Despite riding into this summer’s European Championships on the crest of a wave of corruption and scandal that threatens to pull Italy beneath the surface of their troubled waters and out of the tournament before it’s even begun, the Azzurri arrive in Poland with a squad that boasted the best defensive record in qualifying, and an explosive strike force that has the potential to cause as many problems on the pitch as they have done off it.
Coach Cesare Prandelli has instilled within his side a robustness that propelled an unbeaten Italy through a qualifying group that contained such potential banana skins as Estonia, Serbia, Slovenia and Northern Ireland. Their ten games came at the cost of just two goals conceded, with both coming in tricky away ties in Eastern Europe. But the sturdy defence Prandelli has built is worlds apart from the dogmatic, counter-attacking catenaccio for which the Azzurri have been known for decades. Instead, Prandelli’s Italy are an attractive and attacking side who aim to dominate possession. Indeed, only Spain had better possession stats in qualifying.
It should come as no surprise that the incredible Gianluigi Buffon remains Italy’s first choice goalkeeper. Now thirty-four, and a scudetto winner again this year after his beloved Juventus secured their first Serie A title since the calciopoli scandal, Buffon goes into the tournament with 114 international caps to his name, and stands third in the list of Italy’s record appearance holders, behind only Paolo Maldini and Fabio Cannavaro. Buffon was crucial to Juventus’ success this season, conceding only sixteen goals in thirty-five matches, and may see the European Championships as his last chance to taste success with the national side. Napoli’s enigmatic Morgan De Sanctis, and Paris Saint-Germain’s Salvatore Sirigu will provide the back up options between the sticks.
In front of Buffon the likelihood is that fellow Juventus stalwart Giorgio Chiellini will start alongside another bianconeri regular in Andrea Barzagli, though an injury picked up by the latter in Friday night’s 3-0 defeat at the hands of Russia has threatened to rule the centre-back out of at least the group stage encounters. Should Barzagli not recover in time, the talented but relatively untested Angelo Ogbonna of Torino, or Leonardo Bonucci, also of Juventus, should take his place. Bonucci’s place in the squad remains in question however, after he was put under investigation by Italian police as part of their enquiries into the current match fixing scandal that has destabilised Italian football.
Prandelli’s hand is difficult to judge, not least because of the intrusion of the authorities into the team’s preparation for the tournament. But he is also a man not afraid of making changes. A move to a 3-5-2 system has been rumoured, but it is the 4-3-1-2 system favoured in qualification that is perhaps the most likely to be deployed, at least initially. Should this be the case the attack-minded Christian Maggio of Napoli and the similarly daring Federico Balzaretti of Palermo look likely to be selected an right-back and left-back respectively, though AC Milan’s Ignazio Abate will provide competition to Maggio.
The talisman of the side will be Andrea Pirlo, who has enjoyed something of a renaissance this season. Many questioned AC Milan’s decision to allow the midfielder to leave for Juventus on a free transfer last summer, and after rolling back the years with a succession of performances as consistent as they have been impressive, Pirlo has re-established himself as the heartbeat of the Italian midfield. The combative and hard working duo of Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio are likely to provide the brawn to Pirlo’s brain, but are both also quality players in their own right, capable of single handedly winning games. Riccardo Montolivo, who Prandelli knows well from his time at Fiorentina, could push for a place however, but is perhaps more likely to replace Pirlo should the midfielder tire.
Exactly who will play as the trequartista – or in the hole – is trickier to predict. The bullish brilliance of Antonio Cassano, ignored for so long by Marcelo Lippi and now fit again after his remarkable recovery from a ‘mini-stroke’ suffered last October, can no longer be dismissed. However the six goals scored by Il Gioiella di Bari Vecchia – ‘the Jewel of Old Bari’ as he is known – in the qualification stages may mean he demands a place higher up the pitch. In such a scenario, there is a case to be made for deploying Bologna’s attacking midfielder Alessandro Diamanti behind a front two. Diamanti, a familiar face to West Ham fans after spending a season with the east London club between 2009 and 2010, offers a creative drive, and a goalscoring threat from deep positions that makes him an appealing option.
Nobody has scored more goals in Serie A over the last three seasons than Udinese’s Antonio Di Natale, and his guile may make him the ideal option to partner the unpredictable Mario Balotelli. But Di Natale has delayed a decision over his future in recent weeks, and is rumoured to be considering retirement as he has struggled to come to terms with the loss of team mate and friend Piermario Morosini, who tragically died during a match between Pescara and Livorno – where he was on loan – in April. Balotelli poses his own questions, an astonishing talent with the shortest of fuses, whose international career is still very much in its infancy. Though Di Natale and Balotelli are perhaps the most likely to start up front, Prandelli faces an enormous task in focusing the minds of two of his greatest assets.
Italian football’s on-going battle with the evils of corruption have no doubt upset Prandelli and his squad as they prepare for the European Championships. Much has been made of the Italian victories in the 1982 and 2006 World Cups, events which the Azzurri went into whilst battling similar scandals, and whether this ignominy can galvanise the squad and spur them on to glory. Whether or not such a scenario plays out remains to be seen, but its clear that Prandelli and his players have a lot of work to do to restore Italian football’s reputation to the international community.
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus) Morgan De Sanctis (Napoli) Salvatore Sirigu (Paris Saint-Germain)
Defenders: Christian Maggio (Napoli) Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus) Angelo Ogbonna (Torino) Federico Balzaretti (Palermo) Ignazio Abate (AC Milan) Andrea Barzagli (Juventus) Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus)
Midfielders: Thiago Motta (Paris Saint-Germain) Claudio Marchisio (Juventus) Emanuele Giaccherini (Juventus) Daniele De Rossi (Roma) Riccardo Montolivo (Fiorentina) Andrea Pirlo (Juventus) Alessandro Diamanti (Bologna) Antonio Nocerino (AC Milan)
Forwards: Mario Balotelli (Manchester City) Antonio Cassano (AC Milan) Antonio Di Natale (Udinese) Fabio Borini (Roma) Sebastian Giovinco (Parma)