Picking an Italy Team for the Opening Game of Euro 2016 Qualification
It happened in different circumstances, but Italy have crashed out of another World Cup prematurely, and those in charge must now act quickly and decisively to rebuild the Azzurri in time for Euro 2016.
Cesare Prandelli may or may not return as coach, but the manager isn't the only question mark hanging over Italy's current setup, and it's likely that several senior players have now kicked their last ball in the famous blue shirt.
Good players still remain, of course, and there are several young prospects in Serie A who now deserve the chance to prove that they can impress for the Nazionale.
So when qualification for their next international tournament begins, it's likely that the Italy squad will be made up by some familiar names, who still have much to offer and some fresh faces that can hopefully bring new ideas and some much-needed energy to a jaded team still reeling from the bitter disappointment of this summer in Brazil.
He might be 36, but Gianluigi Buffon is still Italy's best bet in goal. Salvatore Sirigu is an able deputy, and he could push for a starting place if the Juventus captain is injured or out of form, but the Paris Saint-Germain keeper is nowhere near as influential on the pitch, or in the dressing room, as Buffon and it makes sense to leave the Azzurri's current No. 1 where he is.
Matteo Darmian at Right-Back
As anyone who's seen him the last two seasons at Torino will tell you, Matteo Darmian isn't quite the surprise that some people found him to be for Italy.
The 24-year-old has developed slowly and steadily, after being allowed to leave Milan for Palermo in 2010, almost a decade after he joined the youth system at the Rossoneri. The coaching staff at Milanello obviously felt at the time that Ignazio Abate was a better bet but now it looks like Darmian's the more complete player.
Abate will certainly remain part of the Italy setup, not least because he can be very effective going forward down the flank, but it's his former teammate who offers more defensively and who is more tactically flexible.
Darmian only made his international debut in Italy's pre-World Cup friendly against Ireland, but it looks like he's got a bright future ahead of him for the Nazionale and it wouldn't be a shock if a bigger club made a move for him this summer, either.
Difficult Calls to Make at Centre-Back
Andrea Barzagli has been a dependable servant for Italy since 2004, but at 33, it's time for whoever will be in charge of Italy for Euro 2016 to look for new options. His partnership with Giorgio Chiellini has been a staple for the Azzurri for years, and when playing with a three-man defence the Juventus back line was always the obvious choice, bringing in Leonardo Bonucci.
Bonucci is 27, so he's got plenty of football left in him. And alongside Chiellini, they're the safest bet for centre-back, because no other pairing will understand one another, or Buffon in goal, as well and they can.
Elsewhere, Andrea Ranocchia continues to confuse and though he hasn't delivered on his early promise, he's likely to get more chances for Italy and Inter to develop into the defender that was once labelled the "New Nesta."
Parma's Gabriel Paletta deserves more opportunities with the national side, because at club-level he was among the top few defenders in Italy last season. Cagliari's Davide Astori is also worth consideration.
Mattia De Sciglio at Left-Back
He's nowhere near the finished article, and he has played more on the right for his club, but Milan's Mattia De Sciglio should now take over full-time at left-back.
The 21-year-old is one of the hottest prospects in Serie A and great things are expected, so he deserves the time to grow with the national team during the qualification process for Euro 2016 and make the position his own.
In a perfect world, he'd be allowed to stay on the right, but Italy's paucity of options on the opposite flank—and the fact that Darmian is clearly more comfortable on the right—means that De Sciglio is the most obvious solution, assuming Italy don't want to continue with playing Chiellini out of position.
Danilo D'Ambrosio was impressive for Torino, but he has stuttered since joining Inter. If he can return to the kind of form he showed for Toro, he'll be in contention for a place and would offer the new coach some flexibility as he's comfortable on both flanks, having played regularly as both a full-back or wing-back and is two-footed.
Injury spoiled the year for Roma's Federico Balzaretti, and at 32 he's not a long-term option, but if he can come back and prove that he's still effective on the flank for his club, he can play a part for the Azzurri, too, because this is one position where they're short on options.
Daniele De Rossi, Riccardo Montolivo and Marco Verratti in the Middle
Assuming that Andrea Pirlo retires, Daniele De Rossi, Riccardo Montolivo and Marco Verratti are the best options in the centre for Italy ahead of Euro 2016.
De Rossi and Verratti were both impressive with Pirlo in Italy's opening game, when Prandelli decided to use a double-playmaker system to increase the Azzurri's passing power and keep their opponent's guessing. It worked, and with the players that the new coach will have to hand, continuing that system makes sense.
The Roma midfielder's passing prowess is under-rated, and he was actually the most effective distributor of the ball in Serie A last season, completing more passes on average per game than anyone else, per WhoScored.com. He makes the middle tick and provides much-needed defensive cover that allow his teammates to focus on attacking.
