How they got here
Beginning with straight-forward wins over Estonia and Faroe Islands as well as a hard-fought draw with Northern Ireland at Windsor Park, Italy’s relatively simple path to Poland and Ukraine was all but sealed when Serbian Ultra’s caused their game in Genoa to be called off. Eventually awarded as a 3-0 win to the home side, it saw Cesare Prandelli’s men take a virtually unassailable lead at the top of the standings which they would never relinquish.
Dropping just four points and scoring twenty goals while conceding just twice, it was one of the most dominant qualification campaigns the Azzurri have ever enjoyed. While the quality of the opposition can be called into question – as Republic of Ireland’s dismantling of second placed Estonia in the playoffs clearly attests – Italy should rightly be a team to fear once the tournament proper gets underway.
Why they'll win
Because Juventus have a good team. The famed ‘Blocco Juve’ has always carried over into a strong National team and with no fewer than seven players in Cesare Prandelli’s initial 32 man squad it seems set to form the backbone of yet another tournament for the Azzurri. Initially coined for the group of players who won six Scudetti, two Coppa Italia and a full set of European trophies, members of Giovanni Trapattoni’s side who helped Enzo Bearzot’s 1982 World Cup team to glory and reached the Semi-Final of both World Cup ’78 and the European Championships of 1980.
This time around Italy can call upon members of Antonio Conte’s title winning squad to add quality players to in key positions, actually making for a stronger team than that seen in Turin during the current campaign. Christian Maggio may be no better or worse than Stephan Lichtsteiner but Italy must hope likes of Antonio Cassano, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Di Natale can improve upon the stuttering performances seen from Juve’s strikers this term. Having the Calcio Scommesse trials hanging over Italian football should also help, as the 1982 Totonero and 2006 CalcioPoli did can’t hurt either, Italy always seem to triumph when the domestic game is engulfed in scandal.
Why they won't win
Simply put, it’s the European Championships. Italy may be the clear leader when it comes to European nations at the World Cup but, in terms of continental triumphs, they sit alongside Greece, Denmark and the Soviet Union in having lifted the Henri Delaunay Trophy just once. That their place in the 1968 Final only came about after qualifying automatically as hosts and a Semi-Final decided by the toss of a coin only serves to highlight the poor showings regularly seen at the UEFA showpiece. They have only emerged from the Group Stage four times, failing to qualify for the Finals at all on the same number of occasions.
Putting history aside, the current squad is blighted by imbalance; talent-laden in both central defence and midfield, the Azzurri struggle to match that quality in other areas. At left back the options behind Palermo’s Federico Balzaretti – who had an injury hit domestic season – are relatively thin on the ground and the strikers have few international goals between them. The loss of Giuseppe Rossi, so vital in the Group C qualifying campaign, cannot be understated as his partnership with the recovering Antonio Cassano was fundamental to the style of play implemented by Prandelli
We've seen before
His side may have undergone the most difficult season since he first emerged there as a raw eighteen year old over a decade ago, but it is relatively easy to argue that Daniele De Rossi has enjoyed the best campaign of his career. Placed at the very heart of the system Luis Enrique looked to implement in the Capital he, unlike the embattled Coach, proved all but his harshest critics wrong. Some still derided the Spaniard’s choice to deploy him as a central defender on a number of occasions but he played well there too and the former Barca man had little choice given the injuries suffered by the Giallorossi in that position.
It was, as ever, in central midfield where he truly excelled however, particularly once his expiring contract was renewed. The passing game demanded by Enrique brought out a previously unheralded side of his game as he completed more passes in the league than anybody other than Andrea Pirlo and did so at an impressive 87.9% success rate. He also led Roma in tackles and interceptions in a role similar to that he will be asked to play in the Azzurri shirt this summer, slotting in alongside Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio to both shield the defence and begin attacks once the ball is recovered.
His style is almost perfect for such a role and will provide a balance between the thoughtful probing and immaculate precision of Pirlo and the more dynamic running and attacking vitality of Marchisio. Able to both sit and filter out opposition threats or press forward if Italy are either chasing a game or seeking to force home an advantage, the 6’ 1” De Rossi is also a threat at set-pieces, using his own ferocious shot or in the air when others are delivering the ball.
Sebastian Giovinco of Parma may well be the man Prandelli turns to as a replacement for the unlucky Rossi who faces another six months on the sidelines after suffering a recurrence of the knee injury which has already seen him miss half of the season. Far from the underperforming and temperamental youngster we saw become disenchanted with life as a perennial reserve at Juventus, he has finally developed into the versatile and talented attacking player he always seemed destined to be.
