“Where is the victory?” they said. “Italy can’t win anymore,” they said. “Embarrassing. A mini Korea,” they said. Then was it only fitting that the newspapers were in for a rude awakening once Italy had showcased some of their most exciting football in recent memory on Sunday.
Italy’s form in 2014 has been well documented. A 1-1 draw with Luxembourg last week was considered the ultimate low point of their seven-match winless run, but the results don’t paint the full picture, even if their performance against Republic of Ireland may have been the exception.
In typically-Azzurri fashion, pre-World Cup friendlies have explicitly been used for experimentation. As efficient as their qualification campaign was, they rarely set the world alight, prompting fears that they would need significantly more to challenge for international supremacy.
Nevertheless, they exhibited a fluid attacking display in the 5-3 victory over Brazilian side Fluminense, a match which marked their last clash before their opening duel with England. They had played at a similar tempo against the Benelux nation only a few days prior - minus the clinical finishing and spots of wretched defending.
With no Mario Balotelli present in the first XI, and two attacking midfielders in Marco Parolo and Alberto Aquilani named in the centre of a 4-3-3 formation, Italy did away with the tactical mish-mash that the fans had recently become accustomed to. The fact that this would be their final opportunity to inspire some confidence back home probably played on Cesare Prandelli’s mind before kick-off.
Ciro Immobile’s hat-trick and a brace from Lorenzo Insigne weren’t the only bright spots either. The midfield looked bright and functional, with a succession of through balls and possession adeptly recycled, while width was always on hand thanks to the breezy movement of the Napoli forward and, to a lesser extent, Alessio Cerci.
Mattia Perin may not have exactly covered himself in glory with positional errors in two of Fluminense’s goals, the full-backs may have found themselves exposed far too often, and neither perhaps did Aquilani justify his inclusion in the 23-man party. But even all that aside, plenty of positives have been extracted from their pre-tournament experiences.
The influence of ex-Pescara trio Immobile, Insigne and Marco Verratti over the three matches has led to wider-reaching consequences in two fundamental areas. In Immobile, there is now a proven alternative to Balotelli, if the enigmatic striker fails to deliver. But most importantly, Verratti and Insigne have shown that they can bear the creative burden either with or without Andrea Pirlo on the pitch.
Identifying positives is a trait that the English are still seemingly incapable of, and judging by their draws against Ecuador and Honduras, the Three Lions appear no nearer to solving the conundrum that is Wayne Rooney – only exacerbated by former teammate Paul Scholes’ suggestion that the No 10’s best days have passed.
Elsewhere, Uruguay’s preparations have been distracted by Luis Suarez’s race to make himself available for their clash with Costa Rica, who in turn had happily gone about their business with a minimum amount of fuss – that is until Giancarlo Gonzalez’s left Ireland’s Kevin Doyle wounded after an ugly altercation at the weekend to leave his World Cup participation in the balance.
“Listen to me: these friendlies don't count. Friendlies played before big tournaments matter as much as football played in August, don't give too much weight to them,” commented 2006 World Cup-winning Coach Marcello Lippi. Combined with his heir’s ice-cool approach to criticism, self-belief has been Italy’s joker in the pack in past tournaments and will remain that way.
The 2-2 draw with Haiti prior to last year’s Confederations Cup culminated in an impressive third place, while they crumbled to a 3-0 defeat to Russia before finishing as runners-up at Euro 2012. It cannot be merely coincidence. It all lies in the preparation.