When Italy Under-21 Coach Azeglio Vicini inherited the top job from Enzo Bearzot after Mexico 1986, he took charge of an ageing squad in need of an overhaul. Just as Bearzot found when he took the role from Ferruccio Valcareggi following the 1974 World Cup, Italy had relied on its veteran stars one tournament too many.
Antonio Cabrini, Fulvio Collovati, Gaetano Scirea, Marco Tardelli, Bruno Conti and Paolo Rossi would not make it to West Germany. Experienced Alessandro Altobelli – a rare shining light in a disappointing Mexico campaign, scorer of four goals out of five as Italy scraped to the Second Round with just one win – remained in the Giro Azzurro, as did Giuseppe Bergomi, the new captain.
Along with Franco Baresi – never a favourite of Bearzot – were exciting talents Roberto Donadoni, Giuseppe Giannini, Paolo Maldini and Gianluca Vialli, all part of the Vicini revamp as only two players over 30 travelled to Euro ‘88.
Fast forward to the current era and Cesare Prandelli also inherited a squad desperate for rejuvenation. Marcello Lippi was also guilty of relying on his heroes of 2006 in South Africa and Italy paid the price, failing to win a match. Fabio Cannavaro, Gennaro Gattuso, Gianluca Zambrotta, Mauro Camoranesi and Vincenzo Iaquinta have been ousted by the new breed – Antonio Cassano, Mario Balotelli, Claudio Marchisio and Angelo Ogbonna amongst them.
Like Vicini, Prandelli has also worked extensively with youngsters, stemming from spells at Atalanta, Verona and Fiorentina as he aims to restore faith in the Azzurri. “We want to narrow the gap with the top teams, but it’s not easy. The key is to try and play quality football, football with imagination,” he noted early in his reign.
Vicini was able to build his team from one of the best generations of Italian defenders, fielding goalkeeper Walter Zenga, plus Baresi, Bergomi, Maldini and Riccardo Ferri. In reserve he could rely on Pietro Vierchowod and Ciro Ferrara, while Prandelli looks to centre his backline on the black and white wall which conceded just 20 goals in Serie A this term.
In midfield both seek the inspiration of their director. For Vicini, Giuseppe Giannini had a fine debut tournament and was instrumental in the 4-4-2 system. His 2012 equivalent is the mercurial Andrea Pirlo – back to his best this season – who is the base of the 4-3-1-2 midfield.
In 1988’s attack Vialli was the focal creative point as he sealed Italy’s place in the Championships by downing Sweden before netting once in four matches. Prandelli has pinned his hopes on Cassano, peerless during qualifying but recently returned from his medical problem. A force like the Cremona native, Cassano will be hoping his third European Championships can erase past disappointments.
Both tacticians were forced to mull over their strike partner. With Altobelli a super-sub, Roberto Mancini was given his chance following no international goal in 14 appearances and repaid the faith in the opening match against the hosts. After Giuseppe Rossi’s injury Prandelli may place his trust in Balotelli, who like his club Coach is temperamental and has only one international goal so far.
Vicini’s men reached the final four by following up their draw with West Germany with wins over Denmark and Spain. They were eliminated by the disciplined Soviet Union, who stifled Italy’s creativity. For the Azzurri it was a warm-up for two years later, when Italy hoped to win the World Cup on home soil. Prandelli is eager Poland and Ukraine will witness the growth of his squad as he casts one eye towards Brazil 2014. But he will be hoping his Italy – averaging around 26 years of age – can also make an impression, just as Vicini’s vibrant team did 24 years ago.