The Azzurri: Italy's Profile pre-EURO 2012 - In Depth Preview

The Azzurri: Italy's Profile pre-EURO 2012 - In Depth Preview

A volte tornano: sometimes they return – a popular italian phrase that typifies italian football. In recent years the italian fans have witnessed everything: players going on strike, allegations surrounding corruption, champions stripped of a title then relegated and a national team that can only be described as spectacularly inconsistent. Yet, despite the apparent ‘great fall of football italia’ they’ve also encountered three different Champions League winners, the 2006 World Cup as well as runners up medals in Euro 2000 and two more Champions League finals. Even in 1968 when the Azzurri won their only European Cup to date, the Azzurri failed to even qualify for the preceding and succeeding European Cup finals. The 2010 World Cup saw an all new low – bottom of a group which drew Italy against the minor nations of New Zealand, Slovakia and Paraguay –  they failed to win a single game.

The last time Italy failed to make it out of their group (Euro 2004), the Azzurri would go on to win the subsequent international tournament. The last time mass allegations of corruption came to the surface, Italy would go on to become the world’s best. A volte tornano.

Qualification

The Azzurri qualified undefeated, scoring 17 goals and only conceding 2 (excluding the 3-0 win awarded by Uefa against Serbia for a crowd troubled match abandonment) and were in full command on the pitch: against Estonia the Azzurri completing a remarkable 829 passes – putting that into perspective, Barcelona completed an average of 747 passes per game during their La Liga and Champions League winning season of 2010/11 – so that really was quite the performance.

Match-fixing Scandal 2012

The italian proverb il diavolo fa le pentole ma non i coperchi – ‘the devil makes the pots but not the lids to cover them up’ was written for such events. A.S.Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi believes the most recent fiasco to be worse than the Moggiopoli Scandal of 2006 after Bari’s Andrea Masiello admitted to match-fixing and scoring an own goal in the 2-0 defeat to Lecce [see this youtube video for ‘that’ rather convincing own-goal]. Azzurri defender Domencio Criscito was withdrawn from the Italy Selezione after police swarmed into the italian team’s training camp to arrest Criscito days before the announcement of the 23 man Euro 2012 squad. A further 17 suspects were arrested in connection to match-fixing, 11 of which were professional football players – along with Antonio Conte, the current Juventus Scudetto winning manager, but for enquiries about his previous club, Siena.

“From my personal point of view, this is worse than 2006. Back then club directors were involved, now I’m seeing friends and teammates. We woke up yesterday to see police there and we instantly understood the seriousness of the situation.”

“I don’t know what to think. I tried to put myself in the place of those involved and it won’t be easy for them. My biggest fear is that there is something horrible underneath all of this.” (Daniele De Rossi, 2012)

Injuries 

The most notable omission from the 23 man squad is that of Guiseppe Rossi of Villareal. Rossi is out for up to 12 months after rupturing his right anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during training, only weeks after recovering from the same injury sustained in October 2011.

Aside from this, Italy appears to have a near full strength squad to choose from. However, with Antonio Cassano only to feature for A.C. Milan in April, after minor heart surgery, and Mario Balotelli only playing 15 minutes in the last six matches of Manchester City’s title run-in (albeit the most important 15 minutes and providing the vital assist to Aguero’s last gasp title winning goal) – a lack of match fitness may hinder the Azzurri’s goal scoring potential.

Other notable omissions from the squad include those of Alessandro Matri and Giampaolo Pazzini, both widely considered international quality forwards. Both players lost their places in the starting line ups of Juventus and Inter Milan :

“The potential of the side has been cut by 50 percent, whether it’s because of injuries that we’ve had in the last six or seven months or because so many players have lost their place,”  (Cesare Prandelli, cited in the Corriere della sera newspaper, 2012)

However, Azzurri legend Dino Zoff highlights that the majority of the italian public back Prandelli’s 23 man selection:

“He made the best choices in squad selection.Everyone talked about no Matri/Osvaldo,but they weren’t playing at the end of the season”

Selezione Azzurri & Key Players

On paper the 23 man squad is one of the most complete squads named from any of the nations. However, while there may not be any real omissions in terms of players available, an absence of two player types is worth noting when understanding the Italy of 2012: a mediano (Gattuso) and an attaccante di peso (Luca Toni). Both Gattuso and Toni played important roles in Marcello Lippi’s World Cup winning sides and were key components to the way in which the Azzurri played.

The mediano is a player who masters both tackling and interceptions. While Pirlo may be considered a defensive midfielder, he is not a mediano, but a Regista – a forward thinking deep-lying playmaker who consistently looks to change the pace of the game.

