“This team wants to get on to the field to prove it has quality and the right determination to be a protagonist at the Euros. This is the spirit we have now. I have found yet again a group ready to be honest and take responsibility,” declared Cesare Prandelli during this week’s build-up to the European Championships kicking off.
Yet, for his statement that Italy are mentally prepared for Poland and Ukraine, he and his players could not have imagined a more disruptive build-up to the tournament.
It actually began, as the squad was announced, with cautiously optimistic debate over which formation was best, which midfield most representative of collective strength and how interesting Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli may prove to be in attack.
Less than a month ago, Italy may have had a few minor selection debates here and there, but they looked able to provide options in more than one sense. Importantly as well, the team had competitively shown itself to be strong, running through qualification unbeaten and with a record defensive return. In comparison to how the nation had headed into South Africa 2010, Prandelli’s Italy looked on course. Realism existed, but so too did optimism.
However, preparation now ends this weekend for the game against Spain with new questions raised, and pertinently, they are not positive ones. In light of Andrea Barzagli’s injury, uncertain is the new word to describe the record-breaking back-line, whilst a dressing room that showed all the signs of positivity are being suggested as heading into the summer tournament with a ‘siege mentality’. For what worked in qualifying – a tranquil environment and a set pattern of play – is currently absent for the competition proper.
Indeed, parallel to scrutiny on certain members of the squad for perhaps unfair media coverage relating – and not – to the ongoing betting trials in the peninsula, Prandelli has been trying out some last-minute experiments in training. What was a choice between 4-3-1-2 and 4-3-3 has evolved into a debate between the former system and an untried 3-5-2. In light of the popularity of the three-man defence tactic domestically this season and for the Azzurri’s no-show performance at the back against Russia, Prandelli looks to be considering changing the back-four shape that worked through qualification and every other game the CT has overseen to a back-three to face the defending world and European champions Spain on Sunday.
The late reflex is being interpreted by some as a measure that Italy are not quite sure of themselves with days left. Indeed, where Fabio Capello is among the names to suggest a sense of trepidation, Republic of Ireland Coach Giovanni Trapattoni tellingly hints that he knows he can again get a result against La Nazionale.
Even so, there is also a mild expectation that the Azzurri can turn the chaos of Calcioscommesse and overcome any tactical uncertainty – as Daniele De Rossi prepares himself as an emergency centre-back – because they have done it before. For the 2006 World Cup, the team united to put Calciopoli to one side and win the tournament. Twenty-four years before, Enzo Bearzot’s Giro Azzurro went across to Spain 1982 with the 1980 betting scandal still fresh, a woeful run of recent performances and a warning from FIGC’s President to ‘play well or pull out’, but they too returned with the trophy.
However, exactly because it has been done twice before perhaps runs the risk of blurring the lines between realism and expectation. Whilst the team may take inspiration from its own history, it is worth noting that before the scandal, Italy may have held hopes of a quarter-final or semi-final berth thanks to the excellent qualification, but there was still the realisation that Spain, Germany and the Netherlands were better-prepared, more experienced and more capable nations.
If you have followed Spain, for example, the most notable aspect to their work has been the creativity the media have had to embrace to find new ways to talk about exactly how good the team are. A win against the Azzurri is not only expected, but would also be a new world record.
In real terms, Italy are weaker now without Barzagli and Domenico Criscito and contemplating a system of play untried before. But, does the increased hope that the Azzurri put on a performance in Group C to distract from the unhappy circumstances at home mean that anything but a good showing from the country will undo Prandelli’s previous good work?
There was a sense last week that the CT, who recently admitted that in taking the job he felt ‘too young’, committed perhaps his first faux-pas in the position, when his suggestion that he would understand if Italy were pulled out of the Euros because of the Serie A and B betting scandal, drew criticism in some quarters.
“I have learnt that as CT, for anything I say I can get a slap across the face,” he reflected with the realisation that in a divisive climate, not everyone can be satisfied. “What I said was clear enough, but it has been interpreted as each person has wanted. I speak with sincerity.”
Indeed, it was an honest declaration, reflective of the moral approach the former Fiorentina man has taken to the national position, from his code of ethics to his linking of off-the-pitch activity to on-the-pitch attitude. However, it is because of this representation as an honest man, that his claim that Italy are ready may be the real first slip in his reign. By acknowledging and raising expectations in an atmosphere that will feed on it more so than before, it may prove to be the one stance taken that will come back and haunt him, if as the situation otherwise suggests, Italy are not ready.