The February friendlies are upon us. As the Azzurri get ready to begin 2013, they face down a team that is in a situation very similar to the one that they themselves were in two-and-a-half years ago.
The Netherlands had an incredible run at the World Cup in 2010, but last summer at Euro 2012 they lost all three group games and looked disorganized and devoid of creativity, much like the Italians had at the World Cup.
Now, a retooled Italian squad will travel to Amsterdam to face a young and inexperienced squad of Dutch players. Both managers are expected to use the game to experiment and blood some of their newer players. Let's take a look at how this match might shake out.
|4||FIFA World Ranking||8|
4 (1934, 1938
0 (Best result:
runner up 1974, 1978,
|1 (1968)||European Championships||1 (1988)|
|Cesare Prandelli||Coach||Louis van Gaal|
|Gianluigi Buffon||Captain||Wesley Sneijder|
|7||Head-to-Head Wins (7 draws)||3|
|Group stage||Last World Cup||Runner-up|
|Runner-up||Last European Championship||Group stage|
|DWWWL||Last Five matches||WWWWD|
The Italians are on an odd streak of late. They've lost five straight friendly matches dating back to November of 2011, when they beat Poland 2-0. Since, they've lost against Uruguay, the United States, Russia, England and France.
Cesare Prandelli uses friendlies to experiment and allow newer players to gain experience, so this shouldn't come as a total surprise. In the matches against Uruguay and the USA, the Italians controlled 60 percent or more of possession and had numerous chances that were spurned by their forward line.
Competitive matches have been a different story since the European Championships. After a rocky start against Bulgaria, Italy has put up three straight wins and leads their qualifying group by four points after a big 3-1 victory against Denmark.
The Oranje are in the midst of a youth movement under new coach Louis van Gaal after their humiliation at Euro 2012. After three losses against Denmark, Germany and Portugal, the Dutch endeavored to rebuild their brand and replaced many of the older players in the squad.
They started this movement with a 4-2 loss against Belgium in a friendly and concluded 2012 with a rather lifeless scoreless draw against Germany in Amsterdam, but the early signs are still positive. The Dutch have won their four World Cup qualifying matches by a combined score of 13-2 and are facing relatively easy matches in the coming set of fixtures against Estonia and Romania.
In the run-up to Euro 2012, I was against him being in the squad due to his erratic behavior, but now there's absolutely no question that Super Mario is key to the Italian attack. In their first three World Cup qualifiers—which Balotelli missed due to injury and illness—the attack looked flat and the Azzurri struggled to score goals. In the last one, against Denmark, Balotelli transformed the entire attack, assisting on Riccardo Montolivo's opener and scoring the goal in the second half that sealed the deal.
Balotelli again looked good against France in November and looked to have good chemistry with another young striker, Stephan El Shaarawy. With Balotelli and il farone now teammates at Milan, that chemistry could turn into a forward line that could absolutely dominate for the Italians.
The 20-year-old PSG man could finally be the answer to the age-old question of who would take over as Italy's regista when Andrea Pirlo retires, which most people suppose will be after the World Cup in Brazil.
In November's friendly against France, Cesare Prandelli started Verratti and had Pirlo come on later, which gave the youngster valuable experience against a top side in only his second appearance for his country. It wouldn't surprise me if Prandelli did the same thing in order to give his youngster as much experience as he could before the Italians go back into competition and Pirlo takes the reigns again.
This is probably an odd selection for this section, but go with me. With Giorgio Chiellini out and Leonardo Bonucci omitted from the side this time around, Ranocchia may have an opportunity to wrestle his way into the conversation at center-back. Ranocchia has had a complete resurgence this season, and Inter's early fortunes were very much tied to his excellent play in the back. If he has a good game, he could make the jump and compete with the elite Juventus trio of Chiellini, Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli (the only of the three on the roster this time around) for playing time.
Robin van Persie
One of the few established players on van Gaal's roster this time around, van Persie hasn't missed a beat since his transfer from Arsenal to Manchester United, and despite his lackluster play at the Euros he has scored twice in World Cup qualifying.
He will be tasked with taking on Andrea Barzagli and the rest of the Italian defense and converting what chances that his younger midfielders can get to him.
I try to avoid naming two players at the same position, but this match could go a long way toward determining which of the two Dutch strikers is top dog on the national team. Both van Persie and Huntelaar had good seasons a year ago at their club teams (although Huntelaar hasn't carried that form into this season), and Huntelaar was the top scorer in Euro 2012 qualifying. If they're started together, it will be interesting to see if they work together or to one-up one another.
The Newcastle United goalkeeper is the younger of the two van Gaal will bring to the Amsterdam Arena, and he has more upside than Ajax's Kenneth Vermeer. Against a very potent Italian strike force, which includes Sebastian Giovinco, Pablo Osvaldo, and Alberto Gilardino in addition to Balotelli and El Shaawary, the man between the pipes for the Netherlands might end up having a very busy day.
