Euro 2016: Previewing Italy's Road to the European Championships
After another disappointing World Cup, the Italian national team will once again start to reboot itself on the road to the European Championships.
Cesare Prandelli totally reinvented the team in the run-up to Euro 2012, and the side made a surprising run to the final of the tournament. He was due to guide the Azzurri to the tournament in France, but Italy's flop in Brazil—due in large part to the former commissario tecnico's tactical errors and general loss of nerve—saw him resign from his post.
With FIGC also without a leader—president Giancarlo Abete also resigned after Italy was eliminated from the Cup—a new coach won't be named until August, when a new president is selected.
Until we know who the next man in the hot seat is we don't know how Italy will play or who will be on the squad. But with a little more than a month to go until a potentially tricky qualifying opener in Oslo, Norway, it's time to start looking at the Azzurri's opponents and how the Italians can navigate their way through a fairly strong group and back to the Euros for the sixth consecutive time.
Let's take a look at Italy's opponents on the road to France, as well as a few unanswered questions about the Azzurri themselves.
Italy's Unanswered Questions
It's impossible to figure out what kind of team the Italians will be until their new coach is named.
The favorites for the job are former Roma and Zenit St. Petersburg manager Luciano Spalletti, former Inter and Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini and recently available former Juventus coach Antonio Conte. Whoever does take the job will have to answer some big questions like these:
What will be done with Italy's veterans?
Goalkeeper and captain Gianluigi Buffon will be 38 by the time the Euro proper comes around.
He is not the pure shot-stopper that he was eight years ago when he dominated the 2006 World Cup. That said, he showed in Italy's final World Cup game against Uruguay that he can still stymie the world's best strikers.
He pulled a spectacular double save in the first half and denied Luis Suarez in a one-on-one after the striker had been sent clean through on goal.
Without him, Italy would have been out of the game much, much sooner. He has no equal in the ability to organize a defense and is still better as a complete goalkeeper than all but a handful of men in the world.
On the other hand, Salvatore Sirigu handled his short-notice understudy appearance in the opener against England with elan and has been excellent at PSG since his arrival from Palermo.
There will be a lot of push to completely reinvent the team, including the squad. The decision must be made as to whether Buffon will lead the team through the Euros or step aside.
The captain isn't the only older player who observers may push to purge.
Daniele De Rossi will be 33 by the time play begins in France.
Midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo, the linchpin of the team's attack for more than a decade, softened his stance on international retirement after the World Cup. But he'll be 37 in 2016, the extreme conditions in Brazil obviously took a toll on him and his clear successor, Marco Verratti, showed at the World Cup that he is absolutely ready to carry the team.
The question of experience vs. youth is always tough for national teams, especially in the situation that the Azzurri find themselves in with one generation winding down their careers and the next not yet fully emerged.
The new coach will have to decide if these players—key pieces for so many years—can still contribute or if they're done.
What to do with Mario Balotelli?
Mario Balotelli is one of the most maddening players in Italian history. He is probably the most gifted forward Italy have, but he can check out at the most inopportune times. Like the World Cup when his country's hopes rest on his shoulder.
Balotelli's form with AC Milan last season wasn't all that great. Few players were exemplary for the Rossoneri last term, but there were warning signs that he wasn't in a good phase. They turned out to be prophetic.
After his game-winning goal against England, he missed two clear chances against Costa Rica. Then his service dried up. As is so often the case in that situation, Bad Mario came out. Frustrated and out of control, he earned his second booking of the tournament against Uruguay and was hauled off at half-time.
There are options beyond him. Ciro Immobile could be given the chance to truly shine as an international. Giuseppe Rossi could have been a difference-maker at the World Cup but was left off the roster due to fitness concerns. Mattia Destro had a fine season at Roma and could be the country's next breakout star.
Balotelli has all the talent in the world, but it means nothing if his head isn't on straight. The next coach will have to decide whether to give him some time out of the setup to get himself right or whether to rely on him again. The former option is likely the better one.
Opponent 1: Croatia
FIFA World Rank: 17
Best/Worst Ranking: 3/125
Coach: Niko Kovac
Captain: Darijo Srna
Last World Cup: Group Stage
Last European Championship: Group Stage
Head-to-Head Record* (W-D-L): 1-3-3
Last 5 Matches: WWLWL
* From Italian perspective
Of all the Pot 2 teams, Italy probably wanted to avoid the Vatreni most.