While an attaccante di peso refers to the type of target man most English Premier League fans will relate to: a big, strong Duncan Ferguson, Didier Drogba or Andy Carroll. Prandelli however, is keen to move away from the reliance of an attaccante di peso:

“For us there is no longer a static player in attack. Mario Balotelli can be used in that role, but also on the flanks. It’s the same for Di Natale and Giovinco who have scored a lot without being a reference point for defenders. I wanted to pick a team that plays fluid football.”

The coach went on to stress the importance of his hard working team ethic and the intention to transform Italy into an attacking side – something they’ve not been for many years:

“We may not be packed with individual world class players, but we can do well. We are a good squad. I expect the team to be able to build the move, not passively wait for their opponents. We will attack, albeit with a great sense of balance between the various departments.”

That said, the Azzurri do have some world-class players – key players, who will need to be at their best for Italy to win their second European Cup this summer: Gianluca Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Daniele De Rossi, Antonio Cassano, Mario Balotelli and last but certainly not least, the brilliant Andrea Pirlo.

Andrea Pirlo enjoyed one of his best seasons in 2011/12 – winning the Scudetto with Juventus and was central to everything for the Bianconeri. Pirlo topped the Serie A assist table (13) and dominated passing stats: the highest number of key passes per game (3.4), highest number of passes per game (86.4), most accurate long balls per game (11.4) and most total passes for the season (3194). Andrea Pirlo is Italy’s very own, and equally as good, Xavi – a player who creates something now and then that even those who can see everything from the top stand didn’t see:

“There are three classes of people: those who see, those who see when they are shown, those who do not see” (Leonardo da Vinci)

Daniele De Rossi is another player who also arguably enjoyed his best season of his career to date. A.S. Roma spent the season frustrated in failing to adopt Barcelona’s Tiki-Taka philosophy under ex-Barcelona B manager Luis Enrique. De Rossi acted as the heartbeat to possession for A.S.Roma and unlike the recently unemployed Luis Enrique, won over every critic in Italy. De Rossi consistently put on world-class performances for A.S.Roma as a box to box midfielder – both breaking up the opposition and matching the more dynamic running and attacking vitality of Juventus’ Claudio Marchisio.

One of the two Prandelli approaches to the Azzurri’s attack has the potential to match the destruction and excitement of Napoli’s 1987-88 ‘Ma-Gi-Ca’: the celebrated Maradona, Giordano and Careca strike force with Balotelli, Cassano and the goal scoring Di Natale:

“a trident attack – with two wide forwards and a small centre-forward” (Cesare Prandelli, 2012)

Similarly to Diego Maradona, the adopted Neapolitan, both Cassano and Balotelli have been labelled Italian football’s enfant terrible. However, Cassano has in recent years shown signs of maturity and has moved away from his Cassanata neologism label given to him by former coach, Fabio Capello. The beginning of Cassano’s career provided fans with moments of extraordinary skill – from the moment we all witnessed his wondergoal: the first touch and meandering dribble, scoring his first goal and winner for Bari against Inter as a teenager [see this youtube video if you’ve yet to see it!] – yet Cassano was equally as likely to infuriate a plethora of referees, coaches and team mates. Sound like anyone?

While Cassano admits to believing his own hype as the ‘next Maradona’ he has now learnt the value of team work, hard work and the ability to be humble in moments of success:

“I haven’t given up on trying to magic up those out-of-the-blue moments, but I know now that there are ten other players on the pitch there to help me,”

The ‘next Cassanata’ is a label that Balotelli won’t like to hear, but an undeniable similarity to Cassano at his age is clear – even to those who don’t watch football.

“Nothing can be loved or hated unless it is first understood.” (Leonardo da Vinci)

Prandelli and Buffon have both said of the friendship between Cassano and Balotelli, it’s clear that Mr “Why Always Me” looks up to Cassano with admiration. Prandelli even had to reject Balotelli’s request to share a room with Cassano during the Euro’s – Prandelli’s response…”We didn’t want to overdo it!”

Mario has statistically, enjoyed one of his most successful seasons to date: 13 goals in 23 games and won the title with Manchester City. However, if he cannot find it within himself or learn from Cassano’s mistakes, it might just take a miracle for Mario to even stay on the field during the tournament. Aside from the threat of the red cards the outspoken forward has also found support from his team and coaching staff in any ‘walk off’ if there is to be any racist abuse towards him. Hopefully, Mario’s threat wont lead to any unnecessary opposition racist attacks – nobody wants to see that, no matter how much you hate the man. Personally I’m a huge Balotelli fan – Marmite.

