When Italy and England clash on Saturday in Manaus it won’t just be the meeting of two proud European footballing nations desperate to hit the ground running in World Cup Group D. For Cesare Prandelli and Roy Hodgson, the encounter at Arena Amazonia represents the sort of test both Coaches will be required to win in order to silence their long-term detractors.
With the hour of reckoning approaching, there seems to be an unmistakable air of acceptance around both countries that it is a question of when rather than if the Azzurri and Three Lions fall short in their pursuit of glory.
“At the start of every tournament there is always pessimism in Italy, that’s how we are,” Prandelli said of the scepticism back home earlier this week. “Maybe psychologically we need this feeling of insecurity and criticism. I am calm because we have worked well.”
There are a few reasons for the mixed feelings about Prandelli’s team. The Azzurri are, of course, on a seven-match winless streak in international matches, having looked decidedly average in two of their recent three friendlies against Republic of Ireland and Luxembourg. Sunday’s 5-3 win over Brazilian club side Fluminense was welcome, but the three matches as a whole have raised more questions than answers as to how Italy will line-up against England, with several formations and combinations having been trialled.
“If you haven’t worked them out, it shows we are on the right track,” Prandelli told journalists. “We don’t want anyone to understand anything.” While the aim of the former Fiorentina boss’ experimentation is clearly to keep Hodgson second-guessing the make-up of his team until the latest possible moment, it is a strategy that will backfire badly should the Azzurri fail in Manaus.
“Modern teams should have two or three ways to play and, from time to time, in consideration of the opponent, you must take the appropriate solutions,” World Cup winning tactician Marcello Lippi said in support of Prandelli’s methods. Should Italy lose to the Three Lions on Saturday, however, the 56-year-old will be accused of over-complicating his plans when his focus would have been better served establishing a settled starting XI and formation.
If it remains unclear as to how the Azzurri will line-up in Manaus, Hodgson is almost certain to go with the staple 4-2-3-1 that got England through qualifying. The 66-year-old has presided over a characteristically calm and low-key build-up to England’s arrival in Brazil and, on a personal level, the match against the Italians and World Cup campaign as a whole represents a shot at redemption in the big time.
Spells at the two biggest club jobs he landed – Inter and Liverpool – both ended in disappointment, at Anfield spectacularly so, meaning that he has never been held in as high acclaim in his homeland as he has in the likes of Scandinavia and Switzerland, where he tasted success. In England, the general consensus of Hodgson is that he is a Coach of caution rather than flamboyance, and of substance rather than style.
With the usual stratospheric levels of expectation results-wise surrounding the Three Lions at major tournaments absent this time around, one thing that will be required of Hodgson will be to demonstrate a proactive, forward thinking approach. With an influx of bright, young talent at his disposal, England will be expected to show more ambition than in their backs-to-the-wall effort against the Azzurri at Euro 2012. Much of their chances of doing so will depend on their ability to prevent Andrea Pirlo exerting the same level of dominance he did on that night in Kiev, when the Three Lions were chasing shadows for long spells. A repeat performance of attacking ineptitude and the wrong result at the end of it would not be good news for Hodgson.
Though the match in Manaus is not quite do or die for Prandelli and Hodgson, victory for either would go a long way to silencing their respective doubters for the time being at least. A draw would not be viewed as disastrous, but with both sides harbouring weaknesses the other will feel they can prey upon, the opportunity is there for one of Italy and England to make a real statement on Saturday. Both Coaches will be hoping the only heat they will be feeling on Sunday morning is the one in the Amazon air.