Italy: A Look at Potential Successors to the Azzurri's Old Guard

Sam LoprestiFeatured ColumnistJune 27, 2014

Italy: A Look at Potential Successors to the Azzurri's Old Guard

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    The Italian national team's setup will likely experience significant changes over the next World Cup cycle.
    The Italian national team's setup will likely experience significant changes over the next World Cup cycle.Claudio Villa/Getty Images

    After crashing out of the World Cup in the group stage for the second consecutive World Cup, you can expect some major changes in the setup of the Italian national team.

    Many people thought going into this tournament that it might be the last hurrah for the last of the old guard that took part in the run to the 2006 championship.

    The Azzurri will certainly have a lot of soul-searching to do in the coming months.  Lots of questions will be asked about the makeup of the squad as the team looks ahead to Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

    Will older players make way for the next generation?  Or can they still be useful to the team going forward?

    In this piece we'll look at Italy in all four phases of the game—goalkeeping, defense, midfield and forwards—and see how a transition from the old stalwarts to the new blood might look.

Goalkeeper

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    Gigi Buffon denies Luis Suarez in the first half of Italy's clash with Uruguay.
    Gigi Buffon denies Luis Suarez in the first half of Italy's clash with Uruguay.Julian Finney/Getty Images

    One of the few positives Italy can take out of this World Cup is that Gianluigi Buffon is not going the way of Iker Casillas.

    While the Spanish icon looked like a shell of himself for the defending champions, Buffon showed that he is still among the world's best.  He did look the slightest bit rusty against Costa Rica, but he still made the plays he needed to make.  Against Uruguay that rust was gone.  He made a world-class double save in the 33rd minute to deny first Luis Suarez and then Nicolas Lodeiro.  In the second half he won a one-on-one battle with Suarez to keep the game scoreless.

    There was nothing any keeper could have done to keep out either of the goals he conceded.

    Squwaka.com recorded that he was successful on all of his punch attempts and completed 90 percent of his passes from goal.  These are the numbers of a man who is still elite.

    With that in mind, it doesn't look like the guard will be changing between the sticks—at least not right away.  Barring an unexpected announcement, Buffon is likely to be Italy's No. 1 through Euro 2016 at the very least.  It would not be a surprise if he even played in Russia.  Italian goalkeepers like Buffon and Dino Zoff tend to age well.

    Should Buffon hang up his gloves before the Euros—or if Father Time finally catches up to him—Italy has quality options.

    Salvatore Sirigu played a fantastic game against England in the stead of an injured Buffon and would be the first choice to replace him.  His window to be a long-term starter, however, depends on how long Buffon remains the starter.

    Sirigu will be 31 by the time the next World Cup comes around, and he will have to fend off competition from one of the most promising groups of young keepers Italy has seen in a while.

    By the time they're fully developed, Simone Scuffet, Nicola Leali, Francesco Bardi and Mattia Perin all have the potential to be international No. 1s.  Perin in particular is the leading candidate amongst those four up-and-comers to take the starter's spot.  By the time Buffon and Sirigu are out of the picture, he's the likeliest candidate the starter's gloves.

Defenders

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    Giorgio Chiellini (left) and Mattia De Sciglio (No. 5) will be cornerstones of Italy's defensive line in the next cycle.
    Giorgio Chiellini (left) and Mattia De Sciglio (No. 5) will be cornerstones of Italy's defensive line in the next cycle.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    The Italian defense is in a strange generational shift.

    The last of the old guard on the flanks had their last hurrah in 2010 (Gianluca Zambrotta) and at last year's Confederations Cup (Christian Maggio).  It seems that the next generation has firmly taken their places for the next four years.

    On the right, Matteo Darmian was the revelation of the tournament for Italy.  He is likely to be courted by some of Italy's biggest clubs when the transfer window opens and will be the favorite to start at right-back during the Euro qualifiers.  He needs a bit of polish going forward, but his combination with Antoino Candreva against England was the most dynamic Italy looked all tournament.  Both of the goals Italy scored in the group originated on that side.

    On the other side Mattia De Sciglio made the other full-back spot his.  De Sciglio is naturally a right-sided player but like Darmian can play on either flank with equal skill.  He only played one game in this tournament due to injury and his absence was keenly felt.  It forced Cesare Prandelli to tinker with his setup, with mixed results.

    Giorgio Chiellini played as an emergency left-back against England, a position he shouldn't play with regularity.  Against Costa Rica Prandelli avoided this by installing Ignazio Abate on the right and moving Darmian to the left, which had the unwanted side effect of separating Darmian and Candreva—a potentially fatal blow to the Italian attack.

    De Sciglio on the left and Darmian on the right will likely be the best pair of full-backs going forward.  In this case, the next generation has already taken command.

    In the center things are less certain.

    Giorgio Chiellini is one of the five best center backs in the world and will almost definitely anchor the line through Russia.  Who will partner him is not as clear.  Andrea Barzagli, the last of the defenders who won the 2006 World Cup, is almost certainly too old at 33 to take part in another major tournament.

