Italy vs. Denmark: 6 Things We Learned from World Cup Qualifier
You're looking at one happy man.
After Cesare Prandelli's Italian side gave three unconvincing performances to start World Cup qualifying, the Azzurri went into their most important game with their feet on the gas and came out vindicated.
The Danish side the Italians faced today looked to be the Italy's toughest obstacle on the road to Brazil. FIGC showed how important they thought the game was when they scheduled this home leg against the Danes in the San Siro—one of Italy's biggest stadiums and a ground reserved only for the highest-profile matches.
Whether it was the personnel changes, the venue or just an overall click, Italy finally got the convincing win it needed to silence their critics. What should we take from their 3-1 triumph? Read on to find out.
Mario Balotelli Really Is That Crucial
Italy's biggest problem so far in qualifying had been a lack of sting in the tail. Coming into Tuesday's match, only one of the forwards that saw the field for Italy at Euro 2012 had played in qualifying, Juventus' Sebastian Giovinco. The Atomic Ant's performances have been less than stellar, and it was clear that augmentation was needed.
It wouldn't have been the case had Mario Balotelli not chosen to have laser eye surgery a week before last month's slate of qualifiers. Cesare Prandelli was forced to turn to Giovinco, Giampaolo Pazzini and a host of young, unblooded forwards to lead the Italian line, with decidedly mixed results.
The timing of the surgery so upset Prandelli that he admitted to considering dropping Balotelli from the side for this month's qualifiers. He thought better of it, but Balotelli was again off the field on Friday against Armenia, this time due to illness.
Having broken his fever, Balotelli turned his attention to breaking Denmark's back line. He set up Riccardo Montolivo's 33rd minute opener with a slick side-footed feed—an assist all the more impressive given the fact that he was being sent to the ground by a Danish defender as he slipped the ball through. Then, with the game precariously poised at 2-1 and with Italy a man down, he took a beautiful long ball from Andrea Pirlo and touched it home just before Stephan Anderson was able to make a play on it.
It is very, very clear that the Italians are a much better team with Balotelli on the field. Look for him to be the go-to striker that the Azzurri haven't had since Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti were both in their primes.
Reports of Andrea Pirlo's Demise Are Once Again Premature
Andrea Pirlo's form has been spotty this season for Juventus, and his performances against Bulgaria and Malta left much to be desired. Some are wondering if last year's performance wasn't so much a resurgence as a last gasp of glory before the final plunge to the end of his career.
Pirlo will need more rest as Juve plays a heavier schedule now that they are back in European competition, but his performances against Denmark and Armenia before that should be proof enough that l'architteto isn't quite done yet.
Given the captain's armband with Gianluigi Buffon forced to the bench with a thigh injury, Pirlo played extraordinarily well, chalking up two assists to give him a final tally of three for the week's games to go along with a goal from the penalty spot on Friday.
His first assist came from the wing in the 37th minute, when he sent in a pinpoint cross that was met once again by Daniele De Rossi, who headed it into the net to give the Italians a 2-0 lead. His second, on Balotelli's capper, was a thing of absolute beauty. Striking the ball from outside the center circle in Danish territory, Pirlo unleashed a beautiful arcing ball that was met by Balotelli just in front of the spot. It was the equivalent of watching one of the top NFL quarterbacks sending a pass to the one spot where his receiver could get to the ball and the defender couldn't.
He wasn't able to do a huge amount of orchestrating in the second half, as the Italians ceded possession to the Danes following Pablo Osvaldo's send off, but he's banished a lot of the doubts that have followed him for the last month or so.
Daniele De Rossi Isn't Distracted
Despite signing a long-term deal with Roma that made him the highest-paid player in Serie A, De Rossi came into this game on the back of renewed transfer rumors following reports of a row with coach Zdenek Zeman. Manchester City has suddenly popped back into the discussion, and Carlo Ancelotti has thrown PSG's hat into the ring (seriously, I'm really tired of typing those words).
