June 12, 2014 – the biggest carnival in the world kicks off in the land of carnivals. We are less than a year away from the World Cup in Brazil, so let’s take a look at the early favourites for the biggest prize in world football.
I‘ll be covering different countries in this six part series. The performances of the teams over the last decade have been taken into account.
In part one I take a look at Italy.
The Nerazzuri have had a tumultuous few years on the international as well as the domestic scene. But in the typical Italian fashion of “Eseguiamo quando le spalle sono contro il muro” (We perform when our backs are against the wall), the Italians have had some eventful international tournaments since 2006.
It all started at the fag-end of 2005 when several Italian clubs were accused of rigging games by selecting favourable referees. The ‘Calciopoli’ tarnished the reputation of Italian football and left the morale of the team at an all-time low.
But what followed, was one of the greatest responses by a football team culminating in the lifting of the World Cup in Berlin. Sadly, the days to follow would push Italian football to its nadir.
A similar situation erupted in early 2012 and again the Italian team rose like a phoenix to reach the finals of Euro 2012, consigning the ignominious first round exit at the 2010 World Cup to history.
Add to that, the recent performance of the team in the just concluded Confederations Cup, one senses the team is on the rise.
Cesare Prandelli has fashioned a tactically tight Italian outfit, which relies on discipline and a little bit of flair to win games. Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli form the spine of his first team, which has been supplemented with the right mix of youth and experience.
The Italians no longer employ the famed ‘Catenaccio’ (the chain), but are difficult to score against nonetheless. A backline featuring Andrea Barzagli, Davide Astori, Angelo Ogbonna, Leonardo Bonucci and Chiellini offers consistency and experience.
The presence of Mattia De Sciglio, aged 20, is a breath of fresh air among down the flanks. While Buffon isn’t getting any younger, he commands the penalty area and the backline in front of him.
The foundations of all good teams are laid on a good defence. Hence, the presence of this stable backline in next year’s World Cup is crucial.
Prandelli has built his midfield with Pirlo as its pivot. He is the playmaker and heart and soul of the team. Every good move for the Italy team goes through him. At 34, Pirlo looks set for his last hurrah at next year’s tournament and may well have the sort of impact Zinedine Zidane had for France in 2006.
Claudio Marchisio offers tenacity, Daniel De Rossi, Ricardo Montolivo, Alberto Aquilani play around Pirlo and keep the game ticking whilst, at the same time creating chances for themselves. Alessandro Diamanti is a very good option who can play anywhere across the front three if needed.
This midfield possesses great prowess in set piece situations with Pirlo, Aquilani, Montolivo and Diamanti capable of finding the back of the net in these situations. The only drawback this midfield has is its lack of pace.
Hence, the forwards have to drop deep sometimes to link up the play and the fullbacks have to push forward due to the absence of genuine wingers apart from Stephan El-Shaarawy (who can play up front or off the striker even). But what this midfield lacks in pace, it overcomes in positional awareness and skill. With players such as Marco Verratti and Andrea Poli knocking on the doors of the senior team, there are good times ahead for the Azzuris.
It’s one area of the squad where the Italians have more than enough quality. They are blessed with the talents such as Balotelli, El-Shaarawy, Sebastian Giovinco and Alebrto Gilardino. If he is fit, Antonio Cassano will surely make the squad for the World Cup.
Fabio Borini is another player on the fringes of the senior team who has a realistic chance to go to Brazil. This forward line has pace in abundance. Balotelli, on his day can absolutely destroy any opposition. Giovinco offers the kind of guile needed to play up front.
If Cassano plays, he will bring deceptive movement to this Italian attack dragging defenders everywhere. Italy has the kind of forward line which will deliver in any game in the World Cup.
This Italy team has the right blend of youth and experience. It has an experience of losing a final, which usually drives on the players to go one step further. In Pirlo, Buffon and Balotelli, they have players who add that little bit of stardust and can change games on their own. They also have veterans who have been there and won it, wanting to have a last hurrah.
Italy is a team on the up with something to prove and are the most underrated of the big teams. Italy are the dark horses for next year’s World Cup. Don’t be surprised if Italy do end up going all the way.