Other than the obvious key players mentioned – Fabio Borini, Antonio Nocerino and Sebastian Giovinco have the potential to break into the first team if they are given the opportunity to impress. Borini, an ex-Swansea striker has been likened to Fillipo Inzaghi and this is one of the more accurate of the media’s comparisons: quick, intelligent and his 9 goals in 20 games this season shows that he is more than capable if called up on. Nocerino cemented himself as one of the top midfielders in Italy this year and is seen as the long term replacement for Gattuso. However, Nocerino is keen to rid of the comparison and considers himself as a ‘striker trapped in a midfielder’s body’, a forward thinking and charging box to box midfielder.

Lastly, Giovinco has too had the best season of his career to date in Serie A – a different player from his Juventus days and is now fulfilling the promise he showed at an early age. The 5ft4” (he really is that small!) attacker scored 15 goals, 11 assists and 9 man of the match awards in his 36 game-long season.

Formation

Prandelli has yet to decide exactly what formation Italy are going to play – although it is widely thought that he will stick with his 4-3-2-1 ‘Ma-Gi-Co’ style attack and if Di Natale, Balotelli and Cassano can recreate that Napoli legendary attack, Italy will be the ones to watch – competing fiercely with Spain, Germany and the Netherlands.

Alternative approaches could be that Prandelli sets his team up with a diamond midfield in a 4-3-1-2 formation and plays a trequartista behind the front pairing of Balotelli and Cassano. For which Montolivo has been training as the player in the attacking hole.

The last option would involve replicating the Serie A favourite of 3-5-2 with the two wing backs Maggio and Balzaretti along with the three Juventus centre backs: Chiellini, Bonucci and Barzagli – a combination that boasted the best defensive record in Serie A during their undefeated season.

Euro 2012: the Azzurri’s chances

The chances of the Azzurri winning Euro 2012 depends on key players turning up; If Balotelli and Cassano can produce anything near what they are capable of, Italy may have one of the best strike partnership’s any country has had for many years – so much character, so much talent, so much hope rests on their shoulders. Pirlo, Chiellini, Buffon and De Rossi are far more consistent and will no doubt ensure Italy at the very least make it out of the group stages.

The recent friendly against a fast paced and dangerous Russia (the dark horses of Euro 2012) showed nothing like the form or potential Italy are capable of – Russia found it so easy to create goal scoring chances. If that same team turns up in the first game against Spain, Italy are in big trouble.

However, predicting Cassano and Balotelli’s turn out is something no man can do. You can dream and scheme, plot and plan – but fate will decide the outcome: L’uomo propone – ma Dio dispone. 

Strangely enough, despite the qualification and domestic Serie A success – the latest scandal investigations and friendly loss against Russia has injected an air of pessimism amongst Italians… a feeling amongst italians that can be summed up in a vein of a defenceless domino set….

but remember, and don’t forget… A volte tornano

The 23 man squad:

Goalkeepers  

1 Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus)

14 Morgan De Sanctis (Napoli)

12 Salvatore Sirigu (Paris Saint-Germain)

Defenders 

2 Christian Maggio (Napoli)

3 Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus)

4 Angelo Ogbonna (Torino)

6 Federico Balzaretti (Palermo)

7 Ignazio Abate (A.C. Milan)

15 Andrea Barzagli (Juventus)

19 Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus)

Midfielders 

5 Thiago Motta (Paris Saint-Germain)

8 Claudio Marchisio (Juventus)

13 Emmanuele Giaccherini (Juventus)

16 Danielle De Rossi (A.S. Roma)

18 Riccardo Montolivo (Fiorentina)

21 Andrea Pirlo (Juventus)

22 Alessandro Diamanti (Bologna)

23 Antonio Nocerino (A.C. Milan)

Strikers 

9 Mario Balotelli (Manchester City)

10 Antonio Cassano (A.C. Milan)

11 Antonio Di Natale (Udinese)

17 Fabio Borini (A.S. Roma)

20 Sebastian Giovinco (Parma)

Manager

Cesare Prandelli

Probable starting XI v Spain (10th June 2012)

[4-3-2-1] Buffon; Maggio, Chiellini, Barzagli, Balzaretti; Pirlo, Marchisio, De Rossi; Cassano, Balotelli, Di Natale

Group C Fixtures

Sunday 10th June;

Italy v Spain, Croatia v Republic of Ireland

Thursday 14th June;

Italy v Croatia, Republic of Ireland v Spain

Monday 18th June;

Italy v Republic of Ireland, Croatia v Spain

(All stats courtesy of whoscored.com)