Thursday September 8 2011
An unqualified success

How good is this Italy team? Antonio Labbate warns you not to solely base your answer on the results of their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign.

France arrived at the 1992 European Championships in style. Coached by Juventus legend Michel Platini and possessing a squad which contained the likes of Laurent Blanc, Didier Deschamps, Eric Cantona and Jean-Pierre Papin, they booked their place in Sweden with an ease that many subsequently mistranslated as strength.

In a qualifying group which contained Spain and Czechoslovakia, they collected eight wins from eight games before flopping at the Finals themselves. After two draws and a defeat, they left the competition early, along with England, as Sweden and eventual winners Denmark – who initially didn't even qualify – progressed to the knock-out stages.

Almost 20 years later and Italy have made light work of booking their place at the European Championships. With 22 points collected from a possible 24, never before had the Azzurri qualified for the Finals with two games to spare. Their achievement is viewed as even more impressive when you consider that they've conceded just one goal in Group C and kept seven consecutive clean sheets.

The numbers make great reading, especially given that they come a little over a year after one of the darkest chapters in the nation's footballing history. Few expected the road to Ukraine and Poland, after that South African 2010 debacle, to be so simple.

"We went against our traditions," admitted goalkeeper Gigi Buffon. "Italy usually suffer until the final game before qualifying, but this certainly gives us a lot of belief and enthusiasm. Rising so quickly from the ashes of the 2010 World Cup was better than anyone could've hoped for."

Boss Cesare Prandelli is undoubtedly the architect behind the Azzurri's revival on the international stage. Although the change in fortunes is arguably as a result of the manner in which the side now play, rather than thanks to a mass overhaul of personnel. The tactician has obviously brought new faces into the set-up, but there has been evolution rather than revolution.

Of the 11 players who started Italy's opening game at World Cup 2010 against Paraguay, seven were included in Prandelli's latest party. A further five men were in both squads. There is also the reality that Italy lack enough true world class players. There may even be an argument as to whether they have at least one. "It's a Serie B Nazionale," some in the Italian media scoffed last autumn.

What that means is that if Italy are to seriously challenge next summer then they'll have to do it as a team and thanks to a concise brand of football, rather than rely on the individual brilliance of one or two players. The former Fiorentina boss has understood as much and the quality of the football has improved as a consequence.

Prandelli clearly believes in the project he has embarked on, but he has also made it clear that he's in no position to promise European Championship victory. He knows that there is much work to do and there are a number of questions which remain unanswered, partly because of a lack of adequate opponents.

While you can only beat what is in front of you, Italy's biggest test so far should have been the home game against Serbia. Instead, they were handed a 3-0 victory by UEFA after the match was abandoned due to crowd trouble. They'll now travel to Belgrade next month with nothing to play for. A truly competitive game in Serbia may have been more beneficial in the long term for this developing side.

Conversely, the non-importance of that away game will allow Prandelli to perhaps try new things. Having seemingly decided upon a 4-3-1-2 system, there are times when the lack of pace in the team leads to sterile possession that is incapable of breaking down a well organised and deep-lying opponent.

The change to 4-3-3 against Slovenia illustrated that Cesare's Italy have to adapt to certain situations, but it also suggested that Mario Balotelli may have a bigger part to play than simply from the bench.

While it's right for optimism to have replaced pessimism within the Giro Azzurro, it's also advisable to remain within the realms of reality. Italy are on the right path, but history tells us that the road to European Championship glory is rarely as straightforward as the one to qualification.

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