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Italian National Team: What to Expect from the Azzurri in 2013

Sam LoprestiFeatured ColumnistJanuary 25, 2013

Italian National Team: What to Expect from the Azzurri in 2013

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    As the page turns on 2012, soccer fans in Italy can go into the new year confident that their national team had turned a corner in their efforts to rebuild themselves, following the debacle at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

    The Azzurri overcame yet another major match-fixing scandal—the second in six years to hit the country—to surprise everyone and make it to the finals at Euro 2012. Though they fell to defending champions Spain 4-0, the match was much closer than the score, and the Italians could walk out with their heads held high.

    They immediately started working towards their next objective: qualification for the World Cup in Brazil.

    The results so far have been positive: Three wins and a draw out of their first four matches have put the Italians on top of a tricky Group B, four points clear of their nearest opponents.

    The year was so successful that despite friendly defeats to the United States, Russia, England and France, the Italians finished the year fourth in the FIFA World Rankings, a place they have maintained through the first month of 2013.

    But what should we expect of them through the next 11?  

    Let's take a closer look at the coming year for the Azzurri.

Key Players

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    Andrea Pirlo

    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.

     

    Mario Balotelli

    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.

     

    Gianluigi Buffon

    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.

Big Questions

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    What happens with Daniele De Rossi?

    The third-most capped player Prandelli has at his disposal, Daniele de Rossi didn't take part in Italy's year-ending friendly against France, when he ran afoul of the coach's disciplinary rules after misconduct at club level resulted in a lengthy suspension from the Serie A.

    His travails haven't ended there.  Just months after signing a long-term deal that made him the highest-paid player in Serie A, transfer talk has surfaced again after ongoing differences with new Roma manager Zdenek Zeman have led to reductions in his playing time.

    De Rossi is a vital cog in the Italian midfield. On the attack, he is creative and a good finisher, while his bone-crushing tackles on defense cement his role as Italy's midfield enforcer.

    His experience and ability is hard to replace, and he's already scored two goals in qualifying. It will be interesting to see whether his problems at Roma will cause Prandelli to keep him out of the side, or whether he will run him out again in two weeks against the Netherlands.

     

    Who scores the goals?

    If Balotelli is not in the side when the team resumes play—or if he is and needs a partner—it's anyone's guess who Cesare Prandelli will have on the forward line.

    Sebastian Giovinco has been effective on his return to Juventus, but he hasn't looked effective in Prandelli's system, and his impact on the international level has been minimal. The majority of the rest of the options are all very young and very inexperienced.

    Pablo Osvaldo, who leads the team with three goals in qualifying, is a logical choice for the team, but he's suspended for Italy's next qualifier against Malta after being sent off in the Denmark match in October. It's likely that Prandelli will keep him off the squad until he's eligible to return so that he can evaluate his other options.

    Mattia Destro is talented —he scored the opener against Malta in September—but he's had a lackluster season stuck behind Zeman's preferred attacking trident of Osvaldo, Francesco Totti and Erik Lamela.  Liverpool's Fabio Borini has been injured for much of the year, and Napoli's Lorenzo Insigne is not getting much playing time behind Edinson Cavani.

    Antonio Cassano is now 30, but he played incredibly well at the Euros, considering he had just been allowed back on the field after heart surgery. Plus, his form after moving from AC Milan to Inter is too good to ignore. He should be back in the side.

    The other answer is somewhat obvious—Milan's Stephan El Shaarawy.  There was some worry that il Farone would join the other Pharaohs—the Egyptian national team.  But now that El Sha has played in a competitive match for the Azzurri he's officially an Italian international.  

    The 20-year-old is joint-second in the Serie A scoring race with Antonio Di Natale—another potential answer here, but his last run was probably at the Euros. A potential partnership between he and Balotelli could be mouth-watering in its potential for dominance.

    In Balotelli, El Shaarawy, Destro, Insigne, and Borini, as well as others like Manolo Gabbiadini, Diego Fabbrini, and Alberto Paloschi, the Italians have a bumper crop of incredibly talented strikers bearing down on the first team.  

    At the moment, not all of them are ready for the big time, but when they are, the rest of the world's defenders will be in for a heck of a time.

Competitions: Friendlies

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    The Italians currently have two friendlies scheduled for the year so far: next month's clash with a rebuilding Netherlands side and a March date with Brazil on neutral ground in Switzerland.

    The Italians lost all four friendlies they played in last year and haven't won a non-competitive match since their 2-0 victory against Poland over a year ago.

    It's not for lack of performance in the games. In losses to Uruguay and the United States, Italy controlled 60 percent of the possession and wasted numerous chances, while their opponents took advantage of their own limited opportunities to produce twin 1-0 score lines.

