Doubt is traditional Italian fare served up before any tournament. Doubts about readiness. The selection. Tactics. Injuries. Focus, after late-night marriage proposals. But this Azzurri group, like the best of those that had gone before them, is fuelled by the doubt of those around them.
The tension before Italy’s curtain raiser against England had hung thick in the air. The Three Lions camp insisted they had their Group D rivals figured out, pronouncing they had devised a way to make the ethereal Andrea Pirlo look human. And then to compound matters, Gianluigi Buffon and Mattia De Sciglio chose the worst moments to pull up lame.
Instead of taking a dip, Italy’s preparations soared for the clash in Manaus. Riding their luck at times against their opponent’s effervescent attacking moves, they picked their moments to strike. There was a priceless relief when Claudio Marchisio opened the scoring from distance. An unwithheld outpouring of joy followed when Mario Balotelli rose highest to thump in what turned out to be the winner.
Because winning the encounter on penalties when the two nations met in Euro 2012 was too prosaic, this time Italy finished the job in 90 minutes. The woodwork struck by Antonio Candreva and Pirlo, along with Phil Jagielka’s magnificent goalline clearance on Balotelli, confirmed Italy’s superiority for the second competitive fixture in as many years.
It was the positive start Cesare Prandelli had desired. The Coach had emphasised the importance of announcing themselves in the right way. Not just to the rest of the competition or onlookers, but their inner sceptics as well. Victory may just have stirred a flicker of belief in them.
For the five survivors of the Nazionale’s disastrous group stage exit at South Africa 2010, the desire for restart was met with result. The others, untested on the world stage, basked in the watershed moment. Circumstances ensured they were tested by it throughout. Many emerged looking the part in their country’s shirt.
“Salvatore Sirigu did really well and he stepped up when needed after years of coming in as part of the group. Matteo Darmian, Marco Verratti, Ciro Immobile and even Mario Balotelli were all making their World Cup debuts and proved themselves to be up to the task,” Daniele De Rossi praised. He and Pirlo were totems at the centre of Italy’s best moves.
Prandelli had confirmed that everyone would have the chance to defend the national colours before the World Cup was over. Going by the England display, Italy boast a raft of options. Sirigu put on a masterclass in goal. Darmian and Candreva gave a small measure of the danger the team can create on the flank in every game, with Alessio Cerci, Antonio Cassano and Lorenzo Insigne also capable of supplying the type of thrust that has been missing in wide areas for years.
Special mention must be reserved for Balotelli, who received a dream World Cup debut in his home-away-from-home, Brazil. The enigmatic 23-year-old is evidently Italy’s most gifted striker. It’s just something that requires constant repetition. But now his 11th goal in 17 competitive games, matched by his constant desire, on Saturday has confirmed the newly-engaged man’s top credentials.
Whisper it softly, but with Super Mario finding form, the Azzurri can quietly be allowed to dream that football’s greatest prize may be fractionally closer.
Naturally, there’s room for improvement. Prandelli’s cumbersome defensive selections have fallen under scrutiny. Concentration dipped last night and Italy conceded right after going in front, exactly as had happened against Spain in the group stages of Euro 2012. When there’s the win, there’s optimism. Yet Prandelli’s men are also aware of how fast the winds can change, if they let go their favourable position in the group with a slip versus Costa Rica next.
But for now, Italy have experienced the magic of the World Cup, and glimpsed where four years of work plus meticulous planning could lead them to. And just for a moment, doubts have been allowed to subside.