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Italy: Team Preview - 2014 FIFA World Cup

Italy national football team

In recent times, Italian football has declined in stature when compared to the overall European league standings. Juventus were out of Europe for a few years while Champions League giants, AC Milan, became a mere shadow of their former glorious selves. Inter Milan faded away after winning the title in 2010, whereas Roma and Napoli have been facing early exits against teams from the other elite leagues.

However, the 2013/14 season has seen a domestic resurgence of several Italian sides which may be a positive leap towards their mission to take control of Europe again. Sides like Roma, Parma, Fiorentina and Torino have improved over the course of this campaign while Juventus carried on their fantastic Seria A run as they capped off their third consecutive title in style. And their philosophy and the players will be pivotal to Italy's chances at this 2014 FIFA World Cup.

With the whole world waiting for kick off on June 12 in Brazil, national team coach Prandelli will be looking to bank on the successful domestic showings of the players and prove a point in this edition of the World Cup. As always, Italy will be one of the front-runners of the tournament and after a disappointing early exit in the last edition, Prandelli, in his first World Cup as the head coach, will have to get his tactics right and prove that his team are real contenders to lift the trophy.

Road to World Cup

Italy's journey to Brazil began way back in September 2012 when they were placed in Group E of the European qualifying zone. They were seeded against minnows like Malta, Armenia and Bulgaria while Czech Republic and Denmark were the two possible threats who were well capable of producing an upset on their day. On September 7, 2012, the Azzurris kicked off their World Cup qualification phase against Bulgaria.

Points were dropped in their inaugural match as Balotelli and co failed to register a victory against the Bulgarians.  Osvaldo scored a brace to save his team's blushes as the match ended in a 2-2 draw. From then on, victories against Malta and Armenia put the Italians in the driving seat as they began to settle into a comfortable position. In two matches against Denmark and Czech Republic, they drew one and won the other fixture. At home, they managed to scrape through Bulgaria with a 1-0 scoreline. Their last match against Armenia ended in a 2-2 draw and they finished as group toppers on 22 points with a convincing 8-point lead over runners up Denmark.

Mario Balotelli was the top-scorer for the men in blue while the whole unit scored 19 goals and conceded 9 in the process.

Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Pirlo will be the key players for Italy at the World Cup

Squad

Cesare Prandelli's 30-man preliminary squad instantly revealed a very important aspect of his selection criteria. He has assembled a unit which can easily boast to be of the most balanced sides in the tournament. The team has a proper blend of youthful energetic legs and experienced minds for the big occasions.

Juventus legend and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon will lead the side as expected while Salvatore Sirigu and Mattia Perin will fill in for him if required. The defence consists of some of modern day's best in the business with names like Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Bonucci (all from Juventus) forming the backline. Gabriel Paletta and the highly rated Andrea Ranocchia of Inter Milan will serve as their back ups. The full back positions will be occupied by Christian Maggio or Ignazio Abate on the right flanks and Manuel Pasqual or Matt De Sciglio on the left.

Quality wise, Italy's midfield is right up there with the likes of the other fancied favourites of the competition like Spain and Germany. The 2006 World Cup winning side's orchestrator Andrea Pirlo will resume his playmaking role, perhaps for the last time, with Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio as his midfield generals. The experienced Thiago Motta and future star Marco Verratti have also been called up and Ricardo Montolivo of AC Milan, will have his role to play according to the tactical changes.

The forward line sees Mario Balotelli as the main striking figure in Prandelli's forward set up while Guiseppe Rossi returns after being sidelined with a long term injury. Antonio Cassano has also been recalled to the squad after a gap of almost two years and the young Ciro Immobile gets his chance to debut for the Azzuris.

Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Salvatore Sirigu (Paris St Germain), Mattia Perin (Genoa)

Defenders: Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorigo Chiellini (Juventus), Gabriel Paletta (Parma), Andrea Ranocchia (Inter Milan), Ignazio Abate (AC Milan), Mattia De Sciglio (AC Milan), Christian Maggio (Napoli), Matteo Darmian (Torino), Manuel Pasqual (Fiorentina)

Midfielders: Andrea Pirlo (Juventus), Claudio Marchisio (Juventus), Thiago Motta (Paris St Germain), Marco Verratti (Paris St Germain), Riccardo Montolivo (AC Milan), Daniele De Rossi (AS Roma), Antonio Candreva (Lazio), Marco Parolo (Parma), Alberto Aquilani (Fiorentina), Romulo (Verona)

Forwards: Mario Balotelli (AC Milan), Antonio Cassano (Parma), Alessio Cerci (Torino), Ciro Immobile (Torino), Giuseppe Rossi (Fiorentina), Mattia Destro (AS Roma), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli)

Coach

Cesare Prandelli took over the managerial duties of the Italian national side from Marcelo Lippi after the 2010 World Cup. As a player, he played six seasons for Juventus in midfield during the early ‘80s. His first game in charge saw a sour start to his tenure as Italy were beaten 1-0 by Ivory Coast in a friendly. Since then, Prandelli incorporated a few tactical changes into Italy's traditional defensive approach and brought forth a new compact side who are well capable of playing a possession based attacking style of football.

