Most people think of the World Cup as the one-month summer showpiece that draws in almost a sixth of the world's population to watch. But the World Cup is much more than that. In fact, the World Cup started last year, with the early stages of qualifying in regions like Oceania and Asia.
Now that the European Championships are over, Europe will embark on its qualification run, and one of the most intriguing stories will be whether or not Italy can capitalize on the unexpected success they found at Euro 2012 this summer.
It won't be easy. Italy will have to confront the Group of Death in this qualifying tournament. It's one of two groups that have three teams that qualified for Euro 2012—but unlike Group C, where Germany will have to deal with relatively weak teams from Sweden and Ireland, the Azzurri will have to face off against Denmark and the Czech Republic.
Both sides turned in impressive performances in the tournament, and present stiff challenges for an Italian side that will be looking to wipe out once and for all the stain that the last World Cup in South Africa left on Italian soccer. The Euros helped it to fade, but to truly get it out Italy must tackle this World Cup head on, starting on September 7 with their first World Cup match since their embarrassing 3-2 loss to Slovakia completed their crash-out.
Let's take a look at both the Italians and the teams they will face as the free-for-all to reach the World Cup proper begins.
The Regulars Return
Cesare Prandelli gave most of his regulars a rest in the August friendly against England. Only five of the players who saw the field at Euro 2012 were brought to the Stade de Suise in Bern. Captain and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo were given time to rest.
All four of the forwards Prandelli brought were making their senior international debut. Daniele De Rossi was in the side to remind England who they were really dealing with, but all in all England was facing the scrubs. The 2-1 loss to the Three Lions shouldn't be read into that much.
Pirlo Will Pull the Strings
Many people think that Pirlo won't make it to the World Cup in two years. I think they're crazy. The type of game Pirlo plays makes it likely that he'll be able to work his midfield magic until 2014.
So far, over his time with Juventus, he's shown no signs of slowing down, and the bianconeri were smart in signing young central midfielders Kwadwo Asamoah and Paul Pogba to spell him in less important games so that he'll be fresher throughout a season that will include the Champions League this year.
Look for Pirlo to continue firing his fine-tuned passes throughout the next two years before retiring from international competition (and possibly overall) and handing the reigns to PSG wunderkind Marco Veratti.
Buffon is Back
Buffon missed Juve's Serie A opener against Parma with a muscle injury, but has made a quick recovery and returned to his place between the sticks for Juve's big early-season contest against Udinese. It's always a good thing when you have the world's best goalkeeper behind your defense. Italy's opponents will be finding the goal looking a lot smaller when play begins.
The Juve Act in the Back Continues
Juventus contributed three out of four defenders for Italy in their last two matches of Euro 2012 against Germany and Spain, and it looks like they will again play a critical part in defense for the Italians.
Giorgio Chiellini has been dealing with an injury lately and has been omitted from the squad that will open the tournament, but the duo of Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci (pictured) will still present opponents with a tough wall to breach in the back. Bonucci also has an uncanny ability to initiate the attack with long passes—he was second to only Pirlo for Juve in successful long balls.
The Diamond 4-4-2 Will Stay
Prandelli's experiments with a 3-5-2 were fairly successful in the first two matches of Euro 2012, particularly against Spain. His return to his default diamond 4-4-2 for the final may have been ill-advised—the extra midfielder had given the Spaniards problems running their precision passing game.
That said, Prandelli's 4-4-2 has been quite effective, and it seems that the 3-5-2 was merely his reaction to the absolute emergency that was posed by the injury to Barzagli right before the tournament. It will probably only ever be deployed in special circumstances, with the 4-4-2 the base formation going forward.
Sirigu is No. 2
Salvatore Sirigu's recent start against England seems to be confirmation of his ascension to No. 2 goalkeeper behind Buffon. Sirigu played extremely well at PSG last season, and will get his first taste of Champions League play this year.
With Emiliano Viviano struggling to find consistency after injuries and age finally catching up with Napoli's Morgan De Sanctis, who turned in an awful second half in the pre-tournament friendly against Russia in June, Sirigu is likely the solid second choice.
It's not inconceivable for Buffon to play not only this World Cup, but also the next one as well. Goalkeepers age well, especially Italian ones (see Zoff, Dino). Should Buffon decide to hang up his gloves before then, however, Sirigu is the likeliest to replace him—unless a youngster like Nicola Leali undercuts him.
Where Will the Goals Come From Early On?
