Cesare Prandelli has done an excellent job of disguising his intentions ahead of Italy’s World Cup opener against England. The manager of the Azzurri tinkered constantly with his team selection and tactics during pre-tournament friendlies, rotating through at least three different formations in last week’s 1-1 draw with Luxembourg and then making nine substitutions against Fluminense.
In both cases he was experimenting, testing out new schemes and seeing which players worked together most effectively. But he has also been quite explicit in stating that he does not want Italy’s opponents to know what to expect from his team.
“If you lot didn’t understand what we’re planning, then that means we’re on the right track,” Prandelli told reporters during a press conference last week (quotes in Italian via Corriere dello Sport). “Because, jokes aside, we don’t want anybody to understand anything.”
Helping his cause was Ciro Immobile. The Borussia Dortmund striker has claimed centre stage since scoring a hat-trick in that 5-3 win over Fluminense. Billed as the next Toto Schillaci, he has just two full international caps to his name, but many fans now believe he could be Italy’s secret weapon in Brazil.
And yet, it is highly unlikely that Immobile will start against England. Although Mario Balotelli’s form has been indifferent for Milan this year, he was Italy’s top goalscorer in qualifying and has rarely let Prandelli down in the matches that matter. The manager had made it clear that he does not believe the two forwards are suited to playing alongside one another, via La Repubblica (quotes in Italian).
Immobile will still have a role to play, offering an important alternative to Balotelli as the tournament progresses. In the short term, though, his greatest contribution might have been to draw attention away from another rising star. Matteo Darmian made his Italy debut just two weeks ago against Ireland but already appears to have earned a place in Prandelli’s starting XI.
The Torino full-back, a team-mate of Immobile’s at club level last season, had not even been expected to make it into the initial 30-man squad. But from the moment he arrived at Italy’s pre-tournament training base in Coverciano, the 24-year-old has dazzled coaches with his energy and verve.
Prandelli demands a high work rate from his full-backs, who are expected to get forward and provide attacking width to a side that otherwise might lack it. Darmian, accustomed to playing as a wing-back in Torino’s 3-5-2, boasts not only the speed and crossing ability that the manager craves, but also good height for his position at almost 6'0".
Diligent in his defensive duties, Darmian continues to benefit from the footballing education he received at Milan, whose youth system he joined at 11 years old.
Deployed predominantly as a centre-back by the Rossoneri’s academy coaches, he modelled his game after the likes of Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini. He trained alongside both men with the senior team for three seasons before being loaned out and eventually sold.
But the player Darmian has been compared to most often in recent days is not one of his former Milan team-mates. Instead, reporters have likened his career path to that of Antonio Cabrini, the great Juventus full-back who was part of Italy’s World Cup-winning side in 1982.
Four years prior to that experience, Cabrini made his international debut in a World Cup finals match. Italy’s then-manager, Enzo Bearzot, had been monitoring the player for several months before the 1978 tournament in Argentina but, much like Prandelli with his formations today, preferred to keep some secrets under wraps.
He gave Cabrini just a single run-out before the tournament in the second half of a tune-up match against Argentinian club side Deportivo Italiano. Much like Italy’s game against Fluminense this month, this was not a formally sanctioned fixture, meaning that it did not count as an official debut.
What it did do, though, was allow Bearzot to confirm his impressions of the player. In Italy’s very next training session, Cabrini found himself working with the starting team—having replaced Aldo Maldera at left-back.
Just a few days later, he would be part of the side that beat France 2-1 in Italy’s opening World Cup fixture. Cabrini never looked back, playing in every match as the Azzurri battled their way to a fourth-place finish. He was recognized by FIFA afterward as the best young player at the tournament.
It would be presumptuous to imagine that Darmian will follow precisely in his footsteps. But there is certainly a good chance that the Torino player could start every game for Italy this summer. Prandelli only included two other full-time full-backs in his squad, and neither of Ignazio Abate or Mattia De Sciglio is coming off a strong season at club level.
Darmian outshone both players during the draw with Ireland, launching himself forward with enthusiasm and teeing up one cross after another. Although more subdued in the 5-3 win over Fluminense, he was still the best of that bunch.
The challenge against England should be a whole lot steeper. Darmian can play on either side but is expected to start at right-back, which might even mean lining up opposite Wayne Rooney. It is a tall order for a player whose only experience of continental competition so far was a brief Europa League run with Palermo in 2010-11. His manager, though, is unfazed.
“Our young players give us enthusiasm and exuberance, we picked them for this reason,” said Prandelli during his press conference on Friday (quotes in Italian via Tuttosport). “But I will give you one name above all: Darmian. He arrived on the quiet and is winning everybody over."
That was all he would say on the matter. After all, Prandelli would not want to give the game away too soon.