Italian Stars Who Are Improving, Regressing with Their Clubs
The Italian national soccer team is facing two major international tournaments in the next two years.
This summer's Confederations Cup will be followed next year by the granddaddy of them all, the World Cup, which the Azzurri are currently in line to qualify for once again.
If you assume the Italians make the finals in both tournaments, Italy will play 18 competitive matches (World Cup qualifying, the Confederations Cup and the World Cup) over the next 16 months.
That means the Italians will have to be prepared with their best players over the next year in order to take out some strong opposition and complete their return to the top spot of world soccer—the spot from which they were so unceremoniously dumped after their disastrous performance at the 2010 World Cup.
The question then becomes: Which of the players in Cesare Prandelli's available pool will best serve him in the upcoming tournaments? Some of Prandelli's best players are starting to get a little long in the tooth, while a bumper crop of quality youngsters are waiting in the wings to give the Italians a push to what may be one of their greatest periods in history.
Here we look at 10 Italian players—five who are starting to explode onto the scene and five who are starting to show some cracks in their game.
Rising: Marco Verratti
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Marco Verratti's heroics in this month's friendly against the Netherlands are just another spike in the railroad to Verratti becoming a massive star in world soccer.
Verratti's stoppage-time equalizer in Amsterdam was the product of a beautiful one-two pass with Alberto Gilardino. Verratti then took just the right touch to keep the ball between himself and Kevin Strootman and far enough away from Dutch goalkeeper Tim Krul to fire the ball over the Newcastle man and into the top of the net.
Verratti's presence so close to the box is likely not something we'll see much as time goes on and he does what everyone who follows Italian soccer is expecting him to do—replace Andrea Pirlo as the team's regista.
In that role he'll play far deeper and dictate play with his pinpoint passing skills, as he did under Zdenek Zeman at Pescara last year and continues to do at Paris Saint-Germain this season.
Verratti has played in 25 matches in both Ligue 1 and the UEFA Champions League this season, and according to whoscored.com his passing skills have been phenomenal. He has completed 89 percent of his passes, notched three assists and completes nearly five long balls per match.
More significantly, the young Italian has been deployed in three different areas this season—as an advanced central midfielder, on the right side of midfield and as a regista in the deep center.
Playing on the right can be discounted—he's only done it once. Between deep center and advanced center, however, there is a marked difference in how the site grades him out: a 7.14 ranking as a regista compared to a 6.74 when playing further up the field.
In addition to his passing abilities, Verratti may have already surpassed Pirlo as a defensive player. He averages 2.8 tackles a game in all competitions, surpassing Pirlo's total. The one thing he must do as he develops is control those defensive abilities—he's been hit with 12 bookings total, nine in the league—and will miss the second leg of the UCL Round of 16 due to yellow-card accumulation.
Falling: Andrea Barzagli
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With huge problems defensively midway through their disastrous 2010-11 season, Juventus took a flier on struggling center-back Andrea Barzagli and bought him from Wolfsburg on the cheap during the winter transfer window.
Since then, Barzagli has become the rock of Europe's best defensive team and one of the most consistent defenders in Serie A.
This season, his stats show that things haven't been hugely different. Between Serie A and the Champions League he's averaged 2.1 tackles, 2.7 interceptions, and 5.9 clearances per match. In European play the clearances jump to 8.2, extrapolating to nearly 50 clearances during the entire competition.
Even more incredible is that he's done all of this while averaging less than a foul per match (.7, to be precise).
Despite this, there are subtle signs that Barzagli is starting to show his age. In last week's loss to Roma, Barzagli was repeatedly beaten to long balls down Juve's right flank by the Giallorossi's more youthful and athletic front line.
It wasn't something that you could see in the Champions League against Celtic in midweek, because Juve ceded (by design) so much possession to the Hoops that they rarely had to resort to the long ball. But his struggles against Roma were not an isolated incident.
In the Euro 2012 final against Spain, Barzagli was beaten badly by Jordi Alba on a long, low through-ball that saw the Spanish left-back score the game's second goal. Over the last month, Barzagli has had a Who Scored rating of 6.88 or worse three times in a game—well below his 7.31 overall average.
It's unlikely that Barzagli will see a massive, sudden drop-off in his play at the club level due to Antonio Conte's tactics, but Italian fans will well remember the dangers of relying on an aging player at center-back after Fabio Cannavaro's legendary career came to a sad end in South Africa.
Granted, Cannavaro was 36 when he played in South Africa—four years older than Barzagli will be when Brazil 2014 comes around, but with many quality center-backs in the Italian fold and Barzagli starting to struggle with quicker, more athletic opposition, his position in the national side come 2014 is becoming less rock-solid than was expected.
Rising: Leonardo Bonucci
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On the other side of the defensive spectrum is Barzagli's Juve teammate Leonardo Bonucci.
Reviled in Turin after the '10-11 season as the scapegoat for the team's defensive woes, Bonucci has taken to being the center man in Antonio Conte's three-man back line incredibly well.
