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The renaissance of l'architetto has continued into the new season, and Andrea Pirlo continues to be the key cog in Italy's attacking machine.
FIFA's obsession with all things Spanish soccer robbed him of a rightful place in the FIFA World XI last month, although he was included in the UEFA Team of the Year.
Despite his age (33) he's still playing the same amazing soccer that led Italy to the World Cup title in 2006 and has won him so many Man of the Match acknowledgements over the years.
Any strategy for beating Italy has this as item No. 1: Stop Andrea Pirlo.
Interestingly enough, the team that did that most effectively this year was a relative minnow. Armenia had Pirlo shadowed by young attacking midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan. With Pirlo given very little room to operate, the Italian attack looked very uncomfortable until a pair of second-half goals put the game out of reach in Yerevan.
Still, when Pirlo has space to work his magic—and the Italians are very good at making sure that happens—he can pick apart even the greatest of defenses.
Pirlo is still at the very height of his powers, and barring injury, he is sure to become the fifth Italian centurion before the Confederations Cup group stage is over. As well as Pirlo is still playing, however, this World Cup cycle is probably his last hurrah.
He'll be 35 by the World Cup, and it's all but certain that he'll retire from international competition at the conclusion of that tournament, handing the reigns of the attack to youngster Marco Verratti, who seems to finally be the real deal in the search for the "next Pirlo" that Italian journalists have been conducting for what seems like ages.
Love him or hate him, Super Mario is by far the most talented forward Cesare Prandelli has at his disposal.
He hasn't had regular playing time at Manchester City this season, but that hasn't stopped Prandelli from playing him, and the difference between Italy with Balotelli and Italy without him is stark.
With Balotelli unavailable for the first two UEFA qualifiers after undergoing Lasik eye surgery, the Italians were again afflicted with an inability to find the back of the net, even struggling to score against lowly Malta.
The same problem reared its head against Armenia, when Balotelli was on the squad but unavailable due to illness. It was only in the game against Denmark—the only one of the four qualifiers in which they have truly dominated—that Balotelli returned, and he assisted on Italy's first goal and scored the third to seal the victory.
Regardless of whether Balotelli has moved on from Eastlands and found more playing time when international play resumes, and regardless of his erratic behavior, he is pretty much a must-call for Prandelli at this point, given his talent and the dearth of experienced forwards currently available.
The front line simply lacks the final cutting edge when he isn't on the field, and if Italy is going to score goals, Prandelli will need his most talented forward on the field.
Captain of the Azzurri, Gigi Buffon is still, in this writer's opinion, the best goalkeeper on the planet.
His shot-stopping ability hasn't deteriorated one bit, and no one is better at marshaling a defense and keeping everyone where they need to be. A team with a keeper like Buffon is a threat to win any match and make deep runs in any tournament.
Buffon comes into 2013 standing on the precipice of Italian history. If he plays in both of Italy's currently scheduled friendlies (two matches), all of Italy's remaining qualifiers (six), and should the Italians were to reach the final of the Confederations Cup (playing five games), Buffon would equal his predecessor as Italy skipper, the legendary Fabio Cannavaro, as the most-capped player in Italian history with 136.
Depending on how many friendlies the team plays over the remainder of the season (there is a possibility for four, if my calculations are correct), he could pass Cannavaro even if Italy doesn't make the final. It's certain that he'd enter the World Cup next year as the most experienced player in Italian history—quite an achievement for one of the game's most storied teams.