Italy: 5 Reasons to Believe They Can Challenge at World Cup 2014
It will be hard to better the golden generation of 2006, but there's every reason to believe that Italy can compete with the very best come World Cup 2014.
South Africa 2010 was a disaster, but since Cesare Prandelli's taken over on the Azzurri bench, things have been looking up. Finishing second to Spain at the most recent European Championships was nothing to be ashamed of, especially because it was done with a transition squad and plenty of players who should be a lot better, come Brazil.
Cesare Prandelli Is a Man in Control
There are no managers in international football who look more comfortable in their jobs than Cesare Prandelli.
The 55-year-old former midfielder has completely transformed the Italian national team since taking over in 2010, experimenting with modern tactical ideas and giving plenty of young hopefuls a chance to impress.
He's also installed a strict ethical code within the Azzurri and has had no problem dropping even his biggest players when they failed to live up to it.
Mario Balotelli and Daniele De Rossi would be superstars in any national side, and perhaps beyond punishment, but even they have found themselves out of the team when they've acted like less than the consummate professionals Prandelli demands them to be.
The result is a strong team unit that knows who the boss is and what he expects of them. There's no better way to be structured going into a major tournament.
And His Squadsheet Is Overflowing with Talent
Balotelli, Stephan El Shaarawy, Andrea Pirlo, Giorgio Chiellini, De Rossi, Claudio Marchisio, Antonio Cassano, Gigi Buffon. This is more than a list of Serie A's biggest stars—it's also the backbone of Prandelli's Italy.
There are very few regular players for Italy who wouldn't walk onto most other international sides, and come Brazil in 2014, the coach's biggest problem is not going to be who to play, but who he can afford to leave out.
And there's more coming down the line. Most Italian clubs now boast a number of exciting young players, including the likes of Mattia De Sciglio at AC Milan, Lorenzo Insigne at Napoli and Mattia Destro at Roma. And then there's Marco Verratti at Paris Saint-Germain.
If they—and Italy's other young hopefuls—can fulfill the massive potential they've shown thus far in their fledgling careers, they'll do more than just offer Prandelli options—they'll provide plenty of headaches come selection time.
The Core of the Squad Has Gotten Used to Winning
A lot has been made of Spain's Barcelona-based core. Though it's obviously no guarantee of success, it's reasonable to believe that players used to working together week in, week out at club level will do better together at international level.
Much like Spain, Italy's squad is now made up of a solid one-club core from Juventus, who, under Antonio Conte, have gotten very used to winning. The Bianconeri are Italy's only remaining Champions League contenders and are well on their way to their second consecutive Scudetto, having lost just three times in the league over the last two seasons.
AC Milan's contingent in the side are also important—and Mario Balotelli has already won plenty in Italy and in the EPL—but the majority of Italy's defence and midfield will be made up of Juventus players in Brazil. Just like in Turin, they'd be led by their ever-green captain Gigi Buffon.
Buffon, along with Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi will also remember winning the World Cup in 2006, and they will all be aiming for another medal. This Italian national side knows what it takes to win.
Just Like in 2006 and 2012, the Spotlight Will Be Elsewhere
Italy tend to get off to a slow start at international tournaments and perform best when they are not the favourites.
It seems incredible, but Italy aren't being touted as among the favoured for this tournament, with most bookies even listing England as more likely winners.
Insult to their ability aside, this is something that will suit Italy, because they've been building steadily to Brazil 2014 since South Africa and are good enough to fear no one come the finals.
The unsurprising favourites are the hosts, but Brazil only appointed Luiz Felipe Scolari to the bench recently, and though the early signs are promising, plenty of questions remain as to how the veteran coach will find balance in this current incarnation of the Selecao.
Argentina, likewise, look like a good bet for glory, or they would if only Alejandro Sabella could figure out how best to utilise what is an immensely talented squad.
Even the might of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Teves and Erik Lamela won't be enough to score them to glory if they continue to be as porous as they have been at the back in recent years, and as they showed at the 2011 Copa America, they have a habit of coming apart at the seams when the pressure's on.
The European favourites, Spain and Germany, will attract still more attention away from the Italians, which should leave them in a good position to settle into the tournament and grow as the competition unfolds.
Italy Has Spanish Experience
Time to address the huge orange-and-yellow elephant in the room. Spain might not be the bookies' favourites ahead of Brazil 2014, but there is no side in world football with more experience at winning than the current Furia Roja.
Despite some succumbing to the temptation, it would be churlish to suggest that Spain—having won Euro 2008, the World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012—are now a spent force merely because they've won so much. They'll play a huge part in Brazil.
Between their international history and the fact that most of the players have won plenty at club level for Barcelona and Real Madrid, the Spaniards are still the side to beat, and they know best how to win. But though the Italians were hammered 4-0 in the final at Euro 2012, Prandelli will feel his men have a good chance of getting revenge should they meet again.
Before that heavy loss, they'd drawn with Spain in the group stages and beaten them in a pre-tournament friendly. And being an intelligent and adaptive coach, the former Fiorentina boss is likely to have learned a lot from Italy's heavy loss in Kiev.
Every side in Brazil will want to avoid Spain, but Italy will fear the Spaniard less than most.