Italy's Biggest Challenges at 2014 World Cup

Chris Winterburn@Chriswin4Featured ColumnistJune 11, 2014

Italy coach Cesare Prandelli gestures during a press conference at the
Antonio Calanni/Associated Press

Italy are expected to impress at this summer's World Cup under the stewardship of Cesare Prandelli. However, there are still a number of challenges the Azzurri must overcome in order to go far in the tournament and perhaps even replicate the glory of the World Cup-winning 2006 team.

The first challenge for Prandelli's team will be to keep matches flowing at a tempo which suits them.

The current Italian system is built around Andrea Pirlo. Pirlo is the heartbeat of the team, as he sits just in front of the defence and orchestrates play. Whilst the movement of the ball in and around the midfield and defence is quick against teams who press, for example Spain, Italy are much more comfortable when the game is played at a slower tempo. 

It suits Pirlo to have extra touches of the ball and opens yet more windows for creativity.

The real trouble for Italy could come when they face England and Uruguay in Group D, both of which possess quick attackers. The likes of Daniel Sturridge, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani will press high up the pitch and at a quick tempo. This will limit Pirlo to one or two touches at the most. Whilst he still has the quality to get out of such a situation, the extra workload could be a problem for the 35-year-old.

A potential solution to the high-octane pressing game Italy's opponents are likely to adopt could be, as simple as it sounds, just keeping the ball.

Italy have been at their best under Prandelli against Spain, with the exception of the Euro 2012 final. This is because Italy have made the best use of Pirlo as an anchoring midfielder and have been able to move the ball around the defence and midfield, tiring out pressing attackers.

It might not be the most aesthetically pleasing way of winning matches, but if Italy can keep the ball in the midfield for long periods with short one-touch passes between players it is likely that the opposing forwards will tire, particularly in the humidity of Manaus. Italy can then take full advantage as the match progresses.

Mario Balotelli and Ciro Immobile present Prandelli with a problem of which most club managers would be envious: how to get the best out of the two forwards.

As Bleacher Report's Matteo Bonetti pointed out, Prandelli may have a difficult time in distinguishing between which forward to select in a system which can only include one central attacker: "Prandelli considers both Balotelli and Immobile as central strikers, so it's unlikely that they'll start together in the presumed 4-3-3 formation that was used a lot during the European World Cup qualifiers."

Immobile is heading to Brazil on the back of a wonderful campaign with Torino. His 22 Serie A goals made him "capocannoniere" (leading scorer) and earned him a transfer to Borussia Dortmund. Immobile is the in-form striker when compared to Balotelli.

Despite fleeting moments of brilliance for AC Milan, the former Manchester City forward has struggled to find consistency in the second half of the season. However he is still the attacking talisman, the creative spark who can make something happen out of nothing, which in tournament football can be the difference between progression and elimination.

It would be impossible to fit both players in a 4-3-3, but due to the injury to Riccardo Montolivo there could be space in the midfield to allow Prandelli to switch to a 4-2-3-1 system and play Balotelli as a No. 10.

Whilst not his natural position, his creativity would flourish in that role, and it would allow Prandelli to fully utilise both Balotelli and the in-form Immobile. However, with the tournament so close, pigeonholing players may not be the best move.

Italy have often been regarded as slow starters in international tournaments. This is a tag the Azzurri will have to shake off in order to progress from a potentially tricky Group D.

Draws against Spain, Paraguay and a humbling defeat to Holland have hindered Italy's start to the last three international tournaments and piled pressure on the team heading into the remaining two group matches.

With both England and Uruguay likely to fancy themselves to progress through to the knockout stages, Italy must avoid another slow start.

Fortunately, the opening match against England comes against a rival for qualification. There isn't huge pressure on Italy to win, but what must be avoided is defeat, even if Prandelli is intent on putting to bed the idea that Italy are a defensive team, as Mina Rzouki of ESPN reported yesterday.

However, a more cautious approach aiming to take the sting out of England's attacks early on could give Italy a platform upon which to build for their future in the tournament.

The final and perhaps most difficult challenge Italy face is how to manage Pirlo.

At 35 years old, it is hardly the norm that the hopes of a nation rest on Pirlo's shoulders. However, history proves the following statement to be true more often than not: When Pirlo doesn't play, Italy struggle. As B/R's Paolo Bandini discussed less than a week ago:

When Pirlo has been absent, Italy have failed. He missed all but the last 35 minutes of Italy’s disastrous 2010 World Cup due to injury, entering too late to salvage his team from a tournament-ending defeat to Slovakia.

Two years earlier, he had been suspended for the Azzurri’s loss to Spain in the quarter-finals of Euro 2008. 

With this in mind, it is imperative that Prandelli doesn't overuse Pirlo in Brazil.

Antonio Calanni/Associated Press

Whilst the role the Juventus playmaker has taken up in recent years doesn't demand too much physically, the Brazilian climate will still be a worry, as will accumulated fatigue with matches so close together.

You can feel the fittest you have ever felt, but at 35 three competitive matches in 10 days is a big ask, even more so in the heat and humidity of Brazil.

Prandelli must make the big call of perhaps substituting Pirlo in the latter stages of matches if Italy have a lead, perhaps even allowing the veteran to sit out the final group game if Italy's progress to the next round has been previously secured.

The trouble with this is just how important Pirlo is to the system. It revolves around his ability to recycle possession and keep the ball moving, even if not over great distances or at any real speed.

Italy may have to work out a way of succeeding without Pirlo to anchor the team, particularly in the latter stages of matches when he can be given periods of rest, if they are to be at their best in the latter stages of the World Cup.