Why Young Stars Like Marco Verratti Will Be Key to Italy's 2014 World Cup

Colin O'BrienContributor IMay 27, 2014

NAPLES, ITALY - OCTOBER 15:  Marco Verratti of Italy smiles before the FIFA 2014 World Cup qualifier group B match between Italy and Armenia at Stadio San Paolo on October 15, 2013 in Naples, Italy.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

This summer, Cesare Prandelli's Italy will be all about the next generation. Players like Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon will play crucial roles in the Azzurri's World Cup campaign, but older players will be the exception, and the focus will be on how their younger teammates perform. 

After the Juve pair, Daniele De Rossi is the oldest player who'd be considered an almost guaranteed starter, and the Roman is hardly over-the-hill at 30.

Prandelli has overseen an important generational shift with the Nazionale, especially up front. Ciro Immobile, Mario Balotelli, Mattia Destro and Lorenzo Insigne are all under 24. And behind them, in midfield, there'll almost certainly be Marco Verratti—just 21—in the thick of the action. 

It's often said that Italian football prefers guile and experience to youthful exuberance, but it's an unfair and inaccurate cliche. Certainly, in the past, Italian teams both at national and club level relied on older players, but that has more to do with the fact that, in most cases, they took better care of themselves physically than their counterparts in other countries.

Paolo Maldini, for example, looked younger and more useful at 40 for Milan than most defenders elsewhere look in their early 30s, and it's hard to imagine a 37-year-old Wayne Rooney still delighting crowds and destroying defences the way Francesco Totti does.

There is still a place for experience in a team—especially at international level. Once fit, Pirlo would be a valuable asset for anyone, even if he isn't the most mobile midfielder in the world. The influx of youth, however, will be key not just in the heat of Brazil but also in the following European campaign for France 2016.

The former Fiorentina boss has signed on as national coach for another two years after this summer's World Cup, so with a squad full of players in their prime and the same coach on the bench, there'll be important continuity throughout going into UEFA qualification. 

The more experienced pairing of Balotelli and Giuseppe Rossi are the most obvious strikers for this tournament, but Torino's Immobile and Roma's Destro are both in scintillating form and could be important. And if Insigne makes the final cut, the lessons he learns in Brazil will be important, because in the long-term he's the most obvious creative attacking talent at Prandelli's disposal. 

The most pivotal changing of the guard is to come in the centre. Pirlo's unlikely to continue after this tournament, and his most obvious replacement, Verratti needs games to grow into the role.

Prandelli might choose to use the Paris Saint-Germain star as a substitute for Pirlo, who'll need rest and some measure of protection if he's to last until the latter stages of the tournament, or alongside the 35-year-old in a similar fashion to how he plays with Thiago Motta for PSG.

With De Rossi thrown into the mix to provide some defensive steel, it's an intriguing prospect, not least for the Italian players farther up the pitch. A combination of such intelligence and varied skills is likely to be a problem for any opponent.