World Cup 2014: Predicting Italy's Final 23-Man Roster

Sam LoprestiFeatured ColumnistMay 16, 2014

World Cup 2014: Predicting Italy's Final 23-Man Roster

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    A pensive-looking Cesare Prandelli will have some big decisions to make whittling down his roster.
    A pensive-looking Cesare Prandelli will have some big decisions to make whittling down his roster.Claudio Villa/Getty Images

    A major milestone is being reached in the run-up to the World Cup.  Rosters are being announced every day. Some nations, like England and Japan, have already named their 23-man final rosters for the tournament. Others, like Italy, have named a provisional roster of 30 or so with a deadline of June 2 to announce their final selections.

    Once the European season ends, manager Cesare Prandelli will begin camp at Coverciano in Florence to determine just who he will be bringing to Brazil.

    Who will be going?  Here we will take a look at who will be auditioning for roles as Italy looks to complete their redemption from the disgrace of 2010.

Goalkeepers

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    Gigi Buffon's got things covered in goal.
    Gigi Buffon's got things covered in goal.Claudio Villa/Getty Images

    Here's where the least amount of guesswork comes in.  Parma's Antonio Mirante (0 caps) is going to Coverciano to train as an alternate in case of an injury, but Prandelli has only officially included three goalkeepers in the provisional list.

    Gianluigi Buffon, the team captain and Italy's most capped player of all time (139 and counting), will be the undoubted starter.  

    One of the absolute stars of Italy's magic 2006 World Cup run, Buffon could only manage 45 minutes on the field in South Africa after he injured his back in pregame warm-ups before Italy's opener against Paraguay.  His absence was keenly felt, as his replacement, Federico Marchetti, only managed to save one of the four shots on target he faced in the remaining game-and-a-half.

    Arguably the best goalkeeper in history and still one of the five best in the world even at age 36, Buffon's shot-stopping ability, combined with his superlative ability to organize a defense, will be critical to any success Italy will achieve.

    Fortunately, if the unthinkable happens and Buffon is again forced from the field, the backup situation is much better than it was four years ago.  His No. 2 will undoubtedly be Salvatore Sirigu, who has been delighting the notoriously fickle fans of Paris Saint-Germain since 2011.  If Buffon were not going strong, the PSG man would have a strong case to be the starter.

    Until Euro 2012 Morgan De Sanctis had been Buffon's backup, but he has since left the national-team picture.  Last season saw Sirigu and Marchetti compete for the No. 2 role.  

    This year the Lazio man has fallen off the face of the earth.  Juventus pounded him with twin four-goal shellings within weeks of each other early in the season, and it seems to have utterly broken him mentally.  He was dropped from the team's starting XI by the winter break.  The backup job is solidly Sirigu's.

    The No. 3 position is often given to an up-and-coming youngster, and Genoa's Mattia Perin certainly fits the bill.  Uncapped, Perin is at the forefront of a fantastic generation of young goalkeepers that include Inter prospect Francesco Bardi, Juve prospect Nicola Leali and Udinese starlet Simone Scuffet.

    If Perin sees the field this summer, something will have gone terribly wrong.  When Buffon hangs up his gloves—and who knows when that will be—he will be the front-runner to take them on.

    On the Plane: Buffon, Sirigu, Perin

Defense

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    Giorgio Chiellini will again be the backbone of Italy's defense.
    Giorgio Chiellini will again be the backbone of Italy's defense.Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

    The days of "catenaccio" are long past—especially since Cesare Prandelli took over—but defense is still the calling card of Italian soccer.  That should still ring true given the depth of defensive talent at Prandelli's fingertips as we approach the Cup.

    Juventus' trio of excellent center backs—Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli—are likely locks.  Their presence gives the team outstanding depth in a four-man defense and brings invaluable experience in a three-man defense—a wrinkle that has served Italy well against Spain in the past and likely will again.

    Bonucci has made improvements in his defensive game this year and for several years has been arguably the best ball-playing center back in the world.  His passing skills will be invaluable if an opponent is able to clamp down on Andea Pirlo in midfield.  

    Barzagli has spent much of the last two months out injured, but that may be a blessing in disguise.  He has shown his 33 years recently, and though his technique can make up for lost pace it won't hurt that he'll be coming into the World Cup relatively fresh.  

    Chiellini has had some bad luck internationally, but his bruising style carries on the legacy of men like Claudio Gentile.  He will also be keen to atone for the misplay that led to Slovakia's fateful third goal in last year's group stage.

    Prandelli usually carries a fourth center-back, although the men he's carried into previous competitions (Angelo Obgonna in Euro 2012, Davide Astori at the Confederations Cup) are absent from this roster.  

    There are two options: Gabriel Paletta and Andrea Ranocchia.  Ranocchia improved toward the end of this season, although he endured a long period on the bench in the middle of Inter's season.  Paletta, meanwhile, was a revelation this season at Parma and earned his first international cap in February's friendly against Spain.  He had the better season of the two.  Unless Ranocchia truly shows something in camp, the Argentine-born defender will be headed to Brazil.

