10 Things You Need to Know About Cesare Prandelli's Italy
Less than two weeks remain before Italy open their World Cup campaign with a meeting against England in a potentially difficult Group D.
With Uruguay also in their pool, the Azzurri face a difficult task if they are to progress to the knockout rounds, surely a must for a nation with such a proud history at football’s showpiece event.
Four years have passed since the last competition in South Africa, a tournament at which Italy failed to win a single match and limped home embarrassed by their displays. Much has changed since Marcello Lippi was replaced by Cesare Prandelli, and the former Fiorentina coach has overseen a dramatic upturn in fortune in the intervening years.
Over the following pages are 10 things those not familiar with this new-look Azzurri need to know before they take the field in Manaus on June 14.
1. Andrea Pirlo Still Makes Italy Tick
Two years removed from his perfect penalty against England, Andrea Pirlo remains one of the world’s finest midfielders.
His Panenka-style spot-kick in the Euro 2012 quarter-final penalty shootout left Joe Hart red-faced, but in the preceding 120 minutes of action, the Juventus man had given Roy Hodgson’s men a lesson in passing and invention—skills he exhibits on a weekly basis for the Bianconeri.
Now 35, the former Milan maestro was once again at the centre of everything positive about the Turin giants as they marched to a third consecutive Serie A title. Stats site WhoScored.com shows Pirlo averaged 69 passes per game in 2013-14, completing 88.5 per cent of those attempts.
2. Gigi Buffon Remains One of the Best Goalkeepers in the World
It is not just Pirlo who continues to defy Father Time, with his Juventus team-mate Gigi Buffon still one of the finest goalkeepers around.
Captain of club and country, the 36-year-old kept a remarkable 18 clean sheets in 33 league appearances this term, helping the Bianconeri to an unprecedented 102-point haul.
Making no less than 86 saves according to ESPN FC’s statistics, Buffon enjoyed a remarkable domestic campaign, and he will not be easily beaten in Brazil.
3. There Are Also Youngsters Stepping Up
While the form of the two Juventus veterans will be essential to any Italy victory, Prandelli has successfully integrated many of the emerging young talents the country now boasts. Napoli forward Lorenzo Insigne, Mattia De Sciglio of Milan, PSG’s Marco Verratti and Roma striker Mattia Destro are all exciting prospects who could shine in Brazil.
4. They Possess the Tactical Flexibility to Succeed
One of the most intriguing things about this incarnation of the Italian national team is the tactical flexibility Prandelli has instilled within it. Able to comfortably switch formations to suit any opponent, their ability to change shape at any moment could prove to be a vital weapon this summer.
During Euro 2012, the coach alternated between the 3-5-2 that was so en vogue in Serie A and a 4-3-1-2 framework, while last year’s Confederations Cup was another exhibition of their shape-shifting talents.
The squad may be at its best with a back three, but any alternative is likely to be successfully applied.
5. Mario Balotelli Remains a Constant Danger
While the world revels in his every whimsical reaction, Mario Balotelli undeniably remains a potent attacking weapon for Prandelli’s Italy.
His club side Milan may have endured a dire campaign, but the 23-year-old striker continued to score at an incredible rate.
With 30 goals in just 54 appearances for the Rossoneri, his form since leaving Manchester City has been sublime, and his ability to win a match for the Azzurri has always been evident.
6. So Does Ciro Immobile
Among the attacking corps for the Azzurri this summer is the peninsula’s leading scorer, Ciro Immobile, a striker set for a big-money move to Borussia Dortmund this summer (per Football-Italia). The 24-year-old may be largely unknown outside of Italy, but that could well change in Brazil.
With 22 goals to his name, the Juventus youth product has certainly earned the admiration of the Bundesliga side, and he offers Prandelli a viable alternative to Balotelli.
7. And This Italy Possesses Other Weapons
Prandelli has drawn together a number of other lethal front men around Balotelli to ensure his side will not be over reliant on “Super Mario” in Brazil.
While the Milan striker is joined by Serie A top scorer Immobile, another Torino man could yet prove to be the Azzurri’s breakout star of the tournament.
Alessio Cerci was essential to his team-mate winning the Capocannoniere this term, adding 10 assists to his own tally of 13 goals. The 26-year-old will be essential in providing some much-needed creativity for Italy, and he certainly deserves to be in the starting XI when the competition begins.
8. Their Traditional Defensive Solidity Remains
With the Juventus back-line called up en masse, Prandelli knows he can rely on the solidity of the Bianconeri defence in Brazil.
The trio of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini enjoyed a superb 2013-14, helping La Madama to an excellent defensive record.
No team across Europe’s top five leagues conceded fewer than the 23 goals scored past the Turin giants, with only nine of those coming away from home. If they can continue that kind of form at the World Cup, Italy will be almost impossible to beat.
9. Cesare Prandelli Is a Superb Coach
During his four-year tenure, Cesare Prandelli has shown he has all the tools needed to be an international coach.
Having taken the team to the final of Euro 2012, the former Fiorentina boss has undoubtedly brought the best from each and every player at his disposal.
His code of ethics has seen him exclude players like Mario Balotelli and Daniele De Rossi when he felt such a measure was necessary, and in doing so he has won over a previously sceptical fan base.
10. The Antonio Cassano Factor
While much may depend on the likes of Balotelli, Buffon and Pirlo, late inclusion Antonio Cassano could provide the spark which lifts the Azzurri over the top this summer. The Parma forward has been in excellent form this season and arrives to take the place of Fiorentina star Giuseppe Rossi.
With 12 goals and six assists, "Fantantonio" has recaptured his best form at the Stadio Ennio Tardini and may surprise opponents in Brazil.