This friendly will be interesting in terms of seeing what formation Cesare Prandelli uses. While his staple 4-3-1-2 has given the Italians a huge boost from where the team was after the World Cup in 2010, he's recently taken a liking to the 3-5-2 that has been sweeping Serie A.
You can get a better sense about the benefits and drawbacks of each formation in my analysis published a week ago. A commenter on that article proposed the added idea of using a 4-3-3 to take advantage of the bumper crop of young attacking talent the Italians have come into. It's an idea that has merit. El Shaarawy has a taste for drifting in from the left, a la Cristiano Ronaldo, and so would make a good left-hand side of an attacking trident in this formation, with Balotelli in the center and a creative player like Giovinco on the right.
Prandelli will be experimenting in this match, so don't expect him to make substitutions for the purpose of winning the match. He will be evaluating players he doesn't see much, and winning the match will be gravy.
This is van Gaal's second stint as manager of the Oranje. He took control of the Dutch after Euro 2000 but failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup and was subsequently replaced by Dick Advocaat.
On the club level, he's won four Eredivisie titles (three with Ajax, one with AZ), a KNVB Cup, two La Liga titles and a Copa Del Rey with Barcelona and a league-cup double with Bayern Munich.
His tactics are very adaptable, and he will mold his side based on the players he has. His teams have gone 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and even the highly unorthodox metodo formation (a 2-3-2-3), which won Italy their first two World Cup victories in 1934 and '38.
The question will be how he will deploy his team on Wednesday, particularly a squad that is so thoroughly inexperienced outside the striker position (only two of his defenders and none of his midfielders are over the age of 25).
The last meeting between the two teams was a goalless draw in a friendly in 2009. The one before that did not go well for Italy. Opening Group C play at Euro 2008 (that year's Group of Death), the Oranje throttled the Italians 3-0. The Dutch rolled through the group, notching three wins before being stopped by Russia 3-1 in extra time in the quarterfinals. The Italians recovered to advance before being taken out in the quarters on penalties to eventual champions Spain.
Historically, however, the matchup between the two teams is far more in favor of the Azzurri. Italy has won seven and drawn seven of the 17 games between the two countries, although the goal differential between them is only +4 in favor of Italy.
Italy's last win against the Dutch came in a friendly in 2005, a 3-1 victory, with goals from Alberto Gilardino and Luca Toni sandwiching an own goal from Ron Vlaar.
Interestingly, only one of the seven Italian victories in the series has come in a competitive match—all the rest are from friendlies.
Andrea Barzagli v. Robin van Persie
Barzagli is one of the few defensive regulars included on the roster, and he'll have his hands full with an in-form Robin van Persie on the field.
Since Juventus took a flier on him in the winter 2010 transfer window, Barzagli has turned from a major disappointment into one of the best center-backs in the world. He's a key cog in the Juventus defense that has dominated the Serie A for the last season and a half, and he'll a rock in the back for Prandelli for at least part of this match.
Van Persie hasn't skipped a beat since his big-money move this summer. With Man U often having to outgun its opponents due to its suspect defense, he's combined seamlessly with Wayne Rooney to create one of the most dangerous front lines around. With a young, inexperience midfield playing in this match, the Dutch will rely on him for creating chances up front and then putting them away.
Stephan El Shaarawy v. Ron Vlaar
The Aston Villa man is likely going to start in the Dutch defense, and he'll have a tall order ahead of him if il farone is the man who he's staring down. The AC Milan man is shifty and clinical, and with Balotelli now a teammate at the club level, he could be downright scary. He's scored 18 times in all competitions this season and opened his account with Italy his last time out against France.
Vlaar is 27, and this could be one of the last chances to get regular time in the Dutch back line—he has only 14 caps and has only been on the roster in one major tournament—and Euro 2012 wasn't exactly a triumph in the history of Dutch soccer. He'll need all his skills to stop El Shaarawy if the two are pitted against each other.
Prandelli doesn't usually go after it in friendlies, but the players van Gaal is bringing to the Amsterdam Arena are so inexperienced (the midfield has a combined 20 caps, and 15 of them belong to Kevin Strootman) that it may be that the Italians, who will count veterans Daniele De Rossi and Riccardo Montolivo in the squad, will be able to take them down just through the experience advantage.
My prediction for this game is a 2-0 victory for Italy. Whoever plays the regista will likely go through the Dutch midfield with relative ease, especially Pirlo, and the attacking combo of Balotelli and El Shaarawy borders on an absurd amount of talent. This game might be the start of something big for Italy up front. We may not be seeing Italy squandering it's chances anymore.