The Azzurri have never beaten Croatia in a competitive match. Nor have the Italians beaten them since the country became an independent nation again after the breakup of Yugoslavia.
History is clearly not on Italy's side.
Italy are also about to catch Croatia at the worst-possible time. The Vatreni still feel aggrieved after referee Yuichi Nishimura's stupendously bad performance in their World Cup opener against Brazil denied them a deserved point and severely altered their chances of qualifying for the knockout stages.
They have the players to give a vulnerable Italian side a big headache in this group.
Midfield dynamo Luka Modric can take over a game. Mario Mandzukic has big-match experience from Bayern Munich's Champions League title run two seasons ago, and his absence from the Brazil match could have been decisive. The center-back pairing of Dejan Lovren and Vedran Corluka are in their primes.
There are, however, a few question marks. The biggest one is in goal, where Stipe Pletikosa has played his last game. His backups on the World Cup roster had a combined total of six caps. An inexperienced goalkeeper could get shredded by a team of Italy's quality.
Another issue is the team's mental makeup. Croatia had the chance to advance last month in spite of the Brazil game, but they melted down late against Mexico. They let in three goals in 18 minutes, and substitute Ante Rebic saw a straight red card.
To regain the heights they reached in 1998 when they finished third at the World Cup, they need to keep a more even keel on the field.
Croatia have great potential. They hard done by against Brazil and two years ago were unlucky to be drawn into a group with Italy and Spain. But the new format of the Euro could give them a big boost, and they'll be keen to finally break through.
If there were any questions as to how seriously FIGC is taking the Croatians, observe the fact that the match between the two countries in November has been slated for the San Siro—a ground reserved for the most important of games.
Opponent 2: Norway
FIFA World Rank: 53
Best/Worst Ranking: 2/60
Coach: Per-Mathias Hogmo
Captain: Brede Hangeland
Last World Cup: DNQ (Last appearance: 1998, Round of 16)
Last European Championship: DNQ (Last appearance: 2000, Group Stage)
Head-to-Head Record (W-D-L): 8-4-3
Last 5 Matches: WDLDL
Norway is one of those middle-of-the-road sides that Italy should be expected to beat. There aren't any truly excellent players on the roster, although captain Brede Hangeland and midfielder Morten Gamst Pedersen bring a wealth of experience with a combined 171 caps.
Norway wasted a chance at getting to their first World Cup since 1998 during qualifying. Having been drawn into the most open group in the field, they ended up finishing fourth.
Five dropped points in winnable games against Albania was the difference between them and playoff-bound Iceland in second place. The failure saw legendary manager Egil Olson, in his second stint with the team, cede his place to coach Per-Mathias Hogmo.
Norway does have a claim to fame as the only team in history to have an unbeaten record against Brazil, but they've lost eight of the 15 games they've played against Italy and haven't beaten them since 2000.
They could be tricky, especially in the opening game of the competition at home, but are a side that Italy will be expected to handle.
Opponent 3: Bulgaria
Nickname: The Lions
FIFA World Rank: 72
Best/Worst Ranking: 8/96
Coach: Lyuboslav Penev
Captain: Ivelin Popov
Last World Cup: DNQ (Last appearance: 1998, Group Stage)
Last European Championship: DNQ (Last appearance: 2004, Group Stage)
Head-to-Head Record (W-D-L): 10-5-2
Last 5 Matches: WLLWD
Italy and Bulgaria are well-acquainted with each other, having been drawn together in qualifying for each of the last two World Cups.
Both of those campaigns followed similar themes. The first game was played at the the Vasil Levski National Stadium in Sofia, with the teams splitting the points. When the return leg was played the next year, the Azzurri kept clean sheets at home and went home with a victory.
The Lions are a mostly home-based side. In their last listed international squad, 14 of 23 players plied their trade for Bulgarian clubs. There is the odd club from Western Europe mixed into the playing pool, but few of the regulars play west of Turkey.