Italy coach Cesare Prandelli

Prandelli guided Italy to qualify for the Euro 2012 and they had a very good tournament. They reached the finals of the Euro where a  4-0 drubbing by Spain was the only bleak moment in an otherwise successful campaign. The team moved on from their defeat and qualified in style for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and as usual, the nation's hopes will be high on Cesare Prandelli as he will look to repeat Italy's previous glory in 2006.

Formations and Tactics

In World Cup history, Italy has been one of the strongest tactical sides. The Azzurri’s reputation was never based on individual brilliance but in terms of a collaborated team display, few sides have been able to size up to their intelligence. Traditionally, one can easily label Italy as the most defensively strong unit among all the teams. The foundation of their playing style dates back to the 1960s when Catenaccio (bolted door) was invented.

Catenaccio's most important invention was the role of a sweeper. A sweeper's role was to recover loose balls, nullify the opponent's striker and double-mark when necessary. Another important innovation was the counter-attack, mainly based on long passes from the defence. This style brought some great results for the Italian teams in the past. Claudio Gentile and Gaetano Scirea of the 1982 World Cup winning team and Fabio Cannavaro and Marco Materazzi of the 2006 side, formed the backbone and brought success to the national sides.

While the earlier teams applied the bolt-door style as their default strategy, Prandelli has infused a new style that is a hybrid of Catenaccio and possession football. 

3-5-2 formation

The versatility in Italy's style of play comes from the fact that they can adapt quite easily into various formations according to their opponents. In Euro 2012 group stages, we saw an Italian side against Spain that successfully replicated Juventus's 3-5-2 formation. Prandelli took tips from Antonio Conte's Juventus side who implicated Andrea Pirlo as the central defensive midfielder but transformed that role into a deep lying playmaker.

How Italy will look in a 3-5-2 formation

From there on, the exceptional passing quality of Pirlo has been fully exploited as strikers and wingers have had the privilege of receiving those pin-point penetrating long balls from the veteran midfielder. Pirlo supplies the ball while he shields the back three when his team loses possession. Alongside Pirlo, two box-to-box midfielders act as the guards and run back and forth to attack as well as break up play to regain possession. Marchisio and De Rossi are naturally built for filling in these two positions although De Rossi can also switch to a central defender's position which allows Montolivo to play in midfield so as to allow more creativity in attack.

The wing backs have a make shift role to play. While playing against attacking opponents, they sit deep and the formation changes into a 5-3-2. Against opponents whom they can dominate, the role transforms into a more attacking one and the 3-5-2 shape is sustained. The compact 3-man defence will always sit back and try to play the ball from the back. The formation's biggest advantage is in its flexibility. It also provides that extra width on the wings to spread out the opposition players and create penetrating gaps in the centre.

How Italy will look in a 4-1-2-1-2 formation

4-1-2-1-2 formation

The other formation that maintains Italy's possession tactics is the traditional 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation which is often used by Prandelli in big games. In this formation, Ricardo Montolivo comes into play as he is applied in the CAM role. The defence takes a more convincing shape and the three central midfielders have the same role as explained in the 3-5-2 style. The only difference is that the CDM role will have a defensive midfielder who can be the sweeper  Two strikers up front always gives an extra edge as defenders are more used to handling a single striker and two wingers in modern times. This formation provides more compactness and organisation in the centre, although it can be quite predictable.

How Italy will look in a 4-3-3 formation

4-3-3 formation

Italy have a third option to field its players in a 4-3-3 formation as well. Antonio Candreva and Alessio Cerci have the legs to run and can provide speed on the wings. So if Prandelli decides to play Mario Balotelli as the lone striker, the two wingers can drift wide and spread the play to allow spaces in the middle for the 3-man midfield to supply and create the scoring opportunities. The midifled can field the same box-to-box guarding midfielders with Pirlo crafting opportunities in his usual deep lying playmaking role. The back four can hold a compact defensive structure and the full backs can operate on the wings to provide support in attack.

