The draw for Brazil 2014 didn’t help the Azzurri.
The way the matches and opponents are laid out, Cesare Prandelli’s squad can’t afford any slip-ups in the group stage as they kick-off their campaign with a tough debut against England.
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However Italy, sitting ninth in the Fifa rankings, are renowned for winning the tournament when you least expect them to.
|Italy’s World Cup squad|
Buffon (Juventus), Perin (Genoa), Sirigu (Paris St. Germain)
Abate (Milan), Barzagli (Juventus), Bonucci (Juventus), Chiellini (Juventus), Darmian (Torino), De Sciglio (Milan), Paletta (Parma)
Aquilani (Fiorentina), Candreva (Lazio), De Rossi (Roma), Marchisio (Juventus), Thiago Motta (Paris St. Germain), Parolo (Parma), Pirlo (Juventus), Verratti (Paris St. Germain)
“The Azzurri’s strength lies in their history,” Stefano Agresti, deputy editor-in-chief of Corriere dello sport, told Al Jazeera. “Italy are masters when it gets to important competitions and they rarely fail in the ‘real’ matches. The last two times they have won the World Cup (in 1982 and 2006), they were not viewed as favourites at all.”
However, Agresti identifies Italy’s weak point as the crisis Italian football and all major Italian clubs have been facing in the last few years.
Unexpectedly, Fiorentina striker Giuseppe Rossi was left out of Italy’s final 23-man squad, despite recovering from a serious knee injury in record time. His issues with form and confidence have made him too much of a risk to take to Brazil for the Azzurri boss.
“I wanted to see something more from him (Rossi) on the field,” Prandelli had said at a pre-friendly press conference ahead of Italy’s 1-1 draw with Luxembourg in Perugia. “I wanted a striker who was playing as a striker, but I did not see what I wanted.”
It was the Azzurri’s last test game before departing for Brazil.
Besides former Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli, Parma’s Antonio Cassano was also one of the five forwards named by the coach, along with Torino striker Ciro Immobile who was top scorer in Serie A last season with 22 league goals and was just signed by Borussia Dortmund.
And Balotelli’s physical state is currently Italy’s main issue according to Vittorio Oreggia, editor-in-chief of Tutto Sport.
“His uncertain form is one of the main weaknesses of the team, in addition to the side’s little options on back wingers,” Oreggia said. “I am also convinced that Immobile can be the Azzuri’s key man at the World Cup, but that is if Prandelli puts him on the field.”
Eyeing the quarters
Italy captain Buffon said the quarter-finals are Italy’s minimum target in at the World Cup.
“From the quarter-finals onwards, we can say it has been a positive tournament,” Buffon explained, speaking to the press at Italy’s Coverciano training camp. “But we have to be honest and recognise the value of other rivals. When you talk about Spain, Argentina, Brazil and Germany, they are all a step ahead. We are behind them, alongside France and Belgium, who could reach the semi-finals and it wouldn’t be a surprise.”
Italy do have the right mix of experience and talent on the team to make it to the final stages of the tournament. The Azzurri are traditionally strong at the back with Buffon still shining at top level, but their real strength is in the middle of the pitch. Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi headline a side that features many top players. PSG’s Marco Verratti and Juventus’ Claudio Marchisio complete a midfield sector that can match up or be even better than any other nationals in Brazil.
So the team’s biggest variable lies in the forward line and in Italy’s top striker Balotelli. If the AC Milan forward proves his fitness and plays at his potential, Prandelli’s team has a realistic opportunity of reaching the final once again.
If he doesn’t, it could become a struggle for Italy to even progress from the group.