Prandelli’s Azzurri plight

Richard Thomas looks back at where it all went wrong for Cesare Prandelli, both in the run up to and during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Such was the extent of Italy’s failure at this summer’s World Cup that, in the intervening time between the Azzurri’s elimination and the end of the tournament, the Coach who presided over it all has resigned from his post and found a job elsewhere.

It is a scenario that would have seemed unthinkable even in the very recent past. After all, only at the end of May did Cesare Prandelli finally bow to the will of the Italian Football Federation by signing a two-year contract extension, putting an end to months of speculation about his future. The Azzurri boss’ renewal was mostly well-received and, in many people’s eyes, represented a just reward for the work he had done with the Nazionale up until that point. A World Cup of promise lay ahead…

Or so it seemed. A hard-fought opening win over England provided Prandelli with a positive start to the Azzurri’s campaign in Brazil, but subsequent capitulations against Costa Rica and Uruguay sent the team spiralling out of the competition at the Group Stage. Before he even left the Estadio das Dunas following the decisive defeat against the South Americans, Prandelli fell on his sword and was gone.

Where did it all go wrong for the 56-year-old, who within a month was at Galatasaray? With the benefit of hindsight, many would now argue that the writing was on the wall long before the tournament kicked-off. The Azzurri’s preparations at their Coverciano base ran smoothly enough, but two bore-draw friendlies with Republic of Ireland and Luxembourg saw Prandelli repeatedly alter his formation and the team struggle for cohesion as a result.

“If you haven’t worked the formation out, it shows we are on the right track,” he said to journalists after watching his team held by the footballing minnows. “We don’t want you to understand anything.” It was hardly alarm bell territory at this stage, with Prandelli having consistently stressed the need for the Azzurri to remain an unpredictable prospect for their opponents. Neither was it anything new for Italy to be struggling during the build-up to a major tournament. Nevertheless, it did not exactly inspire confidence.

Then there was Prandelli’s decision to omit Giuseppe Rossi from his final 23-man squad. The Fiorentina forward, who was in prolific form for his club side before knee ligament damage ruled him out for almost the entire second half of the season, had been working tirelessly in his bid to return to fitness. After he successfully negotiated 70 minutes of the match with the Irish, it seemed he had all but secured his place in Brazil. It was a major shock therefore when the 27-year-old missed out. The Azzurri’s subsequent lack of cutting edge once the tournament got underway ensured it was a decision that would come back to haunt Prandelli.

A 5-3 friendly victory over Brazilian club side Fluminense in the Azzurri’s final friendly before the tournament restored some calm, but it also led to strong calls for hat-trick hero Ciro Immobile to lead the line instead of Mario Balotelli. Prandelli, however, stuck to his guns and played the controversial Milan forward as originally planned. Balotelli rewarded his Coach’s faith, scoring the winner against England and keeping both his and Prandelli’s critics at bay. For the time being.

An insipid display against the unfancied Costa Ricans in Recife six days later brought about a 1-0 defeat for Italy, putting the pressure back on and qualification in the balance. Once again, it was demanded that Immobile be included in the starting line-up for the crunch final group meeting with Uruguay. This time, the CT obliged. What’s more, he completely altered the shape of his team. Immobile was paired with Balotelli, something Prandelli heavily hinted he would never consider doing just weeks before, while the tried and trusted Juventus back three of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci represented a change from the four-man defence deployed in the opening two fixtures.

Whether this was a case of Prandelli showing the tactical flexibility he set so much store by or simply bowing to public demand, the move backfired. The Azzurri only needed at draw to secure progression but, after seeing Claudio Marchisio sent off, they succumbed to Diego Godin’s header 10 minutes from time and elimination was confirmed. Luis Suarez’s bite on Chiellini and the subsequent fall-out may have grabbed all the post-match headlines, but in truth it merely masked what was another tame performance by the Nazionale. They had not done enough over the three games to get through.

Prandelli immediately took full responsibility for the Azzurri’s failure, claiming that his ‘technical project had failed’. Though his exploits at Euro 2012 would probably have spared him the sack had he not resigned, he did not wait to find out. Too many of his key decisions had not borne fruit.