Following their comfortable 4-0 friendly victory over San Marino, the real stuff now starts for Italy. On Friday the Azzurri take the field at the Generali Arena in Prague for a 2014 World Cup qualifier with the Czech Republic. They’ll then fly to Brazil for the Confederations Cup. Both are important steps in shaping Italy’s ultimate goal – Brazil in one year’s time. Victory in the Czech capital will give a virtually untouchable lead atop Group B, while the two-week competition offers useful experience for 12 months hence.
Cesare Prandelli’s Azzurri are sitting pretty in qualifying. They’ve won four straight following an initial draw in Bulgaria and will enjoy a six-point buffer with four matches to play should they leave Prague as winners. Friday represents the start of Italy’s toughest stretch of qualifying fixtures. When Group B resumes in September, the Azzurri host Bulgaria and the Czechs in a five-day stretch, then go to Denmark a month later. They’ll finish at home versus Armenia.
Maximum points in Prague are not pivotal, but would give more room to breathe during this period. The former trio are fighting for the playoff spot behind Italy. They’ve so far experienced undistinguished campaigns, taking crucial points off one another. The Czechs are third, with eight points from five matches.
The match in Prague will give an insight into Prandelli’s first XI heading towards the Confederations Cup opener with Mexico on June 16. It’s a valuable competitive clash ahead of the tournament and also the final chance to impress before the flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
The Coach will likely know his favoured line-up, but after cutting the squad to its final 23-man shape, injuries mean two defensive positions are up for grabs. Andrea Barzagli is included but battling an Achilles tendon complaint. He trained on Tuesday yet his participation is not assured, while Luca Antonelli was injured against San Marino and left out of the 23.
Should Barzagli not play the centre of defence could still be all Bianconero, with Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini likely starters. Davide Astori is the other option. Stocks are thinner at left-back. Prandelli may opt for Chiellini, or could go for youth with Mattia De Sciglio offered priceless game-time a year out from the World Cup.
If Prandelli retains the 4-3-3 shape seen in Bologna, the positions either side of Mario Balotelli in attack are still up for grabs. Alessandro Diamanti will probably occupy one, but Stephan El Shaarawy and Antonio Candreva, who joined the camp late following Lazio’s Coppa Italia Final win, are other candidates. The Milan man has also battled injury in the past week.
Yet just what system Italy will play is anyone’s guess. “We’ll continue to work on a four-man midfield,” Prandelli said, then adding: “The 4-3-3 is an intriguing system and we must continue working on that too. We have to be in a position to change shape during the course of a game, by taking advantage of two or three systems.”
This is Italy’s first meeting with the Czech Republic in a qualification setting. The nations have met on four previous occasions – twice at major tournaments and two friendlies. Tournament results are split. Both were group stage encounters, with Pavel Nedved on target in the Czech 2-1 Euro ’96 victory. They eventually made the Final as Italy went home early. The roles were reversed 10 years later as Italy lifted the World Cup in Germany. The third group match saw Marcello Lippi’s side eliminate the Eastern Europeans thanks to Marco Materazzi and Filippo Inzaghi. The two friendlies, in 2002 and 2004, ended in a Czech win and a draw.
The upcoming month is vital for Prandelli’s 12-month plan. He is aware they face a big test.“We will leave for Brazil with great expectations. It is a tournament that you have to face with the desire to test yourself against the best in the world.” Maximum points in Prague not only adds confidence ahead of this Brazil trip, but means virtually securing another Rio journey next June.