Since relocating to the provincial side at the start of the 2010-11 campaign he has not only registered twenty-two goals and thirteen assists but has also become a leader in a team which has endured a tumultuous two years. Despite three coaching changes since he arrived at the Stadio Tardini, his creativity has been allied to a previously unseen consistency that was one of the major doubts surrounding him as well as proving he doesn’t need to play in a trequartista role with the team built around him in order to shine. Under both Franco Colomba – and his successor Roberto Donadoni – he has often been deployed as an orthodox second striker and it has not slowed his progress in the slightest.
Of course it remains to be seen whether he can continue his development on a larger stage and is not just thriving away from the media glare of a bigger club, but thus far the signs are promising. His record against parent club Juventus (four goals in four games) as well as the way his personality shone in the majority of his first seven international caps gives reason to hope the future is finally one to look forward to. Giovinco also has the benefit of enjoying a superb on-field relationship with another striker who could yet play a key role this summer; Manchester City’s Mario Balotelli from their time with the Italian Under-21 side.
How they will play
Upon taking over from Marcello Lippi, former Juventus midfielder and Fiorentina coach Prandelli sought to revolutionise the National team by bringing in a raft of new players, a code of ethics which affected selection and, most importantly, modernise the way Italy approached games. Bolstered by immediate wins in those opening fixtures – and emboldened after the nation backed him in dropping a number of high-profile players for breaking his rules – he has managed his side perfectly, implementing a style which brought the best from the men available and masked a number of flaws within his squad.
While many – including Fabrizio Bocca of La Repubblica – are now wondering whether he should opt for a 3-5-2 formation which has undergone something of a renaissance on the peninsula, the style he has demanded since becoming coach has enjoyed great success. Based on possession and quality passing – almost clichéd in today’s football – Prandelli is now benefitting from extremely similar systems being utilised at both Juventus and Roma at the same time as being able to harness the counter-attacking prowess seen at Napoli, Udinese and Palermo. Based loosely on a 4-3-1-2 or 4-3-3 formation, Prandelli explained his choices up front which saw no out-and-out front men selected;
“For us there is no longer a static player in attack. Mario Balotelli can be used in that role, but also on the flanks. It’s the same for Di Natale and Giovinco who have scored a lot without being a reference point for defenders. I wanted to pick a team that plays fluid football.”
Italy have been able to utilise their midfielders to press the opposition with the players there adept at covering for each other an swap positions almost at will. Previously a weak area for the Azzurri, Prandelli not only has Pirlo, De Rossi and Marchisio at his disposal but can rely on Riccardo Montolivo and Thiago Motta to provide quality options in reserve should they be needed.
The problem in attack is one of international inexperience as excluding Cassano and Antonio Di Natale the four strikers called have just one goal between them to date and none have been to an international tournament before. Yet behind that classy midfield, the Azzurri can call upon one of the most talent-laden defensive units in the competition [insert your own lazy stereotype here]. Not only does the core of that superb Juventus backline – Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leo Bonucci – travel to Poland and Ukraine but it also sees Gigi Buffon back to the kind of form that saw him viewed as the best goalkeeper in the world.
Conceding only nineteen goals is in itself remarkable but when noting those same players have kept a remarkable 22 clean sheets this term one can only sit back and admire their cohesiveness and solidarity. (Boring Catenaccio ahoy!) In the fullback positions Prandelli will rely heavily on Balzaretti, the only international quality left-back available to him while on the opposite flank the presence of Milan’s Ignazio Abate will hopefully bring the very best from Christian Maggio, fresh from Napoli’s stellar debut Champions League showing. The coach was keen to stress the importance of the team ethic over individual ability as he went on to say;
“We may not be packed with individual world class players, but we can do well. We are a good squad. I expect the team to be able to build the move, not passively wait for their opponents. We will attack, albeit with a great sense of balance between the various departments.”
We can therefore expect to see a much more attack-minded showing from Italy than in previous years but, thanks to Buffon and co the defence will be as miserly as ever. A dangerous combination for all scheduled to face them, just don’t remind them it’s ‘only’ the Euro’s!
Italy's consistently effortless style is captured in shirt form at Kitbag.com.
Adam is a regular contributor to IBWM and can be found on Twitter @Adz77