5 Reasons Why Italy Can Win the 2014 World Cup
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Heading into tonight's final round of World Cup qualifying games, before the death knell is sounded or team's given a stay of execution via the play-offs, only seven teams of the 53 European contenders remain unbeaten.
The usual suspects are in that number: Spain, Netherlands, Germany and England. Add to that list Switzerland and Belgium—the latter of which looks like fulfilling the potential which has long-threatened—and you have an esoteric selection of favourites for next year's crown.
The seventh team, however, is a nation who captured the world title on a balmy night in Berlin seven years ago: Italy.
Since overcoming France at the culmination of the 2006 tournament, it has been a tumultuous time for the Azzurri. But following a disappointing World Cup campaign in 2010 when they not only never looked like defending their trophy but also failed to qualify from their group—finishing below New Zealand, Slovakia and Paraguay—they have been resurgent, resplendent under a new manager.
Supporters have been buoyed by progress since. First there was the run to the Euro 2012 final (where they eventually succumbed to Spain) and then they exceeded expectations by holding Spain to a 0-0 draw in the semi-finals of this summer's Confederations Cup before losing on penalties.
With this progress in mind and the open nature of next year's competition, as well as their swashbuckling form during qualifying, let's take a look at five reasons why Cesare Prandelli's Italy can reign supreme and win the 2014 World Cup.
The Saunter Through Qualification
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Thrown into Group B, Italy were pitted against Denmark, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Armenia and Malta. On paper, this does not look particularly taxing—especially as only one of the teams, Denmark, currently lists in the top 30 of FIFA's world rankings.
However, no football fan should ever think that the passage through qualification purgatory will come without any issues: Every campaign yields an upset (unseeded for their probable play-off tie, France may be this year's makeweight).
While FIFA's rankings can have their deficiencies—Cape Verde Islands feature at No. 44 despite having only once qualified for a major tournament, this year's African Cup of Nations, in their 27-year history—there is no escaping the fact that Bulgaria, ranked 64th, are lower than Burkina Faso, Wales and Honduras.
Despite this though they occupy second place in the group, with the pinnacle being a 2-2 draw against Italy in the opening game, a performance which exuded self-discipline.
With such unpredictability and volatility in the group, it is to Italy's credit that they have expertly masterminded this minefield.
Following that draw with Bulgaria, the Azzurri gained great momentum with four consecutive successes, thrusting them to the summit of the group, where they have remained since.
It hasn't always been straightforward. In the return match against Bulgaria, a nervy encounter, they had to rely on the 31-year-old Alberto Gilardino to grab the game's solitary goal. In addition, both times they have played minnows Malta their Mediterranean neighbours have restricted them to just two goals per game.
But if their success in 2006 taught us anything it was that the Italians are a resilient bunch who will grind out wins, even if they aren't spectacular. After securing qualification with two games still to play, it looks an approach they will utilise next summer.
The Experienced Veterans
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When Italy won the 2006 World Cup in Germany, defeating the 1998 winners France on penalties following an ill-tempered affair famous for that red card, their eventual trump card was the ability to remain calm under pressure (Marco Materazzi's mercurial temperament has always been an exception to the rule).
Conceding just one goal in the preceding six games, they had overcome Germany and also navigated past tricky opponents such as the United States, Czech Republic and Ukraine.
The spine of that team read like a who's who of Italian football greats: Alessandro Del Piero, Fabio Cannavaro, Gennaro Gattuso, Francesco Totti, Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Gianluigi Buffon. The list goes on.
While Cannavaro and Gattuso have now moved into coaching roles (to mixed success: Cannavaro is assistant manager at Emirati team Al-Ahli while Gattuso was recently sacked as Palermo's manager) and Del Piero is winding down as Sydney FC's star player in Australia, the latter triumvirate are still the first names on coach Cesare Prandelli's team sheet.
Following Friday's 2-2 draw against Denmark—a dead rubber of a game considering the Azzurri are already assured qualification—Buffon surpassed close friend Cannavaro and became Italy's record holder of international appearances, 16 years to the month since making his debut, at 137 caps.
Now aged 35, this passion shows no signs of abating and has continually shrugged off niggling injuries to pull on his beloved goalkeeper jersey.
In Pirlo and De Rossi they have two midfield generals whose playing styles contrast, yet their will to win is inseparable.
While Pirlo has a penchant for a gilded pass, De Rossi can dictate play as he breaks up the opposition's attack before dispersing the ball to a teammate. And both have an eye for goal with 13 and 15 strikes respectively.
In addition, as Matthew Campbell reported for The Independent in March, the enigmatic Totti could even make a return for the first time since 2006. While not nailed on, he did tantalisingly declare "When Prandelli calls me up, let's see." A potential reappearance of Il Gladiatore is a salivating prospect.
An Optimal Blend of Youth and Experience
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As we have explored, Italy (like holders Spain) have the enviable and rare advantage of possessing players who have previously gone the distance in this tournament.
Knowing what measures it takes to achieve success, Prandelli and his lieutenants will be keen for those senior players—De Rossi, Pirlo and Buffon—to impart that knowledge to a contingent of younger players which is increasing.
Against Denmark on Friday, only four players of the starting lineup were aged 30 or above: Gianluigi Buffon, Thiago Motta, Federico Balzaretti and Alessandro Diamanti. Gone are the days when Italy are synonymous with clinging on to their ageing stars, unable to fill the void.