He's now playing so well that he has fans clamoring for Giorgio Chiellini to be reconverted to left-back on the international level so that Chiellini, Barzagli, and Bonucci can all play in the same lineup.
That's going too far, because I think Chiellini is past the point in his career when that can be an option, but Bonucci is still in incredible form. He's averaging 1.7 tackles per game, 2.6 interceptions and 5.4 clearances per game across Serie A and the Champions League.
The main difference between the technician Barzagli and the more explosive Bonucci is the number of fouls they commit: while Barzagli averages less than one per match, Bonucci averages 1.6 and has picked up nine yellows (eight in the league, one in Europe).
What also separates Bonucci from his older teammate is his passing ability. He is probably the best passing center-back in the game today, completing 88.2 percent of his passes overall. He rivals only Andrea Pirlo in his ability with the long ball—he completes 8.4 per match, a valuable weapon in initiating the attack from the back.
Falling: Christian Maggio
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The emergence of Ignazio Abate and Davide Santon has started to push Maggio to the fringes of the national team picture, and with good reason.
His play for the Azzurri has been anywhere from mediocre to downright poor over the past year, and he's turned into a major liability in some cases. His awful play in the 3-0 friendly loss against Russia before Euro 2012 made one wonder what he was doing in the side at all.
He improved slightly in the first two matches of the group stage of the tournament, primarily because Prandelli switched to a 3-5-2 formation in those matches to cover for the injury to Andrea Barzagli, putting Maggio in the wing-back role that he has made his own at Napoli.
Still, Prandelli made the right decision to install Ignazio Abate on the right when Barzagli returned and prompted a shift back to the manager's preferred 4-3-1-2. When Abate was injured in the quarterfinal against England, Maggio returned and was immediately booked, garnering him a suspension for the semifinal and forcing the Italians to turn to a makeshift lineup for the match against Germany.
With Napoli, he has played decently this year and is always a threat offensively (he recently scored in three consecutive games), but despite decent numbers defensively—2.3 tackles per game and 1.2 interceptions between Serie A and the Europa League—his last two matches have been rated at 6.51 and 6.33, respectively.
Of particular note was his ability to clear the ball—he was credited with only one effective clearance out of only four attempts.
Maggio has just turned 31 years old, and with his own struggles combined with the rise of Abate, Santon (and another up-and-comer that we'll get to momentarily) his time with the national team is likely over.
Rising: Mattia De Sciglio
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Even as a Juventus fan, it has been exciting to watch the emergence of 20-year-old Mattia De Sciglio. He's probably another year or so away from being a regular for the Azzurri, but when he is, the rest of the world will have to look to the other side of the field.
He has some of the best numbers for any pure full-back in Serie A. Between domestic and Champions League play, he is averaging 3.1 tackles per game, 1.5 interceptions, and 3.9 clearances. Added to those fantastic defensive stats are his offensive numbers: three assists in all competitions and an average of 1.7 successful crosses per game.
That last number is what may make Ignazio Abate expendable at the San Siro. In Milan's epic victory over Barcelona on Wednesday, they outplayed the Catalan giants so badly that the incumbent right-back was able to take a few runs down the flank.
The problem was that the balls he delivered into the box were often wayward and nothing really came of it. De Sciglio is blessed with a great ability to deliver from the flank, and some Milanisti may be wondering if their edge going into the Camp Nou would be even greater had those crosses been made by their young phenom.
Equally adept at playing on the left as the right (Who Scored actually rates his performances on the left slightly better this season, albeit in a much smaller sample size), De Sciglio is one of the reasons why so many rumors were flying around Abate during the winter transfer window, and the team may still cash in on the player over the summer.
The difference between that and last summer when the team off-loaded Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is that there is a proven successor ready to play for the team now.
The most tantalizing thing about De Sciglio is his age. The fact that he's this good and only 20 years old means that within the next few years we may be seeing the second coming of Paolo Maldini playing at the San Siro—a boon for both the Rossoneri and the national side.
Falling: Mattia Destro
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This was not the kind of season Mattia Destro was supposed to have.
After scoring 13 times for Siena last year, Destro made the move to a big club at Roma, and he was expected to form a strong partnership with Pablo Osvaldo and Francesco Totti to form one of the top strike forces in Italy.
The latter expectation has come true—Roma leads Serie A in scoring with 51 goals, one more than champions Juventus. Unfortunately for the 21-year-old Italian, it's been the young Argentine Erik Lamela who has been providing the lion's share of the goals, scoring 11 times.
Meanwhile, Destro has had almost as many substitute appearances (seven) as starts (nine).
In his last ten matches, he's played a full 90 minutes only twice, and he hasn't been seen in Serie A play since January 20, when he played nine minutes as a sub in a 1-1 draw against Inter, getting only seven touches.
An appearance in November against Palermo probably sums up his season in a nutshell. Trotted out with Roma leading 3-0 in the 73rd minute, Destro was booked in the 77th, scored two minutes later and then earned himself a second yellow by taking off his shirt in celebration.
He had been on the field for all of seven minutes.
