In less than two weeks, Italy will compete in the FIFA Confederations Cup. It will be their second time in this international tournament, which has its roots as the King Fahd Cup, which began in the 1990s.
The tournament is now played on a four-year cycle that lands the year before the World Cup. It is considered a warm-up for the World Cup host, who also presides over this tournament, but it's far more than a bunch of warmup games.
The tournament is contested by the champions of the six FIFA confederations, the reigning World Cup champions and the host. The quality of the teams is high, and the competition fierce. Entrance into the tournament is now prized, both for the silverware that comes along with qualification and as a chance to test themselves against some of the world's best teams.
Italy's last spin in the Confederations Cup came in its last edition four years ago, in South Africa. The defending world champions didn't have a very good campaign. They needed three second-half goals to come from behind and beat the United States 3-1 in their group stage opener. They then suffered a surprising 1-0 loss to CAF champions Egypt and were thrashed by Brazil in the group-stage finale.
The Azzurri crashed out, foreshadowing the terrible performance the team would put in in South Africa the next summer.
But this Italy isn't the Italy of four years ago. Gone is the stagnation and the older players whose best international days are past them. Cesare Prandelli has changed the way Italy plays, and this team is well-positioned to make a deep run into this tournament.
First and foremost in Italy's favor is their engine, Andrea Pirlo. The ageless midfielder didn't have quite the season he had a year ago—but to match a season like his 2011-12 year is hard to do. He was still the lynchpin in the midfield that led Juventus to their second straight scudetto and the Champions League quarterfinal.
L'architetto wasn't on the field for much of the 2010 World Cup, and the difference was marked between that tournament and Euro 2012. He dominated the midfield for long stretches and was named to the team of the tournament as Italy made a surprise run to the final before losing to Spain in a match that was much closer than the 4-0 scoreline suggests.
He played well in this tournament four years ago, and as the end of his international career approaches, he'll be looking to move his team toward their first trophy in seven years—and establish themselves as a top contender for the World Cup.
Another thing the Azzurri have going for them that they didn't four years ago was a dynamic young attack.
In the 2009 tournament Marcello Lippi's attack was focused around Alberto Gilardino, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Luca Toni. Toni was far removed from the form of his 30-goal season, and it would prove to be his final international tournament. Iaquinta had never been more than a middling attacking talent, and while Gilardino did score 19 times for Fiorentina that year, he and the other main forwards were target men rather than forwards who could create on their own.
The closest to that type of player Italy had on the 2009 roster was Giuseppe Rossi, who never played a full 90 minutes in the group stage despite two classy goals as a sub in the group opener. While Rossi is still out of the national team picture following his long-term injury, the Italian roster is now full of dynamic young strikers who can create their own goals rather than relying on the service of teammates like Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio and Daniele De Rossi.
As reported Monday by Football Italia, talented and creative forwards Mario Balotelli, Stephan El Shaarawy and Sebastian Giovnico are all on the roster, with Gilardino rounding out the forwards as the lone traditional target forward. In front of a talented midfield anchored by Pirlo, these forwards have the potential to put up a lot of goals for the Azzurri in this tournament.
Defense has been an Italian staple for years, and this roster is no exception. Built around the spine of Juventus center-backs Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini and backed by captain Gianluigi Buffon in goal, Italy boasts one of the best defenses in Europe.
Unlike at the club level, the three center-backs won't be on the field together, as Cesare Prandelli prefers a four-man back line. Which one to leave off may be a moot point—as Football Italia reports, Barzagli may ultimately be dropped from the roster with an Achilles injury. If that is the case, two quality players—Torino's Angelo Ogbonna and Inter's Andrea Ranocchia—are on standby as depth.
A pair of AC Milan full-backs—Ignazio Abate on the right and Mattia De Sciglio on the left—rounds out Prandelli's back four. Both are excellent two-way full-backs, which is a must for Prandelli's 4-3-1-2 system that relies on its full-backs for width. De Sciglio in particular shows incredible poise at 20 years old, and can deliver pinpoint crosses that Balotelli and Co. could feast upon in the middle of the field.
How will Italy finish at the Confederations Cup?
Given the small size and general overall quality of the Confederations Cup, it is by nature unpredictable. Not many would have expected the six-goal swing on the last day of the group stage that sent Team USA to the semifinals four years ago at the expense of Italy and Egypt.
Still, if they play to their full ability, the Italians are the best team in Group A, and have shown over the last few years that they can give the Spaniards a run for their money.
What should you expect from Italy at the end of the month in the Confederations Cup? In this writer's opinion, expect Italy's second straight trip to a major international final—and possible revenge against Spain.