Andrea Pirlo strode to the penalty spot, his cunning plan in mind. With self-assurance mocking the severity of the situation, he casually lifted his penalty off the ground. As Joe Hart scrambled, he could only watch the chipped kick saunter past. Pirlo’s conversion made it 2-2 and was the decisive moment of the shoot-out. England would miss their next two penalties. Antonio Nocerino and Alessandro Diamanti scored to send the Azzurri through to the last four of Euro 2012.
Less than two months after that Quarter-Final in Kiev the two nations square off again. It will be the 24th meeting, but one with vastly different implications. Italy’s nine past triumphs – the shoot-out victory technically a draw – shades England’s seven.
Both Cesare Prandelli and Roy Hodgson have named understrength squads. To show Prandelli’s level of experimentation, Devis Mangia has been required to make a number of changes to his Under-21 squad after it was raided for talent. His hand for the Berne friendly was forced by the omission of Juventus and Napoli players, involved in last weekend’s Italian Super Cup. This accounts for 10 members of the European Championship squad.
Prandelli still retains Euro 2012 combatants Daniele De Rossi, Federico Balzaretti, Ignazio Abate, Angelo Ogbonna, Nocerino and Diamanti. Salvatore Sirigu – touted as a future No 1 – is first choice goalkeeper here, but Mario Balotelli is a late withdrawal due to conjunctivitis. They form the backbone of the team, with Prandelli looking to the fringe players to stake their claim.
The ex-Fiorentina tactician is already focusing on 2014 and the Juve-Napoli omissions, plus those of Antonio Cassano, Antonio Di Natale and Riccardo Montolivo, allows for a glimpse into the future. “The idea is to prepare for the next two years from the start by knowing which young players are ready to make the grade,” he noted.
The forward line is of particular interest. All strikers chosen were born in the 1990s. Mattia Destro is the only one to have previously worked with Prandelli as part of the initial 32-man Euro 2012 squad. Given that, plus his season at Siena and start to life at Roma, the mobile forward has been confirmed a starter.
Also included are the raw Manolo Gabbiadini, Stephan El Shaarawy and Balotelli’s replacement Diego Fabbrini. The quartet have combined for just 19 Serie A goals to date. Destro has netted 14 of those. Of his attack, Prandelli says: “I want players with different characteristics to assess with the future in mind.”
El Shaarawy starts alongside Destro, with Diamanti just behind. An experienced midfield trio of captain De Rossi, Nocerino and the recalled Alberto Aquilani will take the field from the first whistle. The new Fiorentina midfielder has a chance to show he deserves a permanent position in the Giro Azzurro and means much talked-about regista Marco Verratti is set for a substitute debut appearance. Meanwhile, the inclusion of Ezequiel Schelotto suggests Prandelli is monitoring a potential switch to a wing-based system.
Defender Davide Astori will begin alongside Abate, Balzaretti and Ogbonna. This leaves Francesco Acerbi – identified as a potential future regular – to commence his Nazionale journey on the bench, with Mattia De Sciglio to be given an indication of what is required at this level.
It is hard to take a great deal from an August friendly. Just think back to Italy’s losses in recent years against Croatia, Hungary and Ivory Coast, or draws with Switzerland and Austria. Last year’s triumph over Spain proving an anomaly to the trend. The Azzurri may be wearing a one-off shirt design commemorating the heroes of 1982, but beside that it is all forward thinking. For Prandelli it is an important contest. He acknowledges it as a prospective look towards Brazil 2014 and a chance to assess which youngsters could help Italy get there.
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