    Picking full-backs for this team can be tricky.  The mortal lock in this regard is Ignazio Abate, who will almost certainly be the starter at right-back.  Left-back was manned through most of the Confederations Cup by his AC Milan teammate, Mattia De Sciglio, whose inclusion was something of a surprise considering he spent much of the season injured.  He may not start, but his versatility and pinpoint crossing ability would be nice assets.

    Whoever plays left-back will be vastly inexperienced on the international stage.  Apart from De Sciglio, the options are Torino's Matteo Darmian and Fiorentina's Manuel Pasqual.  

    Carrying Pasqual has the added bonus of adding another set-piece threat to the squad, but unless Andrea Pirlo is off the field that won't make much difference.  That said, Pasqual plays more frequently on the left—in fact he is really the only player on the provisional roster whose primary position is left-back.  By virtue of that, he's almost certainly on the team.

    Unfortunately for Darmian, if I were to be picking this team he'd be the victim of a strategy move.  As previously said, three-man defensive systems have proved incredibly effective for Italy against Spain in the last few years.  Such systems require wing-backs—a position that Napoli's Christian Maggio mastered under Walter Mazzarri at Napoli.

    He's not very effective as a conventional right-back and is only just coming back from a long-term injury, but if all goes to best-case scenario for Italy they will likely be staring down Vicente del Bosque's men in the quarterfinals—and in that matchup Maggio's talents would be invaluable.

    Is it foolish to include a player for the sole purpose of playing in one matchup that's not even guaranteed to happen?  Maybe.  But against Spain every little edge counts.  Maggio should be on the plane.

    On the Plane: Chiellini, Barzagli, Bonucci, Paletta, Abate, De Sciglio, Pascual, Maggio

Midfielders

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    Andrea Pirlo battles Sergio Busquets in the Confederations Cup semifinal.
    Andrea Pirlo battles Sergio Busquets in the Confederations Cup semifinal.Claudio Villa/Getty Images

    Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi are mortal locks for this roster.  They are the most experienced outfield players the Italians have.  Both were on the field eight years ago when Italy won the World Cup.  Indeed, both converted their penalties in the shootout against France.  They are the brains and the brawn, respectively, of the midfield, and their presence is absolutely vital.

    Pirlo is especially vital.  Consider the last World Cup.  Pirlo was injured in a pre-tournament friendly and was off the field for the first 236 minutes of the group stage.  In those 236 minutes, Italy scored two goals—both off set pieces—and drew to Paraguay and New Zealand.  In the 34 minutes that Pirlo played in the final game against Slovakia the Italians put the ball in the net three times from open play (one that would have tied the game and sent Italy through was controversially called back for offside) and looked an entirely different team.  

    Four years ago Italy simply didn't have anyone who could do what Pirlo could do.  That isn't the case this time.  If Pirlo must step aside for any reason, Marco Verratti, the answer to the oft-asked question "Who is the next Pirlo" can at the very least put in a good facsimile of Pirlo's work.  At best, he can exactly replicate it.  Having played major minutes in both Ligue 1 and the Champions League for PSG, Verratti has had as much high-level experience at the club level that a man as young as he can have.  Now it needs to translate to the next level.  He is a must-bring as Pirlo's direct backup.

    This year was a resurgent season for Thiago Motta at PSG.  The last memory most people have of the Brazilian-born midfielder internationally was him being stretchered off the field in the final at Euro 2012 moments after coming on as Prandelli's final sub, dooming any attempts at a comeback.  His performance at PSG has earned him the right to come to the World Cup.

    One of the lone bright spots in an otherwise disappointing season for Lazio was midfielder Antonio Candreva.  He can play anywhere in the midfield and has garnered interest from a number of larger Italian sides.  After giving a good accounting of himself in Brazil a year ago, Prandelli will likely take him this time.

    Candreva has a limitless motor, a trait he shares with Claudio Marchisio, who will likely head to Brazil as well even though he saw himself passed over in the pecking order by Paul Pogba at Juventus. If the Confederations Cup taught Prandelli anything it's that he'll need players who can run forever, and Marchisio certainly can while bringing creative abilities and, when on form, deadly finishing from the channels.

    Prandelli admirably cut loose one of the two players he'd tethered to himself from his Fiorentina days when he omitted forward Alberto Gilardino from the provisional squad.  It was, however, disappointing to see Riccardo Montolivo on the list when it came out.  The midfielder responded to being named AC Milan's new captain over the summer by turning in what might have been his worst professional season.  He only played in 28 league games and managed to get himself sent off twice, once in the league and once in the Champions League.  He didn't see the field for Milan's UCL drubbing at the hands of Atletico Madrid.