Destro is still one of the most talented young strikers Cesare Prandelli can call upon, but he's taken a clear step back this season and will likely need to move to a club where playing time will be more guaranteed if he is to regain his previous form.
Rising: Mario Balotelli
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Anyone in his (or her) right mind would look at Mario Balotelli's since joining AC Milan and know that he's a no-brainer for this half of the story.
The first half of Balotelli's season was hell. He played just 14 times in the English Premier League, scoring only once. After an uninspired performance when he was given a surprise start at the December 9 Manchester Derby, Balotelli didn't see the field again until he was given a minute-long cameo at the end of City's 2-0 win at Arsenal on January 13.
He wouldn't play at Eastlands again.
A long, drawn-out transfer saga with AC Milan lasted throughout the winter transfer window, until Balotelli joined his boyhood team on deadline day.
And boy, has he come out firing.
A brace on his debut against Udinese was followed by late goals against Cagliari and Parma that secured crucial points and allowed Milan to further a spectacular comeback, which has seen them go from 15th to third in the Serie A standings.
Balotelli's case has nothing to do with an improvement in his abilities—those have been there forever—but with his attitude.
Balotelli's confidence is the most important thing to consider when dealing with him, and now that he is back home in Italy, the improvement in his mindset has been dramatic. Apart from the four goals, he's taking 6.3 shots per game, as compared with 2.4 per game with Man City.
A confident, focused Balotelli is a prospect that should strike fear into any back line, and this is before you realize that he's still only 22 and does have room for improvement in his game, both technically and mentally.
He will be a huge part of Italy's picture moving forward, and the sky is the limit for him.
Falling: Sebastian Giovinco
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Hopes were high for Sebastian Giovinco after a 15-goal, 11-assist year at Parma last season.
The performance prompted Juventus to buy the Atomic Ant back from Parma after a two-year co-ownership. The hope was that he would fill the hole left by Alessandro Del Piero and give an edge to an attack that was sorely lacking one, despite having gone unbeaten in their championship run.
Unfortunately, Giovinco hasn't been quite up to the challenge. His play was mediocre in two matches at Euro 2012, and despite a man-of-the-match performance against Udinese in the season's second game that saw him score twice, his play hasn't taken the league by storm.
He's only scored four more times in the league since those two goals against Udinese, and not since a penalty he converted in an eventual 2-1 loss to Sampdoria on January 6. He has racked up six assists, but has only one in the last month.
Part of the downturn in the short-term is a product of him losing playing time in Antonio Conte's forward-by-committee system, as Mirko Vucinic and Alessandro Matri have found a groove as of late. But Giovinco has had 23 games (16 of them starts) to find the scoring touch that he had for the Crusaders last year, and he just hasn't done it.
It might be positioning or a bad pairing up top, but something from last year is missing.
Adding in his poor club form to lackluster games in World Cup qualifying, this season has been a definite step back for one of the more talented players in the game.
Rising: Andrea Ranocchia
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Earlier this season I was tasked with choosing one player who I thought was most responsible for Inter Milan's hot start.
Ranocchia had a nightmarish year last season, along with the rest of Inter's defense. Giving up more goals than they had in nearly 20 years was a major reason why Inter finished seventh.
This year, Ranocchia has improved by leaps and bounds. Over Serie A and the Europa League, he's averaging 4.1 tackles, 2.7 interceptions and 7.5 clearances per match. To that he's added a pair of goals in the league and one more in the Coppa Italia, while also notching an assist.
He's one of the best passing center-backs in the Serie A, completing 86.8 percent of his passes and connecting 3.8 long balls—numbers bested by Bonucci and not many others.
His improvement is the major reason why Inter is in the hunt for a return to the Champions League. They sit fourth in Serie A and can hop back into Champions League position with a victory in the Derby della Madonnina this weekend.
Had he not made such strides, Inter's defense might still be wallowing in last year's misery.
Falling: Antonio Nocerino
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Antonio Nocerino was the bargain story of the season last year.
Picked up from Palermo at the summer deadline for a mere €500,000, he scored 10 times in 35 Serie A matches and added a goal in the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal at the Camp Nou that briefly tied the match at 1-1, putting Milan in position to advance (Barca would score twice more to win the game and the aggregate score 3-1).
Nocerino probably provided the feelgood story of the season this year when he dedicated his goal against Pescara—scored 35 seconds into the match—to the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, CT. "Everything I did today was only for them," said Nocerino—who has two children around the same age as those who died in the tragic shooting—after the match.
In that light, it's unfortunate that otherwise, Nocerino hasn't been able to equal his form from last season.
In 19 league matches (15 starts) he's scored just twice and notched only one assist, and hasn't produced at all in the Champions League. He's averaging just 29.3 completed passes per match—a dangerously low number, even for a midfielder who plays as far forward as he does.
Nocerino played his way onto the national team for Euro 2012 a year ago and scored in the shootout over England, but he's taken a giant step back this season and won't be back with the Azzurri anytime soon—unless he can make a huge resurgence.