It's just not a major international tournament if Italy haven't managed to create turmoil and drama. In South Africa, it was their unexpected exit during the group stages, pushed out of a group of heavyweights consisting of Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand. Four years before, the focus was on calciopoli, and the clubs involved in manipulating results in Italian football. Italy won the World Cup in 2006, so perhaps the present match-fixing scandal will only help the azzurri.
At least, that's what fans (and the press) want us to believe. But last time, calciopoli barely touched the players. This time around, Cesare Prandelli dropped Domenico Criscito after the defender was questioned about his role in the scandal. Gigi Buffon is being forced to defend himself against rumours that he was involved. And the prime minister of Italy had the gall to suggest calcio be suspended for a few years, in order to clear up the mess once and for all.
But with Italy's opener against Spain less than a week away, it seems highly unlikely that the national side will be forced to pull out of the tournament. Unfortunately for Prandelli and Co., that means they're going to have to focus on playing well enough to win. And that means putting together a squad that's been falling apart over the past week.
Projected Starting Lineup (3-5-2) (We hope)
After the dismal failure that was Italy's 3-0 loss to Russia, Prandelli hinted that he'd change tactics, shifting the side into a 3-5-2. Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini (who sat out the friendly with injury) would start in the back, pushing Christian Maggio and Federico Balzaretti up to the wings. The three defenders, all Juventus men, are used to a 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 defence, and will hopefully create a stronger barrier in front of Gianluigi Buffon.This shift also relieves the burden on Christian Maggio, who started his career as a fullback but moved to wingback under Walter Mazzarri at Napoli. Considering Maggio was at least partially to blame for two of Russia's goals, the idea of giving him a solid defence that enables him to get forward -- what he does best -- is certainly appealing.
Of course, now we've got word that Barzagli could miss the group stages with a calf strain, which could mean Andrea Ranocchia being recalled to the squad. Should this occur, the 3-5-2 will most likely be scarpered. If it occurs, Balzaretti and Maggio will probably play out wide, leaving Daniele De Rossi, Claudio Marchisio and Andrea Pirlo in the center. No wonder Italia fans are rejoicing -- there's no room for Riccardo Montolivo in this formation! Monty can have a few moments of brilliance, but he often goes missing, an invisible player wandering the midfield. Prandelli pushed him up too far in the friendly against Russia, and a trequartista Montolivo ain't. But if the back three doesn't work out, we'll likely see Montolivo back in the center. Or perhaps Prandelli will come to his senses and put Antonio Nocerino in there instead. Again, we can hope.
Besides the invisible sucking hole in midfield that could occur, the system used against Russia relied too much on a weak defence. De Rossi is a destroyer, sure, but for the most part, the defence was left to the back four (or two, at times). There was very little link-up play between the defence and the midfield, allowing Russia to slip in and grab possession. If Italy continues to use two fullbacks that are fairly useless at defending, it might be wise to swap out Montolivo for a midfielder who can execute a tackle every once in awhile.
Weakness aside, when the Italia midfield is going forward, it's a thing of beauty. The attack just flows -- and add on Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli up front, and you have to wonder how on earth the Italians aren't managing to score five or six every match. Particularly since, if those front two aren't clicking, the azzurri have Antonio Di Natale and Sebastian Giovinco waiting in the wings. Di Natale may have a reputation for rarely performing in the Italian kit, but he's earned his place by the number of goals scored with Udinese over the past three seasons. Seba will likely not get much playing time, but the tiny attacker is a true danger to opposing defences, and is dying for his opportunity to prove himself on the national side. (With the recent news that Mario Balotelli left training early on Monday with a knock, Giovinco's time may come more quickly than previously thought).
Player to Watch
Andrea Pirlo. The playmaker may have just turned 33, and his face might give the impression that he's two decades older, but his right foot certainly doesn't know that it's meant to have aged. After AC Milan introduced a new policy of only offering one-year contracts to players over the age of thirty, Juventus snapped up Pirlo -- and the scudetto. Sure, it wasn't just the midfield architect that took the Old Lady to the top, but Pirlo played a significant role in helping capture the title. Just three goals in Serie A, it was his assists that were most vital, his 13 the top in the league.
Just as the success of Juventus was not entirely due to Pirlo, it's not fair to say his absence at the 2010 World Cup was the reason for their epic failure. But try to imagine this Italia side without the majestic Pirlo. He was unquestionably the best on the pitch against Russia, setting the pace and playing his passes perfectly. His set-pieces are equal to none, but even if he doesn't get the opportunity on a deadball situation, Pirlo can send a deadly pass from open play -- the question is, will his attackers have enough precision to get the ball into the back of the net?
Plus, there's always the eternal question: how does his hair stay so shiny and bouncy?
Coming out of qualification, it seemed impossible to think Italy wouldn't make it out of Group C. They were undefeated in qualifying, with a +18 goal difference and just two goals against. Two goals! Have we mentioned, yet, that Russia scored three against them less than a week ago?
Italy's not going to top their group. That'll go to Spain. But, barring another defensive meltdown, they should be able to overcome Ireland and Croatia to make it to the quarterfinals, where they'll face the winner of Group D -- the group now looking the weakest in the competition. I'm saying semi-finals, but worry not, azzurri fans -- my predictions never come true.