Monday October 10 2011
Prandelli's new Italy dilemma

Azzurri experimentation is set to begin against Northern Ireland, but, as Rob Paton asks, are we in for a surprising change in selection policy?

Against Serbia, Cesare Prandelli's team selection suggested that even though Italy were already qualified, that it was important to start the first-choice available XI. There was reluctance to experiment, which can be interpreted in a couple of ways.

First, that Serbia represented the Azzurri's sternest competitive test during Prandelli's reign and perhaps the best indication of exactly how much progress has been made with his 4-3-1-2 system. Secondly, and linked to this, that his alternatives in the squad may be there on merit, but that in carrying very little experience of international football, left Prandelli reluctant to use them.

Prandelli has been true to his word and to the post-South Africa 2010 remit – bring in new faces. A quick look at the World Cup squad under Marcello Lippi highlights the change in focus.

The likes of Mauro Camoranesi, Angelo Palombo, Vincenzo Iaquinta, Gianluca Zambrotta, Fabio Cannavaro and Antonio Di Natale are now much further and in most cases completely removed from the Azzurri picture, either through retirement or Prandelli's choice. A glance at the current squad highlights one particular area their replacements comparatively fall short on – international inexperience.

Indeed, Italy under Prandelli have a particular vulnerability to a potential imbalance of this nature – a couple of injuries and the team loses a significant proportion of its experience, with no clear replacements from the alternatives Prandelli has regularly called up to Azzurri squads.

It can be argued that Andrea Barzagli's inclusion in an Italy squad for the first time in three years is perhaps more reflective of this issue than the player's improved form at Juventus. He did not make previous Prandelli squads unlike Davide Astori, but in Andrea Ranocchia's absence from central defence, the Juve man not only came into the set-up, but into the first XI ahead of the Cagliari centre-back. Serbia was Barzagli's 26th cap, whilst Astori only has one.

Prandelli has previously hinted at the issue when fielding questions on why Gianluigi Buffon has played in friendlies against Germany and Spain when one of his back-ups could otherwise have been given a chance. To those questions, the answer has been that the Coach does not want to remove too much experience from the starting XI.

It is understandable, but there is a potential quandary developing that in many respects could go against his previous meritocracy selection policy. Whilst in Barzagli's case his club form deserved a call-up, the fact he bypassed regular Nazionale squad member Astori in particular to get into the first team highlights that in competitive games, Prandelli is still keen to replace experience like for like.

Prandelli's early success is pulling up expectations that the team will now perform in Poland-Ukraine. To ensure that though, Prandelli must ask himself whether a group of players best prepared to deal with injuries and still have the mentality in tournament football to carry the team through is currently provided for under his selection policy.

With a year of friendlies to follow Tuesday's Northern Ireland game, it will be interesting to see exactly who Prandelli chooses to experiment with. There could be a few surprises to come, and maybe a few more older returning faces like Barzagli.

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