Gianluigi Buffon played down the idea that De Rossi's issues at the club level would have an effect on his play and that of the national team, and il capitan futuro proved him very right this week.
De Rossi played at a high level all night long against Denmark. His headed goal was his second in as many games and his third in Italy's last five, the other coming in the August friendly against England. Interestingly enough, all three have come off headers, showing off an aspect of De Rossi's game that hasn't really made itself known until recently.
His defensive contributions were just as important, particularly in the second half as the Azzurri parked the bus and waited out the clock playing a man down for the entirety of the second half.
Underrated compared to the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Oscar, Eden Hazard and others, De Rossi is easily one of the world's best midfielders, and at age 29, he is still in his prime. Since the start of Euro 2012 he has shown incredible ability at both ends of the field, and will be a key cog in this team for years still to come, wherever he ends up plying his trade at the club level.
Pablo Osvaldo Needs to Chill Out
Pablo Osvaldo came into Tuesday's game having scored three goals in three matches, and hopes were high for the Italian attack as he partnered with Balotelli for the first time in a competitive match. He was lively in the first half, having a shot blocked and missing with two others, but just 18 seconds into the second half, a clash with Danish defender Nicolai Stokholm saw referee Damir Skomina give the Roma forward his marching orders.
This seems to be a longstanding problem with Roma players in particular. Last year's Luis Enrique-led squad had a penchant for seeing red—twice they ended up finishing matches with only eight men on the field. Osvaldo was one of the culprits, and he showed himself to be ill-disciplined again Tuesday. His send off gave Denmark a man advantage for the entirety of the second half, and only Balotelli's goal prevented the match from being an absolute nail-biter.
It also forced Prandelli to abandon his usual possession-based attack strategy and retreat into a catenaccio-style strategy for the rest of the match so as not to give Denmark any soft spots to attack. The Danes ended up controlling possession for 63 percent of the match—a number normally seen by Italy.
His actions hurt himself too, as it's now unlikely that he'll play a big role in the international scene for the foreseeable future. Italy's next two matches are friendlies against France (in November) and Holland (in February) before resuming qualification play in March. Osvaldo will be suspended for Italy's next qualifying match in Malta, so it's likely that Prandelli will give roster spots to other forwards to see where his alternatives lie.
Giorgio Chiellini: What Bad Form?
Injury caused Giorgio Chiellini's exclusion from the roster last month, but his exclusion from the starting XI on Friday in Armenia was surprising. Some cited a supposed drop in form since his injury, but that wasn't something I could see at all. His performance against Chelsea in the Champions League was particularly impressive, and there was no real justification for dropping one of the best center-backs in the world from the lineup.
Starting in place of an unimpressive Leonardo Bonucci on Tuesday, the three-time Serie A defender of the year silenced his critics with an impressive performance. He played no part in Denmark's lone goal in first half stoppage time and was generally solid all night long. His hard-nosed, throwback defending was a welcome sight in the second half when the Italians were holding on to their lead with ten men. I think the Juve man has definitively regained the starting spot he probably shouldn't have lost in the first place.
Italy Has the Mental and Physical Toughness to Go Far
Going down a man with so much time left will usually leave a team exhausted and vulnerable by the end of a match. The Italians had to chase the Spaniards around the field during the Euro 2012 final in just such a situation when Thiago Motta had to leave the field due to injury with no substitutions available to replace him, and the Spaniards were able to crack the exhausted Azzurri open twice in the last ten minutes to make the score much more lopsided than the game really was.
Now, Denmark obviously isn't Spain, but the Italians had to play a man down for more than ten minutes longer than they did in the Euro final, and they remained unbroken. Balotelli's goal undoubtedly helped, as it consolidated their position and gave the Italians a margin for error. They shut down the Danes after Super Mario's goal, with the only subsequent efforts by the Danes failing to find the target.
The Italians were outshot 11-7, but only three of the Danish shots found the target, a testimony to the strength of the Italian defense both mentally and physically after Osvaldo's red. If they can show it consistently, the Italians won't be an easy matchup for any team in the world.