World Cup 2014: Winners, Losers from Italy's Pre-Tournament Friendlies
The results of Italy's recent pre-World Cup friendlies—a goalless draw with Ireland and a shock 1-1 deadlock with Luxembourg—may have induced some slight panic on the peninsula. The draw against lowly Luxembourg in particular—the first time the team has ever taken points from the Italians—has brought about some pessimism.
That said, Italy has a long history of underperforming in non-competitive matches, especially under Cesare Prandelli, who uses them as platforms for experimenting with different formations, tactics and player combinations. Two years ago they were hammered 3-0 by Russia in their last friendly before Euro 2012, then went on to reach the final, expunging a significant part of the shame generated by the debacle in South Africa in 2010.
Frankly, the team that faced Luxembourg on Wednesday looked like one whose biggest aim was to ensure no one got injured before the final whistle.
In spite of the disappointing results, some players stood out—some for the right reasons and some for the wrong ones. Let's take a look at the winners and losers to come out of Italy's friendlies before Brazil 2014.
Loser: Riccardo Montolivo
Let's get the obvious out of the way first.
It was heartbreaking to see Riccardo Montolivo stretchered off the field after only 10 minutes with a broken leg. Montolivo was one of the players who had disgraced the blue shirt in 2010, and one can only imagine how much he wanted to make amends in Brazil.
Instead, his World Cup ended at Craven Cottage.
Sad as it is to see any player injured at this stage, it may likely have been for the best. Montolivo was coming off his worst season as a professional. His performance this season in no way warranted his inclusion in the 30-man roster, but his relationship with Prandelli is deep. It seems that he's an almost automatic call-up based on the time the two men spent together at Fiorentina.
The injury is tragic for Montolivo personally, but it may benefit the team as a whole in the long run.
Winner: Marco Verratti
Marco Verratti may have officially cemented his place as Andrea Pirlo's long-awaited successor.
He entered training camp at Coverciano fighting for a roster spot and likely has Montolivo's injury to thank for making it academic. But his performance against Ireland would have likely sealed his place anyway.
He started almost immediately, sending a fantastic ball to Matteo Darmian on the wing in the second minute. Two minutes later he sent another feathery pass to Ciro Immobile, who couldn't control the ball and gifted it to the keeper. In the 37th, he showed some nifty dribbling to keep possession and start an attacking move.
He was exposed slightly for his weak frame, being powered off the ball by larger Irish players on occasion, but on the whole it was a striking performance.
Even more encouraging was his performance against Luxembourg. While the results were lackluster, the way he combined with Andrea Pirlo was a revelation. There had been concern that the two would compete with each other for playmaking duties, but they alternated with each other very well, and Verratti also covered for some of Pirlo's defensive deficiencies.
That more than anything else was the biggest thing Italy got out of these friendlies: Playing the two men together will make the Azzurri exponentially more dangerous in Brazil.
Loser: Giuseppe Rossi
Four years ago the exclusion of Giuseppe Rossi from the World Cup roster was seen as one of the biggest mistakes Marcello Lippi made.
Now the 27-year-old has again been left off the plane. Despite a solid performance against Ireland, Prandelli believed that his lack of match fitness—he's only had four substitute appearances since January due to a knee injury—would be a liability in the summer heat of Brazil.
Prandelli's knowledge of the conditions his team will be playing in comes firsthand after the team's participation in the Confederations Cup last year. The sight of his team withering in the heat and humidity as the tournament went on obviously made an impression, and it's clear that the memory has influenced his squad selection.
Unfortunately for Rossi, this means that he'll be spending another major tournament at home.
Winner: Claudio Marchisio
Claudio Marchisio was strong in both matches this week. Against Ireland he fired a missile of a shot six minutes in that was saved well by Ireland keeper David Forde, while his nifty cross in first-half stoppage time was well-defended by the Irish.
He lost a bit of his edge as the game went on, fluffing a gilt-edged chance afforded him by the combination of Antonio Cassano and Giuseppe Rossi, but overall Marchisio had one of his best games since Euro 2012.
That form continued against Luxembourg. Eight minutes in he found Mario Balotelli with an excellent long ball and then ran into the box to hammer home Balotelli's excellent cross. He nearly returned the favor moments later but had his own cross caught by the keeper.
With Montolivo out, Marchisio becomes an even more important player in this side. He has spent much of the season as a midfield super-sub for Juventus but has never stopped working and will likely be rewarded with a big role in Brazil. These two games proved he deserves it.
Loser: Alberto Aquilani
Alberto Aquilani's contribution to this team was summed up by a friend watching the Luxembourg game with me, who quipped "Aquilani subs on, leaving Italy with 10 men for the remainder of the match!"
The onetime phenom's steady-but-not-spectacular performances over the last two years with Fiorentina have made him a regular call-up in Cesare Prandelli's squad, and it's impossible to figure out why. He was utterly useless when on the field at the Confederations Cup last year and did himself no favors in the recent friendlies.
In the Ireland game he came on for the injured Montolivo 15 minutes in and then left 22 minutes later with an apparent head injury.
Obviously, nothing was serious enough for Prandelli to consider dropping him, but when he came on with 20 minutes left against Luxembourg he made almost no impact other than to put a fairly good delivery from Ignazio Abate wide of the post.
Oh, and Luxembourg's goal? That was wholly his fault for completely failing to mark Maxime Chanot.
If he gets on the field in Brazil, Prandelli should have his head checked.
Winner: Antonio Cassano
In his first international action since the final of Euro 2012, Antonio Cassano picked up right where he left off.
Coming on as a second-half sub in both matches, Cassano's ability to complete through balls was on full display as fatigue set in and the games opened up, allowing teammates to rush through and latch on to his passes.
Even better, the chemistry he had with Mario Balotelli at Euro 2012 returned almost instantly, as if the two had been playing with each other for all of qualifying.
He wasn't able to contribute to any goals but showed himself to be supremely dangerous. He will likely take on the super-sub role that belonged to Alessandro Del Piero in Germany in 2006—a role that he can play extraordinarily well.
Loser: Gabriel Paletta
Gabriel Paletta was the best defender not named Mehdi Benatia in Serie A this season. His performances for Parma saw him called up to Prandelli's roster for the March friendly against Spain—where he played the full 90 minutes—and added to the roster for Brazil.
Unfortunately, his performance against Ireland made it highly unlikely that he will crack the Juventus trio of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci for playing time. He was caught out of position more often than would be desired and often struggled to cope with the pace of Shane Long and Anthony Pilkington.
Unless Italy's center-back corps is decimated by injuries or suspensions, look for Paletta to spend minimal time on the field.
Winner: Lorenzo Insigne
Insigne was seen as being on the outside looking in for most of training camp—which made it all the more intriguing that he made the squad without even being seen in game action to that point. Talk about a win!
The likely beneficiary of Rossi's failure to convince Prandelli to bring him along, Insigne is a creative force in the attacking third and could be a game-changer off Italy's bench. He'll be an asset for sure.