After two months of waiting after the end of Euro 2012, international soccer is about to mean something again in Europe.
This weekend sees UEFA embark on it's World Cup qualification process, and in Italy all eyes will be on the Azzurri.
After entering the Euros with very little in the way of expectation thanks to the calcioscommesse betting scandal and their embarrassing performance two years before in the World Cup in South Africa, the Italians surprised all but the most ardent of homers by advancing to the final, where they were dismissed by the defending champion Spaniards in a match that was closer than the 4-0 scoreline would lead you to believe.
It's now up to the men wearing Savoy blue to continue the momentum that they have seized from the Euros. Some of the stain of the humiliation in South Africa has been wiped away, but it won't truly be gone until the Italians have played a successful World Cup.
Getting there isn't going to be easy.
Italy has arguably been drawn into the Group of Death for this qualifying stage. Their opening weekend, however, is going to be a bit softer than the challenges that lie ahead.
Here, we take a look at Friday's qualification opener in Sofia against Bulgaria.
|94||FIFA World Ranking||6|
0 (Best Result: 4th place,
4 (1934, 1938,
0 (Best Result: quarterfinals,
|Head-to-Head Wins (5 draws)||
DNQ (3rd in Group 8)
|Last World Cup||
DNQ (Last in Group G)
|Last European Championship||
|Last 5 Matches||
*Won on penalties
After their impressive performance in Poland and Ukraine where they absolutely dominated England in the quarterfinals and a comprehensive upset of favored Germany in the semis, the Italians came back to earth slightly in their August friendly, a rematch with the Three Lions.
Italy took the lead when Daniele De Rossi headed an Alessandro Diamanti corner home, but England's Phil Jagielka responded in kind less than 15 minutes later, and in the second half Jermain Defoe lashed a ball past Salvatore Sirigu to give England their first win over the Azzurri in more than a decade.
Not much should be read into that match. Only five of the 18 players that saw the field for Italy in the Euros made the trip to the Stade de Suisse in Bern for the match. It wasn't Cesare Prandelli's A team that was beaten.
Bulgaria is at the low point in its soccer history.
The Lions hit their lowest point in their 88 year history when the latest round of FIFA rankings were released last month. In qualifying for Euro 2012, the Bulgarians were slammed in two matches with England by a combined 7-0 and had a -10 goal difference on their way to a last place finish in which they garnered only five points.
Things may have been looking up lately. In May they scored a shocking 2-1 victory against the Netherlands through a goal from Ilian Mitsanski at 90+3. There was a letdown after that with a 2-0 defeat to Turkey three days later, but their last game in August was also a victory, albeit a 1-0 squeaker against an extreme minnow in Cyprus.
Their current ranking is probably not a fair representation Bulgaria's potential as a soccer nation. This is a country that has been to the semifinal of a World Cup and was once a top-ten side. They're nowhere close to that at this point, but the mid-nineties isn't exactly where they usually belong either.
As Pirlo goes, so goes the Italian attack. There is a stark contrast between Italy in the 2006 World Cup or Euro 2012, when Pirlo was in full control of the Italian midfield, and Italy in the 2010 World Cup, when Pirlo was sidelined by injury for all but the last half and hour or so of Italy's tournament.
Pirlo's ability in the midfield is almost unparalleled. He can thread passes through tight spaces, sees openings before most defenders do, and has an unequalled ability to complete long passes on a dime. He's also one of the best players in the world in delivering set pieces, as evidenced by his fantastic free kick goal against Croatia in the Euros.
Pirlo can work even when he isn't given a ton of space, but when given enough room he will absolutely dominate a match, as he did against England in the Euro quarterfinals. The Bulgarians have to do what several opponents of Juventus did during Pirlo's one rough patch last season and inundate him, giving him no room whatsoever to operate in midfield. Even a little bit of space could be fatal.
Pazzini is coming off his worst professional season last year for Inter, scoring only five times in Serie A. He has been making the most of the new season—and his new team, having moved across the San Siro to AC Milan—so far, scoring a hat trick against Bologna on Saturday to give the rossoneri their first victory of the campaign and to earn himself a place on this roster.