One major exception was former captain Stiliyan Petrov, who split 15 seasons between Celtic and Aston Villa. The loss of Petrov to a leukemia diagnosis in 2012 was a major blow to the team's World Cup qualifying campaign.
The Bulgarians entered the last day of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in second place in Group B but ranked last of the second-place clubs.
They needed a big win against the Czech Republic coupled with some help from other groups to move on. Coach Lyuboslav Penev sent his men out in an extreme attacking stance, but holes were left in the defense.
The Czechs eventually scored in the 51st minute and dropped from second to fourth.
Bulgaria are a side that can cause a big side trouble, but there are some problems, particularly up front.
It has been four years since Dimitar Berbatov played an international match, and the Bulgarians still have yet to find a consistent goalscorer to replace him.
The forwards that have been called up in the last 12 months have combined for 17 goals in 123 combined appearances. That's not good enough to earn qualification for a major tournament.
Bulgaria is one of the teams that benefits the most from the expansion of the Euros. There are now eight more spots to claim, and a team that consistently finishes third or fourth in their qualifying groups now have a chance to get themselves into the tournament if they get the right breaks.
The Lions will be a candidate to make that leap. The Levski National Stadium is a formidable ground. The Bulgarians have only lost one World Cup qualifier at home in the last two cycles. If they can keep that record going, they will have a chance to make the draw.
Italy, however, haven't lost to them for 23 years. They will be expected to take at least four points out of the two games.
Opponent 4: Azerbaijan
FIFA World Rank: 73
Best/Worst Ranking: 73/170
Coach: Berti Vogts
Captain: Rashad Sadygov
Last World Cup: DNQ (Never qualified)
Last European Championship: DNQ (Never qualified)
Head-to-Head Record (W-D-L): 2-0-0
Last 5 Matches: DWDLD
Being the 73rd-ranked team in the world may not seem like something worth celebrating. But for Azerbaijan—which has only been an independent nation since 1991 and has a population roughly one million larger than the five boroughs of New York City—reaching that height is quite an achievement.
The Milli have achieved their highest ranking in their history under Berti Vogts. The German, who led his native country for eight years and won Euro 1996, has managed Azerbaijan since 2008.
He and his team made waves during qualifying for Euro 2012 when Azerbaijan pulled off a shocking 1-0 upset against 2008 semifinalists Turkey. He then led the team to a best-ever fourth-place finish in qualifying for the most recent World Cup.
In the final match of the tournament, against Russia, the Azerbaijanis grabbed a shock equalizer to level the score at 1-1 in stoppage time. The next few minutes were heart-stopping for Russian fans, who needed at least a draw to win the group over Portugal.
Azerbaijan's roster is mostly home-based, with a few players plying their trade in Turkey and Germany.
It's a mix of young and old players that have taken Vogts' guidance and turned it into the best form their country has ever seen from their national team.
They're in a tough group, but they could cause a Norway or a Bulgaria some trouble.
Italy, on the other hand, should have no problem with this group. In the only meetings between the two clubs, during qualifying for Euro 2004, the Italians won both games by a combined score of 6-0. Don't expect anything less here.
Opponent 5: Malta
Nickname: Knights of Malta
FIFA World Rank: 150
Best/Worst Ranking: 66/173
Coach: Pietro Ghedin
Captain: Michael Mifsud
Last World Cup: DNQ (Never qualified)
Last European Championship: DNQ (Never qualified)
Head-to-Head Record (W-D-L): 6-0-0
Last 5 Matches: LLWLL
Perennial minnows Malta draw the Italians for the second consecutive qualifying campaign. In World Cup qualifying they fell to Italy by identical 2-0 scorelines and finished last in the group, their lone points coming in a surprise win against Armenia.
The Maltese do boast a player who is fun to watch in captain Michael Mifsud, who has scored 39 goals in 104 caps for teams that have served exclusively as Europe's whipping boys.
The highest-profile Maltese player in history reached his peak with Coventry City in the English Championship, scoring 16 times in league play. He gained notoriety in 2007 when he scored twice in an FA Cup upset of Manchester United, prompting Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport to dub him "Il Messi di Malta."
It's hard to see Malta scoring any points in this group. Even Azerbaijan are far ahead of the tiny island nation. If Italy even give up a goal to them, it would be a huge upset.