With Mario Balotelli reportedly undergoing eye surgery three days before the first qualifying match against Bulgaria, and Antonio Di Natale's international career probably over, half of the four forwards that saw playing time at Euro 2012 probably won't be playing in the first two matches next week.
That leaves only newly minted Inter man Antonio Cassano and Juve returnee Sebastian Giovinco to lead a set of what will probably be largely inexperienced strikers.
Cassano is surprisingly not on the roster for the first two matches, but he should take part in qualifying at some point. Prandelli is probably giving him a rest against lesser competition at this point in the tournament.
The Atomic Ant struggled in two appearances at Euro 2012 but scored a brace in Juve's 4-1 victory Sunday at Udinese after originally being ruled out of the match with an ankle injury. Italy was unsure whether he'd be cleared to play in the first set of qualifiers, but he is now a likely starter.
Giampaolo Pazzini's recent hat trick for Milan against Bologna has earned him a spot on the roster. He's the only striker on the roster for the first two qualifiers that has scored a goal as a senior international, and despite that hat trick, he is coming off of one of his worst seasons as a professional.
On the bright side, the availability issues may give Prandelli the chance to give promising younger strikers like Fabio Borini (one cap), Mattia Destro (a debutant against England in Bern), Pablo Osvaldo (2 caps) and even Lorenzo Insigne (yet to debut) meaningful minutes.
Italy has had a habit the last few years of dominating possession and creating good chances but being unable to find a scoring edge. Friendly losses against Ireland, Uruguay, and the United States have all been examples of the Azzurri outplaying their opponents but being unable to find victory.
It's a trend that continued somewhat in the Euros—particularly in the quarterfinal, where Italy absolutely dominated the English but was unable to put the ball into the net and was forced into a shootout. They simply have to start scoring.
The good news is that this momentary dearth of experienced forwards comes at a time when the team is slated to face Bulgaria and Malta.
Will Domenico Criscito Return?
The controversy surrounding Zenit St. Petersburg left-back Domenico Criscito seems to have subsided. The recent proceedings by FIGC concerning the calcioscommesse scandal omitted his name entirely, while international teammate Bonucci—whose inclusion on the team was questioned as he had also been mentioned in connection with the scandal—was acquitted of all charges.
Lazio midfielder Stefano Mauri, also in the news at the same time this past summer, was also absent from the FIGC proceedings and is playing for Lazio this season.
The loss of Criscito at Euro 2012 was softened by the sudden emergence of Federico Balzaretti, but the Roma man is 30 years old, and Criscito is well on his way to becoming the best player in the world at his position. If Criscito has avoided any sanctions, it would be the highest folly not to play him.
How Does Diamanti Factor?
Alessandro Diamanti made a huge case for himself to be consistently involved in the national picture after turning in some impressive performances at Euro 2012 and in the August friendly, when he assisted Italy's goal. The problem is where to put him. He often plays as a forward on the club level with Bologna, but he's more naturally a midfielder.
This presents a problem considering the fact that the Italian midfield is fairly crowded with Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio and De Rossi. It may turn out that Diamanti becomes an intermediary between Pirlo and Marco Veratti while the younger player matures a bit more.
The roster for the first two matches has omitted both Riccardo Montolivo and Thiago Motta, so Diamanti may start in the spot usually occupied by those two mainstays, but the roster will likely be different against top competition instead of the likes of Bulgaria and Malta.
FIFA World Ranking: 10
Coach: Morten Olsen
Captain: Daniel Agger
Last World Cup: Third in Group E
Euro 2012: Third in Group B
Last 5 Matches: W, W, L, L, L
Head-to-Head: Italy 7, Denmark 3, one draw
Matchdays: Home October 16, Away October 11 2013
Of the other two Euro 2012 participants in this group, this is the one that should scare Italian fans stiff. The Danes are a top-10 team with a well-organized defense, a solid midfield with players who are right around their prime and an attack led by newly minted Juve striker Nicklas Bendtner, who just may be finding his form as qualifying begins.
He'll be suspended for Denmark's first match against the Czechs, but will be back in plenty of time for the first time these teams clash.
Bendtner's transfer to Juventus might come at an opportune time for Italy. The core of Italy's defense plays for Juventus, and they will now be going up against Bendnter in training every day for at least a year. They'll know his tendencies better than anyone Denmark plays.
Denmark's greatest strength is an organized back line and great consistency in their program—Morten Olsen is by far the longest-tenured manager in Europe, having been the custodian of the Red-and-Whites for the last twelve years.
