Euro 2012: What to Expect from Italy in Poland and Ukraine

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Euro 2012: What to Expect from Italy in Poland and Ukraine
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No wins, a frail defense, a draw against New Zealand and a last-place finish in a group widely perceived as one of the weakest at the tournament.

That was the result of Italy's most recent venture at a major international competition, the 2010 World Cup, where Marcello Lippi returned to the touchline in South Africa for one of the lowest moments in the storied history of the Azzurri.

After what feels like an eternity for fans of calcio, Italy will get the chance to redeem itself with a strong showing in Poland and Ukraine.

But do they have what it takes to return to the pinnacle of European football and lift the Henri Delaunay Trophy for the first time since 1968?

Heading into the highly anticipated tournament, there have been many different assessments of Cesare Prandelli’s side. Everything from a deep tournament run to a group-stage exit has been predicted for the Azzurri—the latter more than the former, given recent events surrounding the team.

It all begins this Sunday, when they will try and pick up a massive three points against defending champions and tournament favorites Spain at the Gdansk Arena.

 

Best-Case Scenario

An improbable tournament victory.

With the domestic game in disarray thanks to yet another match-fixing scandal, combined with injury concerns and some less-than-impressive displays in recent friendlies, Italy go into the tournament with far less fanfare than they had following a near flawless qualifying campaign.

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Can the two attackers carry the Azzurri to greatness?

That may turn out to be the perfect scenario for the Italians, who seem to relish the underdog role more than most nations—after all, did you really think they would win the World Cup in 2006?

In fact, this squad does bear a resemblance to that which lifted the trophy in Berlin six years ago. Built on a strong back line comprised of multiple Juventus stalwarts, both teams feature an unheralded left-back going into the competition. Whether or not the current holder of that position can step up and match the performance of his predecessor remains to be seen.

Mr. Balzaretti, you have some very, very big shoes to fill.

As does rugged defender Giorgio Chiellini, who is the undisputed leader of the back four. The 27-year-old Juventus man will be expected to replicate his club form and provide the same solidity and confidence that former captain Fabio Cannavaro showed in 2006.

In fairness, asking that of Chiellini may be a bit unfair, given Cannavaro’s remarkable tournament that won him the 2006 Ballon d’Or.

Perhaps if he performs like Marco Materazzi did in Germany, that will be good enough—now there’s something you don’t hear every day.

In midfield, Andrea Pirlo is still the engine that makes this team run and will be until he decides to hang up his boots. Surrounding the former Milan star are the likes of Claudio Marchisio and Daniele De Rossi (unless of course he is pushed into the heart of the defence), who have the ability to provide the legs, steel and even creativity that fans saw from Gennaro Gattuso, Simone Perrotta and Mauro Camoranesi in Germany.

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In attack, the mercurial combination of Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano can be both brilliant and aggravating; sounds a lot like a certain Francesco Totti, doesn’t it?

With quality options on the bench in Sebastian Giovinco and Antonio Di Natale—much like Lippi could turn to Alessandro Del Piero and Alberto Gilardino—Prandelli does have some interesting cards to play should he need to change things up during a match.

As with any team at a tournament such as this, if the Italians find their form at the right time, avoid (more) key injuries and get that little bit of luck, they could very well be hoisting the trophy on July 1st in Kiev.

 

Worst-Case Scenario

A repeat of the debacle in South Africa.

Will this be the tournament where the adversity on the peninsula is finally too much to overcome? After all, in the face of similar scandals in the past, the Italians did manage to win the World Cup in both 1982 and 2006.

It certainly isn’t hard to see a scenario where the Azzurri crash out of the tournament at the first hurdle, given the class of the Spaniards, a poor history against Croatia (zero wins, two draws and three losses) and the presence of a certain 73-year-old Italian with the Irish.

If Italy is to struggle at Euro 2012, it seems the most likely cause would be a lack of goals, and not necessarily due to shortage of talent in attacking positions.

A tournament to forget for Cannavaro and co.

Rather, will the midfielders be able to provide enough support to the strikers to create numerous chances throughout the tournament? If that is to happen, Italy will need more than just Pirlo to be at the top of his game.

It is no secret that the veteran regista (deep-lying playmaker) is capable of picking inch-perfect passes with his eyes closed, but that will not come as a surprise to Italy’s opponents. Pirlo will be able to create some openings for his teammates, no doubt, but if that outlet is taken away, can Marchisio, Riccardo Montolivo and the rest of the supporting cast put Balotelli and Cassano in positions to find the net?

The attacking duo has the quality and innovation to create chances on their own, but asking them to do that consistently over an entire tournament is not a recipe for success.

Despite a very poor performance in the final pre-tournament friendly with Russia last week, the Italian defense should return to its stingy best at the tournament.

With Chiellini and Gianluigi Buffon at the core, Christian Maggio getting back to being himself and Morgan De Sanctis on the bench, Italy should be much more organized once the meaningful matches kick-off.

That turns the onus back on the attack-minded players in the squad.

Since he took charge of the national team, Prandelli has implemented a more attractive, free-flowing brand of football with an emphasis on keeping possession and using it efficiently.

Now we find out if his players can apply that system when it counts and wash away memories that have haunted fans of the Azzurri since the final whistle blew against Slovakia two years ago.

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