Italy’s three-game gauntlet continues on Wednesday, with match two featuring a visit to Holland to take on the Dutch.
The first was last November against France and the third will be next month against Brazil. It is not often you get three consecutive games against teams that are generally considered powers of international football outside of an international tournament. You have to go back to 1993-94, where Italy played Portugal, France and Germany in consecutive games, for the last time it happened away from a Finals phase.
So it is important not to waste these games, because the next time Italy play three teams like this in a row, it will probably be at a tournament where it matters most. Coach Cesare Prandelli showed a willingness to try things against France – a 4-3-3, Marco Verratti playing from the start – but that needs to continue on Wednesday and next month.
Verratti, for example, needs to start again. He was Italy’s best player in November and demonstrated that he can do it against good sides, so give him continuity and see if he can do it against a better one. Prandelli will learn nothing by playing Andrea Pirlo – we know he can perform at that level and do not need to see another good performance just to make sure he still has it.
Stephan El Shaarawy is in a similar boat. Prandelli needs to see that he can do it against top teams. He was good against France and deserved his goal, but against England in August he posed little threat. It has been a mixed bag at club level too – a couple of precious goals at the San Paolo against Napoli earned his team a point, but he was taken off against Inter and did little against Juventus in the League meeting at San Siro. He is very young and this is his first real, breakout season, so we cannot be too harsh, but if you are going to take a starting berth for Italy, these are the games you need to affect on a regular basis.
While those two are choices that he should, and probably will make, in defence he is going to be forced to try someone different. With Giorgio Chiellini and Angelo Ogbonna injured and Leonardo Bonucci left out for a code of ethics breach, the usual suspects that have played alongside Andrea Barzagli over the last year or so are absent.
Davide Astori and Andrea Ranocchia are good options to have, and it is testament to Italy’s central defensive reserves that these two are fifth and sixth picks, but Astori in particular is relatively untested at this level.
Ranocchia’s case is a little different. Despite criticism for his club form, he has not really put a foot wrong for Italy in his eight games so far. Only a combination of a dip in performance level for Inter and the Scudetto-winning block of defenders at Juventus have seen him marginalised at international level.
Within those eight caps are games against Germany and Spain, so he has a march on Astori when it comes to the top level, and that is not including his Champions League games with Inter. He is only 24 – defenders can take longer to hit their peak – and Prandelli would do well not to toss him aside, particularly as 2014 is likely to be Barzagli’s last tournament, which would leave the Azzurri in need of another central defender to complete the quartet. It would save a lot of time and energy if they had one ready to step in.