Their defense was on display against the Netherlands in their first match of Euro 2012. Midfielder Michael Krohn-Dehli's 24th-minute goal held up as the Danes held firm against 28 Dutch shots, eight of which found their targets.
After the big win, the Danes took on Portugal, a team that they had beaten twice in qualifying en route to their surprising top finish in their qualifying group. The Danes came back from a two-goal deficit through a Bendtner brace before a last-minute third from Silvestre Varela gave Portugal three vital points.
Their Euro journey ended against tournament favorites Germany, after a Krohn-Delhi equalizer was again overcome by a late goal, this time from Lars Bender in a 2-1 defeat.
Don't judge Denmark's first-round elimination by it's cover. The Danes were expected to be the fourth wheel in the Group of Death, the team that the three top sides would crush as they defeated each other.
Instead, they played each of the three teams hard, pulling a stunning upset against the Dutch and coming close to taking down two other top squads. Doormats, they were not.
Against a team like the Danes, Italy cannot afford to be as wasteful in front of goal as they have been in the past. This is a team that plays tight defense that will take a lot of work to break down.
Prandelli's possession-based style may be able to wear them down, but the two games Italy plays against Denmark will be the stiffest test they've had in a qualifying setting in quite some time.
That the home match comes early could be a blessing or a curse, depending on how things turn out as qualification progresses. One thing is certain: when the Danes come to Italy next month, a win will be important—and avoiding defeat may be absolutely vital.
The Italians have already shown they realize how important that match could be—it's scheduled to be played at the San Siro.
FIFA World Ranking: 19
Coach: Michel Bilek
Captain: Tomas Rosicky
Last World Cup: DNQ (Third in Group 3)
Euro 2012: Quarterfinal
Last 5 Matches: L, W, W, L, D
Head-to-Head: Italy 1, Czech Republic 2, one draw
Matchdays: Away June 8 2013, Home September 10 2013
The Czechs were a hard team to get a good hold on this summer at Euro 2012. Despite starting the first 15 minutes of their opener against Russia in a positive fashion, a goal against the run of play by Alan Dzagoev turned the match on its head, and it ended in a 4-1 thrashing.
The following game, against Greece, saw the Czechs score twice in the first six minutes and then hold on for a 2-1 win. A 1-0 victory against co-hosts Poland saw the Czechs advance to the top of Group A.
In the quarterfinal against Portugal, they played the favored Iberians to a dead heat through 79 minutes before Cristiano Ronaldo broke the deadlock and sent the Czechs home.
One theme can be noticed through all four of the games the Czechs played in: a lack of scoring touch. The Czechs spent the run-up to the tournament wondering who would provide their goals up front.
It was hoped that old hand Milan Baros, the second-leading goalscorer in the history of the team, would be able to do just that, but he had a horrific tournament, and has now retired from international competition.
The rest of the team's forward options leave a lot to be desired. It's comprised either of the very old (David Lafata, 30, or Jiri Stajner, 36) or the very young (Valclav Kadlec, 20, Tomas Peckhart and Tomas Necid, both 23).
Necid has shown promise, with seven goals in 26 appearances, but Peckhart is goalless in 14 caps, and there doesn't seem to be coming through the pipeline anyone who can present the goalscoring prowess of a Baros or Jan Koller.
Despite Italy's recent move toward a more attacking style, defense is still the hallmark of the team, and the lack of a proven scorer against that defense is a big advantage for the Azzurri.
History is not necessarily on Italy's side—the Czechs have won 2 of the 4 matches the teams have played since the breakup of Czechoslovakia.
The last meeting between the two was a comfortable 2-0 victory for the Italians at the 2006 World Cup, but the Czechs proved against Portugal that they can cause trouble for the bigger sides, and any team that has a goalkeeper as good as Peter Cech, who is one of the five best keepers in the world and is coming off a magnificent Champions League run with Chelsea last year, has a chance to steal a game.
The Czechs won't be as tough as the Danes, but these two matches will not be gimmies, and the Italians will have to take them seriously.
FIFA World Ranking: 94
Coach: Lyuboslav Penev
Captain: Ivelyn Popov
Last World Cup: DNQ (Third in Group 8)
Euro 2012: DNQ (Last in Group G)
Last 5 Matches: L, D, W, L, W
Head-to-Head: Italy 8, Bulgaria 2, five draws
Matchdays: Away September 7, Home September 6 2013
The team Italy opens the tournament against has some history against the Azzurri. While the Lions haven't beaten Italy since a 1991 friendly in Sofia, it was a 1-1 draw against the defending champion Azzurri in Mexico in 1986 that propelled the Bulgarians to their first berth in the knockout stage of the tournament.