In Andrea Ranocchia, Antonio Candreva, Leonardo Bonucci and Claudio Marchisio, Italy have players who are in their mid-20s and have established themselves in the starting lineups of Inter Milan, Lazio and Juventus respectively. These are the players who will shore up the defence and midfield for years to come.
It's also worth remembering that Mario Balotelli is still only 23 and his AC Milan strike partner Stephan El Sharaawy will turn 21 later this month, two players who look set to have dazzling, hair-raising careers.
Fresh from graduating from the under-21 team, Lorenzo Insigne has, despite being capped only thrice, already scored for the senior team, bagging a goal against an intimidating Argentina team in August.
He is a player who excites fans. At club level, he lines up for Napoli alongside Gonzalo Higuain, Raul Albiol, Marek Hamsik and Pepe Reina, established senior players including two World Cup winners. Having started four times for Rafael Benitez's team, he is clearly trusted and at just 22 will benefit from being in the senior setup.
And then there are the likes of Marco Verratti, Alessandro Florenzio, Mattia De Sciglio, Manolo Gabbiadini, Mattia Destro and Andrea Poli, all of whom sniff the possibility of a place in Prandelli's squad next summer.
Cesare Prandelli Has Found His Niche
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As a player, Cesare Prandelli was a rampaging midfielder who was known to cover every blade of grass. He was a key contributor to potentially the most revered Juve team of all time, playing alongside the likes of Michel Platini, Marco Tardelli, Roberto Bottega and Zbigniew Boniek.
After sipping from the chalice of success, Prandelli was ideally-placed to instill a similar mentality into the teams that he presided over.
At club level he performed admirably. After guiding Verona and Venezia to promotions in the late '90s, it was very unfortunate that personal issues led to him abdicating from Roma, a shot at glory that his performances had earned.
It was at Fiorentina though where the man from northern Italy demonstrated his abilities with gusto and aplomb. Circumstances conspired against him as the Calcipoli scandal deprived him and his team of a Champions League spot they had heroically fought for, instead paying for the mistakes of others.
Since receiving the mayday call from the Federazione Italiana Giuco Calcio (Italian FA) to take over an ailing national side, the 56-year-old has impressed.
Tasting defeat only nine times out of 48 games is a solid return and one which proves a bedrock for players and supporters to trust in. Having fluctuated between different players, what Prandelli needs to now do is devise his preferred starting line-up.
Whilst Italy are perennially linked with the Catenaccio-style approach which brought back-to-back European Cup success for AC Milan in the '80s, Prandelli looks to be moving away from that.
Rather than playing with pacy, ball-winning centre-halves, he instead adopts a fluid system where a ball-winning midfielder (usually De Rossi, but against Denmark on Friday night it was Thiago Motta) protects his defence and takes charge of dispersing the ball, allowing the defenders to focus on marking the striker.
He is also a fan of galloping, industrious midfielders built in his own image: Antonio Candreva, Emanuele Giaccherini, Claudio Marchisio, Riccardo Montolivo and Alberto Aquilani have all heavily featured.
Famed as being one of the continent's most methodical coaches with a scrupulous eye for a tactical switch, barring an cataclysmic implosion akin to that of 2010 Prandelli should still be in a job following the tournament.
Mario Balotelli Spearheads an Awe-Inspiring Attack
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If there is one chink in Italy's armour, one factor which may hinder the blues, it is the fact that too often they have appeared profligate and goal-shy.
En route to the final of Euro 2012, they only scored six goals in five games (four of which were in two games).
During this qualifying campaign they have scored 17, a functional amount matching that of Austria, Romania and Poland (none of whom can qualify).
This summer, however, within the tournament domain of the Confederations Cup, they looked more ruthless.
First there was the wily 2-1 victory over a resilient Mexico team, then a 4-3 disembowelment of Japan, as well as scoring two goals past eventual winners Brazil (even if it was futile as they lost 4-2).
This new-found goal-frenzied team is being led by Mario Balotelli, the real standard-bearer for this new age.
Despite a rocky club career, he shone at Euro 2012 and was unfortunate to depart Kiev with only a runners-up medal. In the semi-final defeat of Germany, he was his usual fearless self, scoring two expert goals to dispatch the intimidating opposition.
Next summer, he will be carrying Italian hopes on that sculptured, well-defined muscly frame, a prospect which would daunt anyone other than Balotelli.
In his hand though, Prandelli is currently holding several wild cards, players who spearhead their respective domestic club's front line with their subtle quality and who provide a critically-acclaimed support cast for Balotelli.
Giuseppe Rossi has shrugged off the nightmare injuries which have plagued him for the last two seasons and has been irresistible for new team Fiorentina, bagging six goals in nine games. The 31-year-old Alberto Gilardino—"a veteran" when lining up alongside his younger teammates—is Bologna's great hope for this season.
While still adjusting to the English Premier League, Pablo Osvaldo is of undisputed quality as proven by his four goals in 11 international appearances.
But it is Balotelli who will lead the line, the focal point of the Azzurri's quest for glory.
What are your thoughts? Should Italy be considered as favourites for next year's competition? Or should De Rossi and co. make way for the next generation? Let me know either in the comments section below or via Twitter: @LeRowley