    This is where things become atypical, at least in Italy.  The next generation of Italian center backs have yet to come into their own at the top-flight level.  Players like Daniele Rugani and Alberto Masi (both Juventus properties) and Edoardo Goldaniga (co-owned by Juventus and Palermo) have yet to play a top-flight season.  Luca Antei (Sassuolo) and Federico Ceccherini (Livorno) have only one under their belts.

    To partner Chiellini, Italy will likely have to rely on the current generation.  Leonardo Bonucci becomes the odds-on favorite being familiar with him as his club teammate.  Bonucci is still prone to the occasional mental lapse but his defending has quietly improved, especially this season.  He also has a claim to the title of best ball-playing center back in the game.  It's interesting to speculate what his passing abilities from the back may have been able to do in a game like the Costa Rica match.

    He has developed something of a reputation as a three-man-line specialist since Antonio Conte installed the 3-5-2 at Juventus, but that label could disappear.  If Juve moves in the direction most people expect them to, he will likely be playing in a 4-3-3 at least some of the time this year.

    Behind him, Italy has some talented players, like Davide Astori or Angelo Ogbonna, but they are inexperienced with seven and nine caps, respectively.  If one of them grabs the Serie A by the scruff of the neck in the next few years we may see them nose their way in, but right now they, and the rest of the current generation of center backs, are the main options until the younger men start to make an impression.

Midfield

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    Andrea Pirlo has played his last game for Italy...we think.
    Andrea Pirlo has played his last game for Italy...we think.Julian Finney/Getty Images

    The midfield has two major spaces where a changing of the guard may happen.

    The first is the case of Andrea Pirlo.  The midfield maestro had announced that he would be retiring from international competition after this World Cup, but the bitter disappointment of this tournament may have changed that.

    Upon Italy's return home from Brazil, Sky Sports reported that Pirlo told congregated journalists that he would be at the disposal of Italy's new manager should he "consider it to be right."

    Should Pirlo's retirement remain final, his successor is clear.  Marco Verratti will take over as the team's playmaker.  He has proven over the last two years at Paris Saint-Germain that his breathtaking ability to control a game was not merely a byproduct of Zdenek Zeman's all-out-attack style at Pescara.  He is a genuine star and proved at this World Cup that he belongs.  Until coming off with serious cramps he was Italy's best outfield player against Uruguay.

    The other major opportunity to change the watch is Daniele De Rossi.  The Azzurri's midfield warrior is three caps away from becoming just the second midfielder to become a centurion for Italy, but he's also 30 years old.  He has shown no real signs of slowing down, but it must be considered if Italy wants to take a 34-year-old midfielder to Russia.

    Unlike Pirlo, De Rossi's usual role in midfield requires a lot of running.  Few possess the stamina of the Roma man, but age may make the decision for him.

    The rest of the current crop of midfielders are in that in-between stage of their international careers.  Claudio Marchisio and Antonio Candreva are 28 and 27, respectively.  They may still be at the height of their powers come 2018, but they will likely have to fend off competition from younger players like Roma's Alessandro Florenzi.

    Beyond the Roma man, however, few of the players currently plying their trade at Italy's various junior levels are playing in the top flight.  It may be that a full transition to the Verratti/Florenzi generation won't come around until the Euros or beyond.

Forwards

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    What is Balotelli's future with the national team?
    What is Balotelli's future with the national team?Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

    This World Cup wiped out the old guard at forward once and for all after two uninspired performances by Antonio Cassano.  The Parma player had been to two European Championships but never a World Cup, and he did not justify Prandelli's decision to take him to Brazil over Giuseppe Rossi.

    Cassano excepted, none of the forwards Italy took to the World Cup were older than 26.  None of the other forwards on the preliminary roster were older than 27.

    It's safe to say that the new guard is already here on the forward line.  How they develop over the next four years will be key to how Italy plays in their next tournaments.

    There is a glut of young forwards about to break through at high levels.  Mattia Destro, finally healthy after a lost first year at Roma, broke out with 13 goals this year.  Lorenzo Insigne, though unimpressive against Costa Rica, is an exciting seconda punta who can create in advanced areas.  Ciro Immobile has just come into his own at age 24.  All three were on Prandelli's provisional roster.

    Even outside of Italy's provisional roster talent is coming in spades.  Manolo Gabbiadini scored eight times this season for Sampdoria and can play both on the wing and as a striker.

    The jewel of them all may be Domenico Berardi, who scored 16 times and assisted six more in his first top-flight season this year and was one of 40-odd players called to Coverciano in April for physical testing.

    The biggest question about this new breed of Italian forward, of course, is what to do with Mario Balotelli.

    The 23-year-old may be the most naturally gifted attacker Italy has at its disposal, but mercurial doesn't even begin to describe him.  When he wants to be, he can be a force of nature.  When he's not in the game, he becomes a double booking waiting to happen.

    With Prandelli out as manager, Balotelli has likely lost his strongest supporter.  The lack of punch in Italy's last two games will be blamed squarely on him, and he may have to go back into the league and earn his place back when the new manager is named.

    Balotelli's time with the national team is not over—nor should it be.  It's unlikely, however, that he'll be the automatic focal point in the near future.  He could still lead Italy's new guard to a fifth star—if he gets his head on straight.