Best Starting XI

Selecting the starters from a star-studded squad can be immensely difficult but to execute their strategies, a set of players will be preferred ahead of others mainly because of their experience or because of the fact that they may be the best options to slot into those positions. Here are the expected starters for this edition.

Goalkeeper - Gianluigi Buffon

Defenders - Ignazio Abate, Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini, Matt De Sciglio

Midfielders - Andrea Pirlo, De Rossi, Claudio Marchisio, Ricardo Montolivo

Forwards - Mario Balotelli, Antonio Cassano

History at the World Cup

Historically, Italy are the second most successful side after Brazil. They have won 4 World Cups till date. Their first triumph came in 1934 after refusing to participate at the first ever tournament in 1930. They defended the trophy in 1938 among many political controversies. Their next taste of success came 44 years later in 1982 after they defeated West Germany. Their 4th World Cup glory came recently in 2006 after emerging victorious in a nerve-racking penalty shootout against France.

In the last 5 tournaments, Italy have managed to reach two finals in 1994 and 2006 where they lost the former encounter against Brazil in a penalty shoot-out while the latter yielded a fruitful campaign after they lifted their fourth trophy against France. In 1998, they exited in the quarter-final stage against hosts France. The biggest upset came in 2002 when South Korea eliminated them in the round-of-16. In 2010, it was of the most disappointing campaigns in recent times as the Azzurris were knocked out early in the group stages.

Italy at FIFA World Cups
YEAR RESULT
1930 Did not participate
1934 Winners
1938 Winners
1950 Group stage
1954 Group stage
1958 Did not qualify
1962 Group stage
1966 Group stage
1970 Runners up
1974 First round
1978 Fourth place
1982 Winners
1986 Round of 16
1990 Third place
1994 Runners up
1998 Quarter final
2002 Round of 16
2006 Winners
2010 Group stage

Best Performance in a World Cup

The 1982 World Cup victory was the most inspiring story in Italy’s footballing history. At the time, the country’s image was tarnished after the Totonero scandal severely damaged the domestic league in 1980. As a result, clubs like Milan,  Lazio, Perugia, Bologna, Avellino (Serie A), Taranto and Palermo (Serie B) were penalized for their involvement along with several notable players including Paolo Rossi who was banned from the game for a duration of 3 years. The Azzurris arrived at the 1982 FIFA World Cup amidst general scepticism and discomfort. Paolo Rossi returned to the squad after his 3-year ban which was reduced to 2 years after an appeal. Italy qualified for the second round after three uninspiring draws against Poland, Peru and Cameroon. Having been loudly criticized, the Italian team decided on a press black-out from then on.

Italian players lift their third World Cup in 1982

In the second group round, Italy managed to neutralize Diego Maradona’s Argentina as they managed to win 2-1. Against the mighty Brazilians, Paolo Rossi produced a magnificient performance as he scored a hat-trick to clinch a 3-2 victory for his side. In the semi-finals, Italy easily dispatched Poland with Rossi again in the centre of things as he netted a brace to send the Azurris into the final.

In the final, Italy faced their last hurdle in the form of West Germany. Paolo Rossi  scored the opening goal in the second half before Tardelli and substitute Alessandro Altobelli finalised two contropiede counter-attacks to make it 3–0. Italy won their third World Cup after 44 years and regained the support of their fans and its reputation after enduring one of the darkest periods in their footballing history. Paolo Rossi transformed from a scandalous villain to a national hero in a matter of a month and he was rewarded with the golden boot for finishing as the top scorer in the competition. 

Predictions: How far can they go?

Italy are always the unsung favourites in every tournament they feature. They are a team who are well capable of beating superior oppositions on any given day. This year, the Azzurris have been drawn in the group of death with England, Uruguay and Costa Rica in Group D. Uruguay have a great strike force in the form of Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani while England boast a roster of Premier League superstars. Among the three, Italy will marginally be favourites to qualify for the round-of-16 where they will possibly face either the Group C runners-up or winner which can be any of Ivory Coast, Greece, Colombia or Japan. Again, Italy will be expected to cross this hurdle and reach the quarter-finals.

In the quarters, the odds will get really tough as Italy may face any of the competition heavyweights which includes Brazil, Spain and Netherlands. If they face Brazil or Spain, chances of a quarter-final exit maybe on the cards. Netherlands will be a favourable fixture for the Italians as they will give themselves a realistic chance of making it to the semi-finals. But Netherlands qualifying over Brazil or Spain looks highly unlikely. So Italy, predictably, will suffer a quarter-final exit at this year's World Cup. 

To see other Team Previews : 2014 FIFA World Cup Team Previews

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