We live in a day and age where cynicism rules king. Rarely has the Azzurri satisfied the wants and needs of her supporters, and since the debacle of 2010, they have become accustomed to picking holes at any given opening. It’s the baggage that comes with expectancy.
First, we had the notable exclusions of Francesco Totti, Domenico Criscito, Emanuele Giaccherini and, to a lesser extent, Alessandro Florenzi. A second bout of objections returned when Giuseppe Rossi’s omission from the final cut and Marco Verratti’s inclusion - seen as a direct consequence of an injury to Riccardo Montolivo - were confirmed. In the midst of all this, though, Cesare Prandelli was busy looking at the bigger picture.
The Fiorentina forward had defied all the odds to bounce back from a latest knee injury that had kept him out between January and April of this year, by ending the campaign with 17 goals. On the flip side, almost half of his strikes came from the penalty spot, even prior to his setback. His fitness was always likely to be a race against time, and judging by his anonymous display against Republic of Ireland, others may be better suited in his place.
Injury got the better of Milan midfielder Montolivo, who broke his leg in the opening stages of the stalemate at Craven Cottage. In his subsequent absence against the Irish, it was Verratti that looked to stake his claim in the Nazionale set-up. Always looking to nip at an opponent’s heels with a youthful exuberance, he kept things ticking over by releasing the ball quickly and intuitively – a facet of Italy’s play that is sorely lacking in Andrea Pirlo’s absence.
As for the aforementioned quartet, Totti was never a serious contender for a place on the plane to Brazil due to his self-imposed exile. Meanwhile, Criscito toiled in a turbulent season with Zenit St Petersburg, while Giaccherini’s role at Sunderland has dwindled in recent months. The argument that Italy only attend international tournaments with experienced personnel falls flat, however, when discussing the case for Florenzi.
Looking back at Prandelli’s selection, there are three key areas which have mustered scrutiny – the lack of left-back cover, the overload of central midfielders and the absence of a recognised trequartista.
Thanks to Italy’s goalkeeping expertise, Gianluigi Buffon, Salvatore Sirigu and Mattia Perin pick themselves. Central defence is also well-stocked through the great Juventus wall of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci, and complementing them is Gabriel Paletta, who deservedly takes his place as cover after continuing to look as rugged and robust as an Italy defender should be. Four centre-backs are sufficient, regardless of what formation Prandelli utilises.
At right-back, Ignazio Abate has cemented the position and will look to offer much-needed width on the counterattack. The problems then begin to emerge at left-back, where Mattia De Sciglio is the only player capable of filling such a berth, despite being most comfortable on the opposing flank. Matteo Darmian was one of 2013-14’s surprise packages and may be a jack of all trades in his ability to play anywhere at the back, but would an even out-of-sorts Criscito perform better as a natural left-sider?
Prandelli has garnered criticism for his handling of Verratti, but that should all be forgotten with the Paris Saint-Germain man’s inclusion. Eight midfielders have been named in total, and it is this area of the pitch that Italy’s functionality is most crucial. Marco Parolo did a lot of running on Sunday but offered little penetration, as did Claudio Marchisio. The same applies for Thiago Motta, who can stunt teams efficiently yet becomes obsolete when Daniele De Rossi is on the pitch.
It’s a sin that Prandelli has regularly committed in his four-year reign. The Roma midfielder’s incredible versatility allows him a free role of sorts, playing anywhere through the middle, between both boxes. Thus, he provides the best foil and protection for Pirlo to pull the strings, and Verratti now looks to be the missing part of the jigsaw. The uncertainty over the position explains Alberto Aquilani’s inclusion. Barring Pirlo, the Fiorentina star is Italy’s highest-scoring midfielder and has proved to supplement a playmaker like Pirlo in Borja Valero for the past two seasons.
Romulo may feel slightly unfortunate at not being handed a place in the 23. The Brazil-born ace is arguably the closest substitute to De Rossi in terms of playing style, albeit starting further up the pitch, but exhibits similar attributes which make the Roma star such an invaluable commodity. He could have occupied both of Parolo’s and Aquilani’s spots to cater for Rossi’s inclusion. It appears his lack of fitness and his honesty were his undoing.
In attack, Mario Balotelli’s status remains intact, although Ciro Immobile is doing his utmost to dislodge him. Mattia Destro may be Italy’s most clinical finisher in 2014, but he is unsuitable for the role of target-man. Elsewhere, Lorenzo Insigne and Antonio Cassano have been entrusted with the creative flair in and around the opposition box, while ‘wingers’ Antonio Candreva and Alessio Cerci are two of the most direct runners on the ball on the peninsula. There is no magician a la Totti this time around, but there hasn’t been for the past eight years.
The fans are no nearer to guessing the side that Prandelli will name against England on June 14, but the man himself knows. While he may have banked on flexibility over individual quality in South America, rest assured that the Coach has picked the team he has deemed most suitable for a World Cup tilt.