Euro 2012: Predicting the Starting Lineup for Italy in Group Play
If you're a fan of Italian football, the weeks following the end of the Serie A season have been headline-making for all the wrong reasons.
Domenico Criscito, Italy's likely starter at left-back was left off Cesare Prandelli's final 23-man roster after being implicated in the Scommessopoli match-fixing scandal. Other members of the team as well as some big names in the sport have either been arrested, charged or linked to the scandal.
Hours before the Italians were to play the first of their two scheduled pre-Euro friendlies in Parma, a 5.1 earthquake rocked the Emilia-Romagna region. The game against Luxembourg was understandably cancelled. In their only warmup match, the Italians committed a number of defensive miscues and were soundly beaten by Russia, 3-0.
An unorthodox lead-in to a major international tournament to say the least, but not one the Italians aren't unfamiliar with. In 2006, the cloud of Calciopoli hung over the Italian camp leading into the World Cup in Germany. The controversy united the team as they marched to a fourth world title.
Italy will open Group C play against Spain, the defending European and world champions. Qualification from the group is no guarantee, given the additional challenges presented by Croatia and Ireland.
Despite all the distractions, the focus now returns to who will be in Italy's starting XI beginning on Sunday for this edition of the European championships. Not an easy thing to predict, given the positional dilemmas and opponents Prandelli's 23 will face, but it's worth a shot.
Here's my thoughts on who's in and who's out of Italy's starting XI for Euro 2012.
Pretty simple selection here for Prandelli. Buffon has been Italy's No. 1 netminder for 12 years now. He conceded only two goals at the 2006 World Cup en route to the title. In qualifying for this tournament, the Italians only conceded two goals, the stingiest effort from any of the finalists.
He may not be the consensus best keeper in the world anymore, but the Italy captain provides unmeasurable experience, leadership and stability to a side looking to regain their identity.
Left-Back: Giorgio Chiellini
Center-Back: Leonardo Bonucci
Center-Back: Andrea Barzagli
Right-Back: Ignazio Abate
Criscito's absence makes it easier for Prandelli to slide Chiellini left and use the other two Juventus men in the central defense. The Barzagli-Bonucci partnership was the best in Serie A—while playing together, they conceded only 15 goals on the year. Christian Maggio, in my opinion, played himself out of the right-back position with the poor performance against Russia.
AC Milan's Ignazio Abate, like the Napoli player, can go forward, but is a more reliable defensive option. Should Chiellini not recover fully from his thigh strain in time for Italy's opener, look for Federico Balzaretti to fill in on the left.
Since Bonucci's name has also been drawn into the scandal, there's a possibility that Chiellini is slotted into the center-back role with Palermo's Balzaretti out to the left.
Deep-lying playmaking Midfielder, "Regista": Andrea Pirlo
Holding Midfielder: Daniele De Rossi
Attacking Midfielder: Claudio Marchisio
"Trequartista" Midfielder: Riccardo Montolivo
The Italians will likely deploy a diamond formation with four central midfielders.
Pirlo is the key man here. Italy's offense relies heavily on his creative abilities. De Rossi will be alongside Pirlo and tasked with winning balls and breaking up the play of the talented opposition in the group. Marchisio is a versatile player whose club familiarity with Pirlo may pay dividends for the national team.
Montolivo, a prototypical regista on the club level, will slot in as the link-up to the two strikers. How he adjusts to a different role will be a major factor towards Italy's progression.
Should Prandelli go with a more defensive look, Thiago Motta or even Antonio Nocerino might start over Montolivo. Conversely, in need of goals, the Italians can bring in Sebastian Giovinco as a third striker.
Striker: Mario Balotelli
Striker: Antonio Cassano
The odd couple up front. The bad boys in blue. Balotelli and Cassano have looked comfortable as strike partners.
Balotelli could light the tournament up with goals or head home in disgrace—such is the nature of his volatile personality. Prandelli has shown a lot trust in mercurial Mario, recently showing solidarity with his striker's comments about the potential for racism at the tournament.
Cassano's amazing renaissance continues after being sidelined for six months following heart surgery last November. Both Cassano and Balotelli work well with the ball at their feet and can create opportunities for each other or just as easily score.
Their international goal-scoring accounts need a dose of deposits if Italy are to advance. Balotelli's first and only goal for Italy's senior side came last November in Poland. Of Cassano's nine goals for country, six came in Euro 2012 qualifying, a run of form all the Azzurri faithful will hope continues into the tournament.
How They'll Line Up
A 4-3-1-2 has become the de facto formation during Prandelli's tenure despite the national manager's desire when he started two years ago to use a 4-3-3. Only twice in the qualifying campaign did Italy come out with three strikers up front.
The trequartista role behind the strikers has been the hardest to fill. Montolivo and Thiago Motta have been unconvincing in their recent appearances. The dilemma is twofold, since the positions they naturally occupy at the club level are filled in the national team by better players.
The overall level of talent in blue shirts is without dispute. A few future stars of the Italian game may yet emerge, namely Marchisio, Giovinco and Fabio Borini. If Pirlo gets support in the midfield from a committed ball-winner, Italy's chances will rise exponentially.
It's a team no one should underestimate at big tournaments despite the disappointment of 2010 and the turmoil surrounding 2012.