseppe Rossi in then out with a second knee injury, Cassano losing time with a mysterious heart condition, that the strike force duo remains an open-ended question.
Balotelli started and scored with Matri, who was replaced by Pazzini in a 2-0 win over Poland last November. To a fair amount of criticism, both of those latter names were left off the Euro team now training outside of Florence. However, Super Mario couldn't find the back of the net four days later against the South American champions, Uruguay, which was the start of the goalless drought that's carried into 2012.
The Italians also lost their first match ever to Team USA, 1-0, in a friendly in Genoa in February. While the goalless streak stretched to over two full games, Giovinco and Borini showed attacking spark, creating a number of chances that simply couldn't find their way behind Tim Howard's mitts.
Hoping to hold more hardware.
In the midfield, the Italians will be anchored by Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Pirlo. They're likely to be joined by Riccardo Montolivo and Claudio Marchisio; the diamond setup of central midfielders is a tactical formation Prandelli has favored throughout his tenure.
Particularly in the first group game against Spain, this group of midfielders will be relied upon to hold possession and battle the Spanish for control of the middle third. It will be a stern test of the possession and passing style Prandelli has injected into a side long noted for absorbing pressure and counter attacking.