The World Cup starts in less than 48 hours. As usual, Azzurri fans will be wringing their hands, having hushed conversations about Italy’s chances and sweating the team’s poor form leading up to the tournament.
They crashed out of the Confederations Cup early and haven’t looked great in the pre-tournament friendlies. That said, they managed to get through qualification without losing a game and finished first in Group Eight.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the Italy squad’s strengths and weaknesses heading into the World Cup and their chances of repeating as champions.
With Italy’s lack of dependence on one stellar player, this team can effectively mix and match their lineup until they find a combination or individual player who is on form and ready to steal the spotlight.
Marcello Lippi knows how to win. He has won league titles, a Champions League title and, most importantly, a World Cup. He has proven to be tactically diverse and can win without having the superior talent in a match.
There are at least 7 players on this year’s squad who played a major role in winning the World Cup in 2006. There are several others who were on the squad, but didn’t play major roles at the time. This experience, if coupled with youthful energy, could help Italy through some tough games.
While some countries have to pull players from weaker domestic leagues or second-rate foreign leagues, this is not the case for the Azzurri. All of Italy’s players ply their trade in a top-notch European league and are therefore used to playing top-level competition.
There was a collective sigh on the peninsula when Italy found out they would be in a group with New Zealand, Paraguay and the Slovakia. They are easily the most talented team in the group, so have a real chance to finish first or second.
Unfortunately for Lippi’s squad, they have looked terrible in the two friendlies leading up to the World Cup. Mexico dominated the run of play against them and Switzerland played them to a disappointing draw that highlighted some of their weaknesses.
They left their most offensively creative players at home. Fabrizio Miccoli, Antonio Cassano, and Fancesco Totti are all among the Serie A leaders in Assists per 90 minutes of play, and yet they were all left off the squad. Lippi selected three of Italy’s best finishers in Pazzini, Di Natale and Iaquinta, but may not have anyone to provide them the proper service.
Despite having a central defensive trio of Fabio Cannavaro, Georgio Chiellini and Gigi Buffon, who play together at Juventus, the defense looks disorganized and frequently out of place. As we heavily debated on the Pink Shirt Wise Guys podcast , it may be time to add someone new into Cannavaro’s place.
In the last friendly against Switzerland, Lippi had the Azzurri line up in a traditional 4-4-2 shape. Unfortunately, Italy doesn’t have the wide midfielders on this squad to run such a formation effectively. The players on this team are likely better suited to a 4-3-1-2 or a 4-2-3-1, depending on the opponent.
The Castrol Index gives Italy a 3.7% chance of winning the World Cup, a 17.9% chance of getting to the Semi-Finals and a 43.8% chance of making the Quarter Finals.
Given the pros and cons above, I don’t see it being too difficult for the Azzurri to qualify from their group.
If Italy wins their first knockout round, they could face Spain, Portugal or Brazil in the second knockout round (quarterfinals), depending on how the other groups shake out.
Realistically, I could see Italy in the quarter finals but will need a phenomenal game to knock off the likes of Brazil, Spain or Portugal. Italy will have to draw on all their tactical variety and discipline to pull off the upset.
My prediction is for the Azzurri to lose in penalty kicks in the quarterfinals, but I hope they can gel in time to make me look stupid.