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Italy – Group C
Coach: Cesare Prandelli.
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Morgan De Sanctis (Napoli), Salvatore Sirigu (Paris Saint-Germain).
Defenders: Ignazio Abate (AC Milan), Federico Balzaretti (Palermo), Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Christian Maggio (Napoli), Angelo Ogbonna (Torino).
Midfielders: Daniele De Rossi (Roma), Alessandro Diamanti (Bologna), Emanuele Giaccherini (Juventus) Claudio Marchisio (Juventus), Riccardo Montolivo (Fiorentina), Thiago Motta (Paris Saint-Germain), Antonio Nocerino (AC Milan), Andrea Pirlo (Juventus).
Forwards: Mario Balotelli (Manchester City), Fabio Borini (Roma), Antonio Cassano (AC Milan), Antonio Di Natale (Udinese), Sebastian Giovinco (Parma).
Likely formation: 4-3-1-2 / 3-5-2
Probably, there is no more erratic national football team than Italy when time to participate in European Championship or World Cup comes. Not that unusually for Italian standards, the Azzurri have always shone in tournaments to which they arrived as underdogs or following a massive scandal.
It happened in 1982, when Juventus striker Paolo Rossi joined the national team just in time for the World Cup after a two-year ban because of the Totonero betting scandal. It happened the same in 2006, when the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal burst just before the World Cup in Germany. On that occasion, many journalists sent goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and head coach Marcello Lippi to the gallows, but they eventually lionised them as Italy grabbed their fourth World Cup.
Six years later, the scenario is almost the same, the main difference being that the Azzurri are about to compete in the European Championship after the dismal World Cup campaign. Historically, the Italians have won just one Delaunay Cup, on their own soil, in 1968 – they defeated the Soviet Union in the semi-finals courtesy of toss of coin and they finally overwhelmed lethal Yugoslavia after the replay of the final.
The umpteenth scandal in football afflicted Italy a couple of weeks before their first match against reigning champions Spain. Notable players like Lazio captain Stefano Mauri and Padova midfielder Omar Milanetto were arrested for their alleged involvement in the Calcioscommesse affair and police showed up at Coverciano central training, similarly to 1980, when footballers were handcuffed inside stadia. It was not the only cause of destabilization, though, for a national team representing a country entirely infected by corruption.
Two players of the national team, left back Domenico Criscito and centre back Leonardo Bonucci, are currently under judicial inquiry. However, head coach Cesare Prandelli controversially decided to exclude from the final squad the former but not the latter, a current Juventus defender whose accusations of sporting fraud refer to the time he was a Bari player. Secondly, captain Gianluigi Buffon is under the spotlight, too, for the huge amount of money wasted in sport bets and he exacerbated his position by harshly criticising journalists during a press conference.
Moreover, Prandelli had to face several technical difficulties. At the time of writing, injured centre back Andrea Barzagli is likely to be definitely replaced for the rest of the tournament by Davide Astori, initially cut off the 23-player squad. In addition, his Juvenus team-mate Giorgio Chiellini, a key player of the team, might miss the first match.
The big issue for Prandelli is the formation. Throughout the qualifiers, in which Italy topped their group with eight wins and just two draws, he has always relied upon a back four, three midfielders, a deep-lying forward and two strikers. Sadly, the severe 3-0 defeat in the friendly match against Russia proved this is not the most suitable strategy. For instance, wingback Christian Maggio has been playing in a 3-5-2 formation for many years with Napoli and this could lead Prandelli to review his ideas concerning the tactics. The rearguard against Spain might be uncommonly comprised by solid Giorgio Chiellini, Torino’s Angelo Ogbonna and Daniele De Rossi, a natural-born central midfielder.
The halfway line might particularly suffer the hypotetical absence or bad condition of playmaker Andrea Pirlo. Alternatively, Riccardo Montolivo would be the creative fulcrum but at the same time he has never demonstrated to be the natural heir to the Juventus regista. On the plus side, Antonio Nocerino and Claudio Marchisio provided very good displays throughout the season respectively with AC Milan and Juventus. The former had his best ever season by scoring 10 goals in the league, including a hat-trick, the latter significantly contributed to the conquest of the national title with 9 goals.
The front line is perhaps the department over which clouds mostly gather. Prandelli did not opt for a classic top-drawer centre-forward and he decided not to call the likes of Alessandro Matri or Giampaolo Pazzini, with whom he had troubled relationships as Fiorentina manager. Differently, he has picked tiny and gifted offensive midfielders such as Sebastian Giovinco, back from an outstanding season with Parma, and Antonio Cassano, who was away from football grounds from November to April due to heart surgery.
Ex-Chelsea academy Fabio Borini, one of the few positive notes in the lacklustre season of Roma, is the outsider, while goal proficiency will rely on Mario Balotelli and Antonio Di Natale. The flamboyant Manchester City striker is a pure talent, but his indiscipline put him in the position of risking to miss the tournament. He has always advocated to have reached his maturity and the Euros are definitely the opportunity to prove it. On the other hand, Di Natale has emerged in the last three seasons as a prolific goal scorer for Udinese but he has never impressed in major tournaments. Perhaps this is the reason Prandelli is keen to field Balotelli and Cassano, who, on their part, have always been excluded by his predecessor Marcello Lippi.
Three consecutive defeats in the last friendly matches. A huge scandal involving two players and ruining once again the image of Italian football. Many doubts regarding the strategy for the starting XI. Yet, Italy might work it out again, investing on enthusiasm and team spirit. Taking into account that the 2006 squad looked more equipped and experienced with the likes of Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Del Piero, Filippo Inzaghi and Alessandro Nesta, reaching an eventual final this time would be another Italian miracle.