    It's a shame, because it takes away a spot from the more deserving midfielders on the roster—Marco Parolo, Romulo and Alberto Aquilani.  The latter of those three could also get a spot, but given Prandelli's preference in his previous two tournaments to carry five forwards, it's unlikely.

     On the Plane: Pirlo, De Rossi, Montolivo, Candreva, Marchisio, Motta, Verratti

Forwards

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    Who can forget Mario Balotelli's amazing semifinal at Euro 2012 against Germany?
    Who can forget Mario Balotelli's amazing semifinal at Euro 2012 against Germany?Joern Pollex/Getty Images

    Let's get this out of the way right now: there is no dropping Mario Balotelli.  Mercurial though he may be, he is the most talented forward at Cesare Prandelli's disposal.  In spite of his antics at the club level, he has always risen to the occasion for the Azzurri.  He was joint top scorer at Euro 2012 (Fernando Torres won the Golden Boot on the tiebreaker of assists) and Italy's top scorer in qualifying despite having been suspended for a game due to a (quite harsh) red card.  Several of his five goals in the qualifying phase—like this one against Armenia—were quite pretty to look at.

    The ideal paring with him would be Giuseppe Rossi.  Originally the planned strike partner of Balotelli from the moment Prandelli took the reins, Rossi has been sidelined at Italy's last two internationals with serious knee injuries and another, more minor one is threatening his place at the World Cup.  A lock to be capocannoniere before a terrible tackle from Livorno's Leandro Rinaudo sidelined him for months, Rossi has played in Fiorentina's last three games as a sub and found the net in a failed comeback attempt against Sassuolo.

    Rossi may not be fit for a full 90 minutes by the time the tournament starts, but he is definitely ready to be on the field and could be invaluable in a supersub role similar to the way Marcello Lippi deployed Alessandro Del Piero eight years ago.

    Speaking of capocannoniere, if Prandelli doesn't take Ciro Immobile with him to Brazil, something is seriously wrong.  With 22 goals and three assists to his name this year, Immobile has been the best Italian striker not named Rossi to have played a game this season.  As important or more so is that he's in a groove—he's scored nine times in his last 10 games.

    Prandelli usually carries five forwards, so that's three down, two to go.  There are four candidates: Antonio Cassano, Lorenzo Insigne, Alessio Cerci and Mattia Destro.

    Cassano has had a fine season this year with Parma.  He was the top performer for Prandelli in qualifying for Euro 2012 and made an admirable showing in that tournament less than nine months after undergoing heart surgery.  His age—31—may work against him here.  Prandelli learned the hard way at the Confederations Cup that the conditions in Brazil are going to require the fittest players possible.  Cassano has never been known for diligence in fitness, and he's getting old to boot.  He's probably out.

    Destro has been absolutely phenomenal for Roma since returning from injury, but he's young and has a strike against him after he was suspended three games in Italy for punching Cagliari's Davide Astori.  He wasn't called up for last month's round of fitness tests at Coverciano due to the incident, which was a clear violation of Prandelli's strict code of conduct.  Obviously his inclusion on the roster means he's at least halfway out of the doghouse, but the mark may still be on him.

    Cerci was the second half of a phenomenal pairing with Immobile at Torino.  He started the season scorching hot after a move from the wing to a "secunda punta" role but has only had four goals and two assists since the winter break.  That could open the door for someone else to run through.

    The best of the remaining four, and a man who should absolutely go to Brazil, is Napoli's Insigne.  He has proved several times in friendlies that he can be the creative force up front that Italy has rarely had.  He scored two fantastic goals against Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia Final and was one of the best men on the field in Napoli's 2-0 win against Juventus at the end of March.  What more can he do to prove himself?

    In the end Cerci's form is flagging, and Cassano may not be the physical specimen Prandelli needs to be successful in Brazil.  So long as Destro's disciplinary issues are behind him, he and Insigne join the team.

    On the Plane: Balotelli, Rossi, Immobile, Insigne, Destro

Final Roster Prediction

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    Can this Italy replicate the 2006 squad's heroics?
    Can this Italy replicate the 2006 squad's heroics?Andrew Medichini/Associated Press
    Pos.NameCapsGoals
    GK Gianluigi Buffon 1390
    GKSalvatore Sirigu 70
    GK Mattia Perin 00
    DFGiorgio Chiellini 674
    DFAndrea Barzagli 470
    DFLeonardo Bonucci 352
    DFGabriel Paletta 10
    DFIgnazio Abate181
    DF Mattia De Sciglio 90
    DFChristian Maggio 340
    DFManuel Pasqual 50
    MDAndrea Pirlo 10813
    MDDaniele De Rossi 9315
    MDRiccardo Montolivo 572
    MDClaudio Marchisio 422
    MDAntonio Candreva 190
    MDMarco Verratti 41
    MD Thiago Motta 191
    FWMario Balotelli 2912
    FWGiuseppe Rossi 297
    FWCiro Immobile10
    FWLorenzo Insigne 41
    FW Mattia Destro 51