    The only truly horrid performance in a friendly last year was in the 3-0 loss to Russia right before Euro 2012. Even then, all of Russia's goals came in the second half after Gianluigi Buffon and a host of other starters were pulled from the game. Four of the matches in Italy's five-game friendly losing streak were decided by only one goal.

    Manager Cesare Prandelli unabashedly uses friendly matches to experiment with his side, often giving younger players a chance and only playing regulars for a half or so. It's probable that he'll take the same approach to the Dutch and the Brazillians, as well as any friendlies scheduled in the currently open dates in June, August and November.

    As such, losses in these friendlies shouldn't be seen as indicative of the state of the team. The games against Holland and Brazil very well could end as losses, but could as easily turn into wins.

    The Dutch are currently ranked eighth but certainly didn't look it at the Euros this year, losing all three of their games. They're in a retooling phase, much the way Italy was two years ago when Prandelli took over the team. Louis van Gaal is likely to throw on a roster much younger players to go up against the Italians.

    The Brazil match will be a preview of the Confederations Cup contest in June. Brazil is in a bit of a funk at the moment as well, dropping down as far as 18th in the FIFA rankings. Some of that has to do with playing only friendlies since the Copa America two years ago, and as hosts of the World Cup they don't have to qualify.  

    But they have seen a dip in form as well. They were knocked out of the Copa America in the quarterfinals after some decidedly shaky play. The Selecao are hoping for the Confederations Cup to revive them a bit ahead of the World Cup, but they'll have to get by Italy in order to do so.  

    It will be interesting to see if Prandelli and Luiz Felipe Scolari show their cards or play them close to the vest in the March friendly.

Competitions: World Cup Qualifying

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    The Italians are sitting pretty in their World Cup qualifying group, four points ahead of second-place Bulgaria.

    When I originally previewed the group in September, I labelled it Europe's Group of Death. Two of the five teams the Azzurri would be locking horns with had played in Euro 2012. Denmark had put up a valiant effort in Group B against Germany, Portugal and the Netherlands, defeating the Dutch and looking impressive in losses to the Germans and Portuguese.  

    These great efforts had them tabbed by many, including me, as a team on the rise. The Czech Republic, meanwhile, had navigated a wide-open Group A and were a whisper away from upsetting the Portuguese in the quarterfinals.

    The Italians have actually had more trouble from the smaller teams in the group than the two big names, both of whom have underperformed thus far in qualifying. They opened qualifying by coughing up a lead in a 2-2 draw against Bulgaria. Their next matches against Malta and Armenia were just about the ugliest-looking set of two-goal victories you could find, with the Italians never really controlling either match.

    When confronted with their main opposition, however, they flourished, dominating the Danes at the San Siro in Milan, despite playing a man down for almost all of the second half.

    Italy will be absent when Group B resumes play, as they and Armenia will be off when the rest of the group joins again on March 22. The Azzurri's first competitive matchup of 2013 will be four days later in their return game against Malta.

    Their only other match in the first half of the season will be a telling contest against the Czechs in Prague a week before the Confederations Cup is due to begin.

    If Italy hold form against Malta and beat the Czechs in Prague, they'll be playing three of their final four matches in Italy (no venues have been announced). It's not inconceivable for Italy to have already clinched qualification before the last set of games in October, much like they did four years ago.

    One way or another, it would take a monumental collapse and an epic upset or two for the Italians to not to find their way to Brazil for the World Cup.  

Competitions: Confederations Cup

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    By virtue of Spain holding both the World Cup and the European Championship, Italy's runner-up finish at the Euros in Poland and Ukraine qualified them for their second straight Confederations Cup.

    Italy competed in the 2009 edition of the competition, and there were obvious problems that were harbingers of the debacle to come in South Africa.

    The Italians had to come from behind to beat the USA in their opening match, before falling 1-0 to Egypt and getting throttled by Brazil 3-0 to exit the competition in the group stage.

    Three weeks after the draw for the tournament was held, I gave a preliminary preview of the tournament for Italy. Their group in the competition will see them play CONCACAF champions Mexico, AFC title holders Japan and hosts Brazil.  

    The Mexicans and Japanese have only one win against Italy between them, and the Azzurri are playing Brazil last, which means that the match could either be merely a determination of seeding for the semifinals or, as it was four years ago, a must-win to move on.

    Both Mexico and Japan are good teams, but Italy should be expected to beat them seven times out of 10. The impetus to lessen the importance of the Brazil match should motivate the team to try to beat up on the lesser squads.

    At this point, a lot still needs to be settled before an accurate picture of the Confederations Cup. Firstly, the field needs to be filled out, as Africa's representative won't be known until the Africa Cup of Nations is finished in early February. There's also no way of knowing what injuries and form will do to the makeup of the tournament rosters.

    At this point, a group stage crash-out is just as likely an outcome as Italy hoisting the Cup on June 30. 

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