As always, Italy head into the World Cup viewed as one of the strongest competitors, with the Azzurri always among the most feared opponents in any tournament. Possessing four victories in international football’s premier event, the country has a history few can overlook.
That has continued under Cesare Prandelli who, despite making a seismic shift from the pragmatic style of his predecessors, has built a formidable team capable of competing with the very best. Italy’s run to the final of Euro 2012 saw them even discover a way to stifle the all-conquering Spanish side in the opening match and comfortably dispatch a highly fancied Germany.
Like any team, they have their strengths and weaknesses, although under the current coach they are somewhat different from those traditionally associated with Italian teams of the past. Where those sides were built on a defensive solidity that was unsurpassed, this new-look Azzurri play a much more modern and attacking style.
Giuseppe Rossi was Serie A’s leading scorer before yet another knee injury ruled him out earlier this year and, as he looks to overcome the absence of the talismanic striker, Prandelli will once again lean heavily on his midfield. That has become the most versatile and quality-laden department of his squad, and has most certainly come to epitomise his version of the Azzurri.
While many look to Andrea Pirlo as the man who makes Italy tick, the key weapon of the side may well be Daniele De Rossi. The Roma midfielder embodies everything positive about this Azzurri, beginning with the tactical flexibility his presence allows, able to switch positions whenever the situation demands a shift.
That was never more evident than in the opening match of Euro 2012 when he slotted into a role in the centre of a three-man back line which held Spain to a credible 1-1 draw. His involvement in the match—analysed in greater detail here—was vital to that final result as De Rossi took to the new position perfectly.
He has continued that excellent form domestically, leading all Serie A players as he completed an average of 73.8 passes per game, according to WhoScored.com. The stats site shows he also connected at an impressive 89.5 per cent rate, the 30-year-old’s consistency integral to the incredible improvement of the Giallorossi under Rudi Garcia.
De Rossi also provided excellent protection for the defence behind him, helping the capital club keep no less than 21 clean sheets as he made 75 interceptions and 52 tackles in 2013-14. That will be of vital importance to Italy, particularly if Prandelli continues to pair Pirlo with the steadily improving Marco Verratti.
The recent performances of the Paris Saint-Germain youngster—discussed here—have been a major boost for Prandelli and Italy, but he also possesses a trait which could perhaps be the undoing of the Azzurri in Brazil this summer. He received 11 yellow cards this season, many of which came for arguing with officials, and he is far from the only squad member with a questionable temperament.
Mario Balotelli’s issues have regularly been analysed in depth, while Antonio Cassano also possesses a reputation for blowing up at the slightest provocation, with Football Italia’s Mark Siglioccolo making a detailed note of it here. Prandelli has certainly taken a risk in adding the Parma striker to an already-combustible mix.
De Rossi too has had problems, banned earlier this season for an alleged punch to the head of Inter’s Mauro Icardi, per FourFourTwo.com. That follows an incident which marred the 2006 World Cup when he elbowed USA striker Brian McBride, an act which the midfielder admitted he is ashamed of in an interview with La Repubblica last week (h/t ITV.com). He said:
"I am ashamed of the elbow incident, however, I'm not a killer, nor a thug, nor envious if someone is better than me. I don't often react, but when it happens, it's bad. I'm also sure it will never happen again."
Italians everywhere will hope De Rossi can remain true to his word, and that Balotelli, Cassano and Verratti all follow suit, as keeping their tempers in check will be vital to the Azzurri’s hopes this summer.