A rejuvenated Azzurri are back, and they are hungry for success

As publishers begin to put the finishing touches to their Euro 2012 guides, there is no doubt Spain and Germany will enjoy the lion’s share of tournament winner predictions, with the self-harming but extremely talented Dutch team also gaining a few mentions. One side that finds itself drifting away with the also-rans of the competition is Cesar Prandelli’s rejuvenated Italy. Most bookmakers are pricing the Azzurri at 14-1, which clearly shows that the men with the money don’t fancy the Mediterranean country one bit. However, with the shades of light now ever-growing after Calciopoli, Italian football is back on the rise, and the national team a bi-product of this growth. If you have a couple of quid spare when you make your pre-tournament wager at the end of May, don’t hesitate to place your faith in the Blues. As far as a football bet goes, you have so much to gain with little to lose.

The former Fiorentina boss has created a united, loyal front within the ranks of his squad, and has gradually introduced a young group of eager professionals that understand and fit his narrow tactical 4-3-1-2 system superbly. Gone are the days of Marcelo Lippi’s experienced but stagnated team. Prandelli’s Italy are by no means lacking maturity, with Andrea Pirlo and Gigi Buffon still major parts of the set-up, but the players now possess the passion and ability to get the country back onto the centre-stage of world football, a school of thought that is emerging amongst highly-regarded publications such as the Guardian.

2 goals conceded in 10 games (the best in Europe) tells its only story regarding the Azzurri’s qualifying campaign, where they remained undefeated. This stat shares similarities with the Juventus team of this season, who unsurprisingly also provide the majority of players to the national team rearguard. Buffon is back to his majestic best as one of the top goalkeepers in world football, with two out of Giorgio Chilleni, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci all protecting their team mate in the centre of defence. To add to this, Federico Balzeretti and Ignazio Abate are both highly consistent performers who find themselves in pole position to take up the fullback positions. There has not been an Italian side in recent memory that fit the resilient, strong defensive stereotype as much as this one does, calling them the strongest defence in the international game wouldn’t be a stretch too far.

Nevertheless, to talk about this Italian team and to only mention the strong defensive side of it’s game would be a travesty. One of the main factors in the excellent goals against stat has been the ability of Prandelli to implement an excellent passing game, one that made them second only to the Spanish in percentage of possession over the past 18 months. This factor alone has benefited the back-line considerably. After all, you can’t score a goal if you don’t have the ball. The sometimes ‘tika-taka’ style of play the Southern European nation has adopted has grown out of the narrow midfield quadrant of the rejuvenated Andrea Pirlo, acting as the ‘regista’, with Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio doing the dirty work on top of their attacking duties, where they compliment Riccardo Montolivo, who has found himself in an unfamiliar position further forward as the ‘trequartista’ role. The latter is not guaranteed a starting spot, which is largely due to the strength in depth of the personnel at the manager’s disposal, Antonio Nocerino and Thiago Motta proving more than able deputies when called upon, and having the ability to fit seamlessly into any of the 4 midfield positions of the fluid system.

Conversely, the players in possession of the striking positions are far less set in stone than the rest of the side. Partly due to the depth of the striking options, but mostly down to the extreme personalities they hold. Antonio Cassano is the boss’s first choice and most used striker, but after his minor stroke only a few months ago, he may not be back to his finest in time for Ukraine and Poland. Another ‘fantasista’ the Azzurri have at their disposal is everyone’s favourite Italian, Mr. Balotelli. His over critiqued off-field problems have not found shelter with Prandelli, who still seems reluctant to give the extremely talented individual a responsible, regular role in the side. Yet, in these two high-wired players, Italy has one of the most feared and unpredictable partnerships in the game, coupled with the likes of Osvaldo, Borini, Pazzini, Giovinco and Matri they have depth in the goal-scoring department. The only type of player that appears missing is an out and out goal scorer, an Inzaghi, a Klose sort of player who has the ability to finish of those well-worked moves. Giuseppe Rossi was pencilled in for this role until his devastating injury.

On the whole though, this Italian team has all the key ingredients to cause a surprise at this summer’s championships, and together with the country’s experience of major competitions don’t be surprised if it turns out to be a Calcio summer.

Paul Hill @paulhill3

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