He's going to have to continue that form this weekend. Of the six forwards Cesare Prandelli has included on the roster for this week, Pazzini is the only one that has scored a goal in international competition. Even then, his record of four goals in 24 matches is less than impressive. In the absence of Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli, Pazzini must step up and lead the forward line.
With club teammate Giorgio Chiellini still dealing with an injury suffered during preseason training, Barzagli will be tabbed to lead the Italian back line. In doing so he'll have to put a bad performance in the final of Euro 2012 behind him.
His job will be made easier with Leonardo Bonucci partnering him in central defense and Gianluigi Buffon behind him. Even without Chiellini the Italian defense is built on the spine of Juventus' back line, which allowed only 20 goals last season—best of any team in any league in Europe.
Popov was given the captain's armband after captain Stiliyan Petrov's career was interrupted by his leukemia diagnosis several months ago. Petrov is also the most-capped player in team history, so Popov will have big shoes to fill.
Popov has the most caps and most goals of anyone in this largely inexperienced squad, and he will have a dual responsibility—marshal the team together as captain and lead the forward line against a stout Italian defense that allowed only two goals in 10 games in qualification for Euro 2012.
The 25-year-old Ivanov will be part of a center-back pairing that will be tasked with bringing the Italian attack to heel. The most-capped defender on the team, he's turning into the lynchpin of the defense. He'll have to hold the back line together. It's mostly inexperienced, and will likely be called into action for large portions of the game as the Italians look to dominate possession.
Bulgaria brings three keepers with a lot of experience into this game. They all have five caps minimum, but Mhaylov has the most with 25. He also happens to be the youngest of the three at 24, and will likely be the Lion's starter for the foreseeable future.
Mihaylov is likely to be called into action often in this game. Cesare Prandelli's possession-based often sees the Italians take control of the ball and pepper the goal with shots. If the Bulgarians are to steal a point here, their goalkeeper will have to have a huge match.
Prandelli's transformation of the Italian side is still a work in progress, but the early signs are incredibly positive.
Italy continues to struggle in friendly matches against teams that they're probably better than, such as Ireland, the USA, and even England, but friendlies are where Prandelli likes to play with his lineup. Against England he gave debuts to five players, and even on this roster against the lesser competition of Bulgaria and Malta he is giving the younger players a chance to prove themselves.
Of his six forwards, four of them—Fabio Borini, Mattia Destro, Pablo Osvaldo, and Lorenzo Insigne—have a combined four caps and no goals between them.
Elsewhere, however, the team he brings is strong, deep, and well versed in his possession-based diamond 4-4-2 system. WIth Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, and Claudio Marchisio controlling the midfield, Barzagli and Bonucci controlling the center of defense with Christian Maggio and Federico Balzaretti locking down the wings, and the best goalkeeper in the world between the sticks, he should have the talent to overwhelm both Bulgaria and Malta when they return to Italy.
Lyuboslav Penev has been Bulgaria's manager since October, after Bulgaria's horrific Euro 2012 qualifying campaign.
A former Bulgarian international with 13 goals in 62 games to his credit from 1987 to 1998, he has overseen four matches, all of them friendlies. The highlight of his tenure so far was the Lions' huge upset victory against the Netherlands in the days before Euro 2012, match that may have foreshadowed the Oranje's downfall in the tournament. Besides the match against the Dutch, his team has played out a win, a loss, and a draw.
Penev has had success on the club level, leading CSKA Sofia to the group stage of the Europa League and led Litex Lovech to the Bulgarian league title.
It will be up to him to bring Bulgarian fortunes back in line with how they were in the past, although he has a tough group in which to try and do so.
These two teams are fairly familiar with one another. Four years ago they were drawn into the same qualification group for South Africa 2010.
Their first match-up together was the third round of the campaign, and like Friday they played at the Vasil Levski National Stadium in the Bulgarian capitol of Sofia. Despite the injection my Marcello Lippi of attacking forces Giuseppe Rossi and Luca Toni in the second half, the Lions were able to hold on for a point at home.