At just 21, Verratti is already one of Europe's best midfielders and should now be made a permanent fixture for the national team.
Riccardo Montolivo was cruelly denied a World Cup appearance by an injury against Ireland right before the tournament, but at 29, he's still young enough to be considered a long-term part of the Azzurri. The Milan midfielder is no Pirlo, but he can play an important role nonetheless.
It's difficult to see Paris Saint-Germain's Thiago Motta meriting a starting berth if everyone's fit, but as defensively-minded cover for De Rossi he'll likely be part of the Euro 2016 squad as well.
An Injection of Youth on the Right
It's a shame that we didn't see more of Torino's Alessio Cerci with Ciro Immobile at this World Cup, especially after the season that the pair had together at Toro. Hopefully, in the qualification for the next European Championships, Cerci can continue his club form from last season and make a bigger mark for the national side.
Elsewhere, Lazio's Antonio Candreva should keep his place in the squad, but with an eye on the future it's now time to see what Roma's Alessandro Florenzi and Sassuolo's Domenico Berardi can offer.
Both are very different players, but the pair are flexible and are used in a number of different roles at club level—something that can be an advantage for Italy's new coach as he explores his tactical options.
Florenzi's energetic style and his ability to be a threat in the box either on his own or through setting up his teammates would have been useful in Brazil and should now play a bigger part in the Azzurri's future.
Berardi needs more time to develop, even if he did grab plenty of headlines with some of his displays for Sassuolo last season. The Juventus-owned forward can be explosive and prolific, but he remains inconsistent and needs to mature more as a player before he's a nailed-on starter for the national side.
With these three, the next manager will have some exciting options on the right side of his attack and it would add three players who can all cover in different roles, because Candreva and Florenzi can contribute in midfield, and Berardi is comfortable in a striker's role.
Leave the Left to Lorenzo Insigne
Napoli's Lorenzo Insigne was one of Prandelli's less obvious picks for this World Cup squad, but the 23-year-old is undoubtedly one of Italy's most exciting young talents and he merits an extended period as a first-team starter to see if he can recreate his club magic for the Azzurri.
Like several of the young editions to this squad, the Neapolitan needs to grow into the role and improve his consistency, but the diminutive forward is Italy's best option on the left and should be given time.
Juve's Marchisio can cover on the flank, having been used on the left by Prandelli, but the 29-year-old is better in a central role and prefers to play deeper.
Giuseppe Rossi in the Centre, with Mattia Destro as Deputy
The Balotelli backlash continues in Italy, and after blowing hot and cold in Brazil and showing more of the petulance and difficult character for which he's become famous, now's the right time to leave the Milan star out of the Italy squad.
A break will allow Balo the time and space he needs to prove that he can still become the great player he promised to be. It will also allow the new manager to work on squad harmony and try out new options without having to constantly work by micro-managing his star striker and having one eye on a potentially destabilising influence.
Until then, Fiorentina's Giuseppe Rossi will pick up the slack. His exclusion from Italy's final squad for Brazil remains the subject of much debate in Italy, and there's little doubt that if he really had been fit, the Azzurri would have been a lot more productive in front of goal.
But while Rossi can be brilliant, he's also fragile so Italy won't be able to put all their hopes in the American-born striker.
Roma's Mattia Destro deserves a bigger part with the national side, having come back from injury with his club to become of the most prolific forwards in Europe last season, per minutes played.
Out of Balotelli's shadow, Ciro Immobile should also shine. The former Torino star has had an up-and-down career so far, being as brilliant for Pescara and Toro as he was poor for Genoa, but assuming his Bundesliga move is a success and he plays regularly for the Germans, he'll have a vital role to play in Italy's fortunes over the next few years.
Prandelli used a lot of fringe figures in Italy's friendlies, to try new formations and to give the players a chance to prove themselves worthy of consideration.
If the new coach continues in this fashion, it will be interesting to see who else he calls up. As of yet, few of Devis Mangia's charges from the 2013 under-21 European Championships have made an impact on either Serie A or the Nazionale, with the obvious exceptions of Verratti, Florenzi, Immobile, Insigne and Destro.
Of that bunch, Fabio Borini, in particular, is a player who could finally deliver on his early promise and make an impact for club and country. The 23-year-old has been off the boil since leaving Roma for Liverpool in 2012, but he did show signs of his old self in the latter stages of last season while on loan at Sunderland.
Sampdoria's Manolo Gabbiadini is another player who the coach should be watching closely. He's 23, and perhaps yet to find his best position, but his intelligence, adaptability and ability on the ball is there for all to see.
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