On paper it was as unglamorous a friendly can be. In their send-off before crossing the Atlantic Ocean, Cesare Prandelli’s Italy side hosted minnows Luxembourg on Wednesday evening in Perugia.
In the end Italy were held to an embarrassing 1-1 draw. There may be some recrimination about the result – today’s La Gazzetta dello Sport headline borrowed from the national anthem, ‘where is the victory?’ – one which extends the winless streak to seven matches. Will it have much of an effect on Azzurri preparations for Group D? Unlikely.
Italy should have won – they hit the woodwork twice – as the visitors netted a late equaliser from a corner. Ultimately, the result is not significant, as Marco Verratti noted. There are two points of concern however - one stemming from Verratti’s post-match comments - in that Italy continue to experiment so close to the Cup: “This was the first game in which we tried a new plan. It’s unthinkable that we’d be at our best already. We’re working hard, but we know that when the World Cup comes around we’ll be ready.” It poses the question – does Prandelli know his best team and system?
Another is the missed chances, something the CT spoke of. “Mario [Balotelli] had two good opportunities in the first half, and had another chance when [Antonio] Cassano came on. We’ve missed a few chances tonight, and then conceded a goal from a corner.”
The importance of this fixture came from its proximity to Brazil, with it a chance for the chosen 23 to impress. Prandelli named his team on Tuesday but was forced into one late change, Leonardo Bonucci replacing Juventus teammate Andrea Barzagli in the heart of defence – the latter succumbing to fever. The main points of focus would be on the midfield and attacking structure.
Verratti impressed against the Republic of Ireland on Saturday and did so again in his 55 minutes here, allowing for the discrepancy between the two sides. The Paris Saint-Germain man showed his usual confidence in possession and creative vision. And in what was just his second outing alongside Andrea Pirlo, they showed their unfamiliarity and on occasion crowded similar areas, but overall it was a pleasing performance.
While the midfield trio were happy to move around, Daniele De Rossi was the central figure. He dropped deep as the full-backs advanced and was the origin for many forays from defence. It also meant Pirlo played on the left. It’s a position Massimiliano Allegri wanted him to occupy in 2011 for Milan, but was a cause for his departure to Juventus. Here Pirlo did line up in that role and while not one of his better games it may be a glimpse into the midfield against England.
Further a-field Claudio Marchisio and Antonio Candreva took turns getting close to lone striker Balotelli, with the Juve man opening the scoring early by heading in a fine Super Mario cross. What was nominally a trident attack, the pair had licence to drift infield. At some points it looked a narrow ‘Christmas tree’ formation, with Marchisio and Candreva moving centrally to create options and openings. There were some teething issues. “At times we were quite crowded in the middle, and had spaces out wide,” Prandelli commented. That’s important too for the defensive phase, helping ensure the full-backs do not get overloaded. It also goes back to the point of experimentation, but does show Italy have a number of good options in personnel and system to choose from.
Nonetheless, that movement is something Italy can utilise to their advantage. Two players introduced in the second half –Cassano, who looked dangerous, and Alessio Cerci – can work well out wide or free roaming just off the main striker.
Prandelli acknowledges Italy can improve, but remains confident for the World Cup: “We have tried a few things. But there are a few things that we need to improve on... But we’ll keep working. We know we can have a great World Cup.”
Their campaign starts in nine days. It will be some task for Roy Hodgson to decipher what he’s learnt about the Azzurri recently given they have so many faces. Oh, and in case you didn’t know – Italy don’t excel in friendlies.