Cesare Prandelli deserves that raise he got in May.
When the 56-year-old manager took over Italy after the 2010 World Cup, the four-time international champs were in shambles. They were coming off an elimination in the group stage—the first since 1974—and featuring a dangerously old squad.
Prandelli hasn't reloaded the talent pool as much as he has squeezed the most out of his experienced side. The Azzurri were runners-up at Euro 2012, nearly upset Spain in the 2013 Confederation Cup semis and look very solid heading into Brazil.
A historically successful group that includes Uruguay and England awaits, but the Italians look in good shape to erase any memories of 2010.
Let's take a closer look.
|DF||Ignazio Abate||AC Milan|
|DF||Mattia De Sciglio||AC Milan|
|MF||Daniele de Rossi||Roma|
|FW||Mario Balotelli||AC Milan|
Gone are the days of Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta or Paolo Maldini. Italy has long been a breeding ground for elite defenders, but the Azzurri are much more formidable in front these days.
Of course, that's not meant as a major slight to Italy's defense. With linchpin center-back Giorgio Chiellini and ever-in-form Gianluigi Buffon in goal, it still won't be easy to score against this side.
However, the focus is on the midfield, which is undoubtedly one of the best in the world. It starts, of course, with Andrea Pirlo. The 35-year-old maestro, who has won four consecutive Serie A titles (one with A.C. Milan and three with Juventus), pulls the strings in the center of the pitch, running the show and helping Italy hold on to possession.
He also remains one of the most dangerous free-kick specialists in the world:
Happy birthday Andrea Pirlo. Here's the worldy free-kick he scored yesterday. http://t.co/bzqgBRdtJJ— Football Vines (@FootballVines) May 19, 2014
Pirlo is joined by fellow veteran Daniele De Rossi, a superb all-around midfielder who led Serie A in passes per match this season, per WhoScored.com. Throw in guys like Claudio Marchisio and Thiago Motta, and you have an experienced, versatile group with the ability to both create and defend.
While there is quite a bit more inconsistency up front—of course, it's tough to get more consistent than Pirlo and De Rossi—Italy is oozing with potential at striker.
Mario Balotelli is about as unpredictable as they come, but when he's focused, there are very few players in the world with his blend of strength and skill. Although the boisterous 23-year-old striker had an up-and-down season with A.C. Milan, he led Italy with two goals and an assist at the Confederations Cup last year.
If he is in form, giving the Azzurri an energetic, transcendent game-changer in front of that rock-solid midfield, Prandelli's team will be difficult to beat.
Group Stage Predictions
|Sat, June 14||England||W, 2-1|
|Fri, June 20||Costa Rica||W, 2-0|
|Tue, June 24||Uruguay||L, 1-0|
|6 Points, Second in Group|
It's not an easy draw, but no team in this group is without its question marks.
Where will Italy finish in this group?
Uruguay, especially on South American soil, are figured to be the strong favorite to win the group, but the health of Luis Suarez's knee could swing things one way or another. Edinson Cavani's presence makes the Charruas plenty dangerous, but if Suarez isn't at full strength, Oscar Tabarez's side will be much less formidable.
England produces as much footballing talent as any country in the world, but Roy Hodgson's squad this year is considerably less experienced.
Finally, Costa Rica, a side that beat both Mexico and the United States during qualifying, could prove tricky, but La Sele hasn't advanced out of the group stage since 1990.
Buffon, via The Toronto Sun, set quarterfinal expectations for his squad:
If we get to the quarter-finals or further, it will have been a positive World Cup.
We have a mature team which knows its own limitation and, because of this, we are a dependable side who win the matches we are expected to win.
Sometimes we manage to cause surprises in the games in which we don't start as favorites, giving the opposition some headaches.
In a group that looks as unpredictable as any, Italy's blend of experience and talent will be enough to advance to the knockout stages, where one of Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast or Japan will await.