The two teams met again at USA in 1994, but this time the stakes were much higher—a place in the final was on the line. Roberto Baggio sent Italy to a semifinal victory with two goals in four minutes in the first half en route to a 2-1 win.
Neither team triumphed following the match—Italy lost the final to Brazil on penalties, while Bulgaria was flattened by Sweden 4-0 in the consolation game. It was Bulgaria's best performance in World Cup play.
These two sides playing each other in qualifying action is a bit like, to quote the great Yogi Berra, deja vu all over again. The two sides met in qualifying for the last World Cup, with the teams playing to a goalless draw in Bulgaria before the Azzurri put the Lions to the sword 2-0 in Turin through goals by Fabio Grosso and Vincenzo Iaquinta.
The Bulgarians will be playing their first competitive international matches since the revelation that former captain and most-capped player Stiliyan Petrov had been diagnosed with acute leukemia.
Petrov has not officially retired, but he is unlikely to play a part in the tournament for quite some time.
The Bulgarians will be motivated, but they are unlikely to finish much higher than fourth considering the talent level in the rest of this group. They can probably play one or two of the top teams to a draw, but its unlikely that they'll be able to win enough games to make a serious run at going to Brazil.
FIFA World Ranking: 56
Coach: Vardan Minasyan
Captain: Sargis Hovsepyan
Last World Cup: DNQ (Last in Group 5)
Euro 2012: DNQ (Third in Group B)
Last 5 Matches: L, W, L, W, L
Head-to-Head: No record
Matchdays: Away October 12, Home October 15 2013
Italy will have its first meeting with Armenia since the breakup of the Soviet Union (for the record, the Azzurri had a record of 2 W, 5 D, 4 L against the Soviets).
The Armenians showed some improvement the last two years by finishing third in their qualifying group for Euro 2012 after being buried by several upper-level teams in qualifying for the last World Cup.
They slammed Andorra and World Cup knockout participants Slovakia twice each, took four points from Macedonia and held Russia to a goalless draw at home. It was only the pair of losses they suffered to Ireland that prevented them from getting to the playoff round.
The Armenians weren't going up against absolute top-notch competition, but they thoroughly outplayed several teams that were considered much better than them going in.
For them to have any chance of stealing points against Italy, they'll have to park the bus and hope that they can hold the Italians at bay while maybe getting a counterattack goal from someone like former Real Salt Lake striker Yura Movsisyan, who has five goals in 15 caps for the Armenians.
FIFA World Ranking: 143
Coach: Pietro Ghedin
Captain: Michael Mifsud
Last World Cup: DNQ (Last in Group 1)
Euro 2012: DNQ (Last in Group F)
Last 5 Matches: L, L, W, W, W
Head-to-Head: Italy 4, Malta 0
Matchdays: Home September 11, Away March 26 2013
You have to feel bad for a team that has only won 25 percent of their matches in history and has a -526 goal difference. Unfortunately, a tiny nation like Malta just doesn't have much chance against bigger teams.
The team will be led by captain and striker Michael Mifsud. While for the most part he has spent his career in Malta, he has gotten some European top-flight action, scoring a pair of goals for FC Kaiserslautern.
He also spent several years with Coventry City in the English second tier, where he once scored a brace in a shock upset of Manchester United in League Cup play—a performance that prompted La Gazzetta dello Sport to nickname him il Messi di Malta.
Sadly, even with their talisman in place, the Maltese just don't have a prayer. If they finish with more than three points it will be a heck of a surprise.
I said before that Italy's scheduling of the Danes at San Siro showed you just how important they thought that game was. Malta is the polar opposite—the teams will play in Modena on the 11th.
With the Danes and the Czechs lurking as potentially huge stumbling blocks, It is vital for Italy not to drop points against Bulgaria, Armenia and Malta. They can probably afford a draw or two against the other two top sides, but a loss—especially one to Denmark—could find the Italians in the playoff rather than the usual automatic qualification.
While it's possible, I don't think it's likely.
My guess is that Italy will beat the Danes at the San Siro and hold them at Parken Stadium in Copenhagen, and keep the rest of the teams in the group in check, with one or two other draws along the way.
All in all, I say the Azzurri will make it through at the top of the table and come into the finals in Brazil all the more prepared having battled through a very tough group.