(Over the next month or so, we’re going to be doing previews for all 32 teams participating in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Yes, all 32 teams. We’ll make you laugh, cry, get mad and perhaps question why you read us in the first place. We hope you enjoy the product nonetheless)
Italy has an incredibly rich history in international football. They’ve won the World Cup four times (1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006) and made the finals six times. Additionally, they won the Euros in 1968 and reached the finals in 2000 and 2012. Italy’s defense of their 2006 title in South Africa in 2010 was shambolic. They were presented with a pretty easy group: New Zealand, Slovakia and Paraguay. They failed to beat any of them and finished last with two points. Unsurprisingly, this led to the resignation of their manager, Marcello Lippi. He was replaced by Cesare Prandelli, who has greatly improved the Italians’ form, by taking them to the finals of Euro 2012 and orchestrating an undefeated qualifying campaign for this year’s tournament.
Italy’s reward for never losing in qualifying? A group of death with England and Uruguay. Italy enters the World Cup with pretty modest expectations. Their odds are 25/1, putting them as the 8th favorite in the tournament, which seems very puzzling despite their tough group. Let’s take a look La Azzurri.
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Mattia Perin (Genoa), Salvatore Sirigu (Paris Saint-Germain)
Defenders: Ignazio Abate (AC Milan), Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Matteo Darmian (Torino), Mattia De Sciglio (AC Milan), Christian Maggio (Napoli), Gabriel Paletta (Parma), Manuel Pasqual (Fiorentina), Andrea Ranocchia (Inter Milan)
Midfielders: Alberto Aquilani (Fiorentina), Antonio Candreva (Lazio), Daniele De Rossi (Roma), Claudio Marchisio (Juventus), Riccardo Montolivo (AC Milan), Thiago Motta (Paris Saint-Germain), Marco Parolo (Parma), Andrea Pirlo (Juventus), Romulo (Hellas Verona), Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain)
Attackers: Mario Balotelli (AC Milan), Antonio Cassano (Parma), Alessio Cerci (Torino), Mattia Destro (Roma), Ciro Immobile (Torino), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli), Giuseppe Rossi (Fiorentina)
One of the first things that stands out for this Italian team is the prominence of Juventus. 20% of the 30-man provisional squad come from The Old Lady. Buffon, Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini, Marchisio and Pirlo are all part of Juventus’s defensive and midfield spine. Buffon and Pirlo were both starters on the 2006 squad while Barzagli was also part of that team, but didn’t start. This group of Juventus players were pivotal for Italy’s deep run in Euro 2012, especially Pirlo. As Spain has proven, having club teammates in your national team can be hugely beneficial.
Outside of Juve, Italy still has plenty of quality defenders and midfielders. In defense, Mattia de Sciglio has shown great potential for AC Milan at fullback and Andrea Ranocchia was crucial in Inter’s return to European competition. In the midfield, Italy will be looking for two members of PSG’s Ligue 1 winning squad to continue their successes: Marco Verratti and Thiago Motta. The 21-year-old Verratti has drawn plenty of comparisons to Pirlo with his outstanding passing and poise in the midfield. Meanwhile Thiago Motta will be used a defensive midfielder, a role which he thrived in in his 40 appearances for PSG. Also available to provide defensive support in the midfield is Daniele De Rossi. The Roma man has proven himself who as someone who can be a menace in the midfield with his ability to intercept passes.
For Italy, there are three notable names that have been left off the squad. Two men who were looking for a chance to play in one final World Cup and another who was looking to get his first appearance. 37 year-olds Luca Toni and Francesco Totti both have had strong seasons given their age. Totti scored 8 and assisted 10 in 26 while Toni scored 20 and assisted 11 in 34 matches. On the other end of the age spectrum is 21-year old Stephan El Shaarawy. The AC Milan winger was plagued by a toe injury this season, and only made six Serie A appearances. His injury is a major disappointment not only for Italian and AC Milan fans but really just fans of football following his 2012-13 campaign. He scored 19 goals and provided 8 assists for an AC Milan team that no longer could count on this website’s namesake, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to provide goals.
Despite no Totti (no party), Toni and El Shaarawy, Italy still has plenty of attacking talent at their disposal. The name that stands out the most is naturally Mario Balotelli. The striker known as much for his antics as his talent is a proven performer for Italy. He scored 5 goals in as many games for Italy in qualifying and also got a brace in Euro 2012 to lead Italy to the finals over Germany. Balotelli also managed to get 14 goals and 6 assists in his 30-game Serie A campaign. He did under two managers and playing for an AC Milan side that finished 8th. In addition to Balotelli, Italy will have four attackers with a grand total of 21 caps for the senior squad between them: Ciro Immobile, Mattia Destro, Lorenzo Insigne and Alessio Cerci. Immobile was Serie A’s leading goalscorer, as his 22 goals lead Torino to a Europa League spot. Helping Torino make the Europa League was Cerci with 13 goals and 12 assists. Lorenzo Insigne is a small (5’4’’ to be exact), agile and speedy winger who will be unlikely to start, but has proven himself for Napoli to be a fantastic option to have ready on the bench. After recovering from a knee injury which kept him out until November, Destro scored 13 times with two assists in 20 games for Champions League bound Roma.
Italy does bring international experience to their attack in the form of Giuseppe Rossi and Antonio Cassano, with 65 caps between the two. Rossi’s knee injury that kept him out for all of 2012-13 reappeared this season, but he still still managed to score 16 times with 4 assists in 21 games. Cassano is a man who is known as much for his brilliant talent on the pitch as off-the-field issues, ranging from homophobia to causing locker room divides. It’s worth noting that none of these attackers will be playing with bitter taste of 2010 in their mouths.
(Update: This was written before Italy made their final 23-man squad without Destro and Rossi.)
Italy is always a team people pay attention to international tournaments because of their rich history and constant flow of great players. Italy will be looking to prove that 2010 was nothing but a fluke and that Italy is still a team to be feared in the World Cup. Italy’s blend of seasoned World Cup veterans like Pirlo and Buffon combined with the youth of guys like Verratti and Balotelli make this a fascinating Italian team. If Italy can make it out of their difficult group, the quarterfinals should be guaranteed, they are better than all teams in Group C. Barring a major upset, that would set them for a matchup with either Brazil or Spain. Italy’s team doesn’t really seem to have a weak spot, they are solid and have depth in nearly every position. The quarterfinals seem to be the most likely place for Italy’s World Cup journey to end, but as Euro 2012 proved, never count out Italy when they’re the underdog.