Azzurri hope to end 44-year drought
The Azzurri hopes to end 44 years of drought at continental competition. For a nation which has won the World Cup the maximum time from the continent, and yet won the continental honours only once, this is a pivotal tournament. Rossella Marrai brings to life the Azzurri preparation and issues
Italy will look to replicate their only Euro success from 1968, forty-four years later, when they kick off their tournament in Poland on June 10, against the defending European champions Spain. Drawn alongside the 2010 FIFA World Cup winners and the Azzurri in Group C, lies the tricky Croatia and Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland; a group Cesare Prandelli was well conscious to the difficulty of the various tasks which lies ahead.
“It’s a very difficult group. We didn’t want to meet Trapattoni for many reasons. Plus we’ll meet the world champions. We have to be well prepared in June (2012), because it will be a very tough tournament for us,” Prandelli told Rai shortly after the Euro draw took place.
“I don’t know who will be the worst opponent between Croatia and Ireland, it will depend on the physical shape in June.
“I know that Trapattoni will try to get the best results until the end. Trapattoni told me that he wanted to bring Ireland to train in Italy before the tournament, but now he will change his plans. We will stay in Krakow.”
There is little to be said about Spain that isn’t already known to the football fans, but it is the remaining two teams where things can get complicated for the Azzurri. Hoping to progress past the first round, shockingly only managing to surpass once in the last three editions of the tournament, the Italian coach has his work cut out.
After the disaster of 2010 World Cup under Marcello Lippi, Prandelli has built a squad which ensured a swift qualification and his players became one of the first teams guaranteed to be travelling to Poland and Ukraine. Conceding the lowest amount of goals in the qualifiers out of all qualifying nations, with the ball beating Gianluigi Buffon on just two occasions, it is expected- especially given the several doubts on the opposite end of the field to have hit the squad- that the defence will once more play a huge part for Italy.
Undergoing a relatively smooth travel in the qualifiers, many are expecting a similar walk in the park from the former Fiorentina coach’s men in June; however things have since changed in the turn of the New Year.
Guiseppe Rossi, who was capped seven times in the qualifiers, has since been ruled out of the Euro after he has to undergo further knee surgery to repair torn ligaments, while Antonio Cassano- who was the most capped forward for Italy with 10 appearances- will have little over two months action under his belt after suffering a surprising stroke in October.
Prandelli had previously stated that he would wait and save a spot for the two forwards, as they are ‘best-suited to our style of play’ but now it seems as if all hopes remain on the former Real Madrid man, who so inspiringly lead the four times World Champions in the group qualifiers.
Mario Balotelli is another character, whose future is in doubt after he was left out of the team’s friendlies due to previous incidences of him breaking the ‘code of ethics’ Prandelli has so clearly laid out. It was against Arsenal where Super Mario may have dug his grave further following his dismissal for unsporting behavior.
Often the face of controversy, the big question falls on whether or not the 54-year-old should bend the rules for the former Inter player, or stick by them and leave behind another one of Italy’s three strongest forwards.
With no Rossi and a Cassano who will be lacking full season fitness, leaving behind the 21-year-old could prove to be Prandelli’s biggest pitfall seeing that there is no other current striker who made waves in Serie A this season.
Unless some twist of unfortunate fate had to occur on Buffon, he will command from in between the sticks, while fellow Scudetto winners Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci are expected to be starters; having tallied up the most appearances out of the defensive unit. Andrea Barzagli, another Juventus defender, can legitimately claim to be the best of the trio in Serie A and two of these three would appear in Prandelli’s backline.
Catenaccio has probably been Italy’s most potent strategy against big guns and with little depth in the attacking front force; a Juventus-inspired backline is expected to conduct the way to any potential success.
The 2011-12 Scudetto winning champions will have an equal amount of inspiration in the midfield with Claudio Marchisio and Andrea Pirlo set to be the focal points of play. The Juventus duo paired up next to each other with six and nine appearances respectively in 2011-12 and are expected to do the same alongside the deep lying defensive midfielder of Roma’s Daniele De Rossi.
Riccardo Montolivo was the midfielder with the second highest number of appearances in the qualifiers, falling one short of Pirlo’s tally. Given his displays of having to independently steer Fiorentina to Serie A safety, the midfielder will prove to be equally fundamental, notching up a tally of three assists to his name in the qualifiers-more than any Azzurri player.
It has been suggested that the furthest the Azzurri may be able to progress is to a semi-final spot but the tactician has the utmost faith in his current crop of players and will not settle for anything less than the ultimate success.
“I wouldn’t be happy to accept fourth place at the European Championship. I want to dream and we will set off with that dream,” noted Prandelli. “This side has performed above the expectations, but we have plenty of room to improve.”
Room to improve there certainly is as the Azzurri have been far from impressive in their international friendly games coming into the tournament. Since then, Prandelli has made it clear- after trying several evolving formations- that he has come up with a set formation and he is planning to keep it rigid.
“I need to pick the players that suit it- not those who can adapt,” he added.
The Orzinouvi-born coach underlined the failure that was the 2010 World Cup campaign in South Africa but what he should have done is to point out the only constant that Italy have had in the European championship – is their general lack of achievement. Yet it could be a pointer to the only time the Azzurri won the European Championship in 1968, they had come off a similar shameful exit in the previous world cup of 1966.
Despite being a dominant world powerhouse in football, the Azzurri have constantly proven to be underachievers in the Euro, bringing home the title just once. The Euro has often proven to be an unwanted distraction after a long domestic campaign, but this time it seems that Prandelli may have instilled more of a hunger for success in his current crop of players and without doubt he won’t be taking players who feel more obligated to be there than willing.
Failing to meet the expectations of their doting ‘tifosi’ on so often an occasion, recent times it has become the norm that less is expected of the famous players who sport the famous Azzurri shirt. Nevertheless, the encouraging qualifying campaign has seemed to have left some sort of air of optimism before the final trip to Ukraine and Poland, with the players carrying the belief that the tides have turned since their disappointing run after the 2006 World Cup triumph.
One such player who thinks the four times World Champions are a work in progress is the Brazilian-born Italian midfielder Thiago Motta, and he believes his fellow colleagues’ determination to give it their utmost will fall in favour of them in June.
“There is still something missing, but I don’t think it’s bad to arrive at EURO with high expectations,” the PSG player told UEFA.com. “Teams like Spain, the Netherlands and Germany are the favourites, but our preparations are going really well, so that we will be 100% when we get there: that will be Italy’s strength.”
It is difficult to predict the often unpredictable nature of the Mediterranean outfit’s mentality, but should they manage to continue in the cohesive unit they created in the qualifying campaign. And should Prandelli manage to create a hunger pang for success in his boys, there is little doubt- with the quality in which ‘La Nazionale’ possesses- that the 23 selected players could bring home one more trophy to add to the cabinet.