With Italy heading to Brazil perhaps slightly behind the favourites, Cesare Prandelli must find a way to make the Azzurri more threatening than in recent years.
The superb Juventus back line provides an excellent platform from which to build from after being the foundation during what was arguably the club's best-ever season domestically.
The Bianconeri kept no fewer than 18 clean sheets, marshalled superbly from between the sticks by their captain, Gianluigi Buffon, and they will likely be selected in the hopes of carrying their club form onto the international stage.
Ahead of them, the Italy coach has a plethora of quality midfielders from which to select, with Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Co. providing the ideal blend of attack, defence and neat passing.
It is in attack where Prandelli truly needs to discover an edge, and the injury suffered by Giuseppe Rossi makes doing that more difficult. Upon returning to football after having his knee surgically repaired, the Fiorentina striker was among the most deadly strikers in the league before being struck by a medial collateral ligament problem in January.
The 27-year-old returned for the final four matches of the Serie A campaign and scored twice to secure a place in Italy’s 30-man provisional squad. However, it would be unwise to rely upon him to lead the Azzurri attack. Mario Balotelli will look to build upon his brilliant showing at Euro 2012, but he will clearly need help if Italy are to enjoy similar progress this summer.
Antonio Cassano has been included in the squad, but despite a stellar season with Parma, the doubts over his temperament continue to linger. Always volatile, perhaps even his 12 goal and six assist return for the Ducali will not be enough to convince Prandelli to hand him a starting berth in Brazil.
All of which leaves us with one forward who can deliver the unexpected, a player in the Azzurri ranks who can lift the squad in difficult moments: Alessio Cerci. The Torino striker enjoyed something of a breakout season this term at the heart of his side’s surprising climb to a seventh in Serie A.
The Roma youth product was central to that, both figuratively and in reality, having been moved from his previous wide role to a position behind Ciro Immobile by coach Giampiero Ventura in a new 3-5-2 formation. While his strike partner rightly stole much of the attention—his 22-goal haul saw him end the season as Serie A’s leading scorer—it was largely thanks to the constant probing of Cerci.
No player on the peninsula bettered his tally of ten assists, and he also weighed in with 13 goals of his own, proving to be a constant threat for any opponent. He shone in the biggest matches and was directly responsible for the Granata earning points against the likes of Fiorentina, Milan and Roma—proving he can thrive on the grandest of stages.
The ability to play on the wing will provide Prandelli with the tactical flexibility Italy will need in a difficult group, which pits them against Costa Rica, England and Uruguay. Cerci also contributes defensively, making 20 tackles and four interceptions this term according to stats site WhoScored.com, another vital attribute as the Azzurri look to pressure opponents.
His all-round game took a huge leap in 2013-14, with Squawka.com showing he found the target with 63 per cent of his shots. Meanwhile, the above graphic—taken from the same source—shows he enjoyed great success in taking on opposition players, a trait shared by very few members of the current Azzurri set-up.
He showcased just what he can offer to Prandelli against the very best sides back in March, when he hit the post with a difficult shot in a 1-0 loss to reigning champions Spain. “I am happy with my performance, it’s just a shame about the result,” he told reporters afterwards (h/t FootballItalia). “I can give much more, especially in games like this with the opportunities for counter-attacks. I can certainly do much better.”
With perhaps his best professional season behind him and that high level of self belief, there remains little doubt that Alessio Cerci deserves a starting spot for Italy at the World Cup.