When the action returned to Italy a year later at the Stadio Olimpico in Turin, the Azzurri did not have to wait nearly as long for a goal, as 2006 World Cup hero Fabio Grosso put his country up after 11 minutes. The lead was padded half an hour later by Vincenzo Iaquinta, and that was the way the score stayed.
The Italians would go on to win the group by six points over Ireland, while the Bulgarians missed out on the the playoff spot by 4 points, finishing third.
Searching deeper into history, the Bulgarians and Italians have a history with each other. The two teams played each other in the semifinals of the 1994 World Cup, a 2-1 Italian victory that was the high-water mark for the Bulgarians, who reached farther than they ever had in the World Cup.
The two teams also played at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. The Bulgarians equalized late for a 1-1 draw that eventually propelled them into the knockout round of the tournament for the first time.
The Italians have kept this match-up fairly lopsided, winning eight out of 15 games in the series.
If the Bulgarians are to claw their way to an upset, however, they're going to be in the perfect place—both of their victories against Italy, in 1968 and 1991—have come in Sofia.
Sebastian Giovinco v. Ivan Ivanov
Giampaolo Pazzini isn't the only Italian striker coming into this weekend's slate of qualifiers red-hot. Sebastian Giovinco was originally slated to miss Juventus' clash with Udinese this past Sunday, but he recovered in time to start and showed why Juve paid dearly to reacquire him this summer.
Giovinco was all over the place on Sunday. Early on he came dangerously into the box and was brought down by goalkeeper Zeljko Brkic, resulting in both a penalty and a red card for the Udinese keeper. From then on Juve took the game by the throat, with Giovinco creating chance after chance in the first half before putting the game away in the second with two scores, one on a Claudio Marchisio rebound and once from range off a superb feed from Andrea Pirlo.
The Atomic Ant has now been capped ten times and has yet to find the back of the net. After Pazzinihe's the old hand on this squad, and he's going to be hungry to finally open his account for the Azzurri.
Ivanov's challenge will be twofold. First, he must keep Giovinco from doing what he does best—getting underneath a defender's shoulder and latching on to feeds from the midfield.
Secondly, he has to make sure that any challenges he makes are pitch-perfect. If anything is off on a challenge, it could look like he's just taken the diminutive striker's head off, and it's the appearances that could lead to a yellow card—or worse.
Leonardo Bonucci v. Ivelin Popov
With Popov the likely main target for the Bulgarian attack, Bonucci will have to make sure he doesn't get complacent in the back. He hasn't played the 4-4-2 as much in recent months, having been installed as the center of a three-man line by Antonio Conte at Juventus.
However, over the last year Bonucci has developed before the eyes of the world, and he should be able to hold his own. If Bonucci were facing the likes of Dimitar Berbatov, Bulgaria's all-time leading scorer, one might think the Italians have a much better chance of scoring. But with Popov the most prolific scorer in the side with only a .19 goals per game average (Berbatov's is .6 in international play) the Italian net should be much safer even without Giorgio Chiellini
This could be a much more difficult match for Italy if the Bulgarians had a few different players in their lineup—particularly Berbatov and Petrov.
I'm not entirely sure why Berbatov hasn't featured for Bulgaria in two years—in my opinion he has a lot left in the tank, and it doesn't seem a coincidence that Bulgaria's massive drop-off in qualifying for the Euros had to do with his absence. As for Petrov, he has much more important things to worry about than soccer matches, but his loss will be keenly felt in a midfield that has only one player with more than nine caps (31-year-old Emil Gargorov, who only has 14).
It's that inexperience in the midfield that make me think that Andrea Pirlo is going to go wild in this match. Expect Italy to dominate possession and create a lot of chances.
The question will be whether they can cash in on those chances. If Mario Balotelli or Antonio Cassano (or both) were on this roster, I'd seriously consider a 4-0 scoreline as a possibility.
In their absence, the Italians must hope that Pazzini and Giovinco stay hot or that the youngsters decide to go nuts against the lesser competition that the weekend will present to them.
Despite the inexperience up front, I'm expecting at least 65% possession for Italy and at least two scores. Watch out for Giovinco though—this may finally be the time he announces himself on the international stage.
The official prediction: Italy 2, Bulgaria 0.