It’s hard to fathom the concept of Italy entering a tournament as underdogs. Winners of the World Cup on four occasions and European Champions just the once back in 1968, the demise of the national team since the success in Germany 2006 has been rapid. However, since the appointment of Cesare Prandelli he has brought with him a calm reassurance. Replacing Marcelo Lippi after the 2010 World Cup, Prandelli did not fall into the trap of his predecessor by relying on trusted but out of form players, and since his debut against the Ivory Coast at Upton Park in August 2010, he has tried to freshen up the ranks. This summer’s Euro 2012 tournament even sees perennial underachievers England being given better odds than the Italians, but rule them out at your peril.
The Azzurri come into the Championship embraced in turmoil back on the peninsula in uncannily similar circumstances to six years ago. Investigations have undergone surrounding match fixing which has seen a few of the squad’s players become implicated. Gianluigi Buffon and Leonardo Bonucci have been mentioned while defender Domenico Criscito has been omitted from the final 23 man squad, with police searching his room at Coverciano at 6am. With conditions in 2006 being precarious pre-tournament with the likes of AC Milan, Lazio, Juventus and Fiorentina all implicated in the initial Calciopoli report, the squad used it as extra incentive to reward the tifosi. That same determination and feeling of invincibility perhaps could reoccur in Poland and Ukraine.
One player Prandelli wanted to symbolise the new regime was Antonio Cassano, a fantasista who like Fabrizio Miccoli, had not been awarded with enough chances with the National team. The importance of ‘Fantantonio’ is undeniable, as proven by being the top scorer with six in qualifying, but after suffering a stroke at the end of October, the Milan forward has only been back in first team action since April and his fitness could be an issue. Attacking options are short with main hope Giuseppe Rossi being riddled with a severe knee injury. A cruciate ligament injury he sustained against Real Madrid in October had initially made it a race to be fit in time for the Championships, but he damaged them once more in April upon his return to training.
With the likes of Alessandro Matri and Fabio Quagliarella struggling for minutes in 2012 thus missing out on Euro 2012, Antonio Di Natale never being able to replicate his club form at international level and Giampaolo Pazzini having had a difficult season and also not making it, the expectancy of goals rests on the shoulders of the enigmatic Mario Balotelli. The mercurial player scored 17 goals in his second season for Manchester City, but his indiscipline again brings the expectancy for him to get sent-off, which even saw Prandelli dropping him in February as a warning. However his new attitude and public declaration that he would not let his country down impressed his coach “When I heard Balotelli say that he wouldn’t ever leave Italy with 10 men, I believed him one hundred per cent”.
In recent years there was world class talent in abundance, ranging from Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro at the back to Gennaro Gattuso in the middle with the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti and Filippo Inzaghi up front. However this current generation has a noble work ethic and experience in the right place – the core of the team – with Juventus trio Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Pirlo helping to create a sturdy fundamental basis to a winning team. There have even been murmurs of a tactical switch to replicate the three in defence that Juventus have used to great success in 2012, which would incorporate a system which most of the starting line-up know and also spring a tactical surprise on most nations who use the standard 4-2-3-1 system which is so common in European football. This Azzurri squad follows the same characteristics as the previous generations in containing a mean defence. During qualifying they only conceded two goals but showed the attacking intent Prandelli wanted to instil by scoring 20. This expansion in style was implemented by the manager because “The feeling was that we needed to evolve our style, to try and play a little more on the front foot”.
A group consisting of defending champions Spain, Croatia and Ireland is easier in comparison to a few others, but the Italians need to get a positive result in their first match against the Spanish if they are to progress from the group. The Croatians have the capability to pull off upsets – just ask England – and their game will revolve around the basis of playmaker Luca Modric. As for the Irish, they come into the tournament with a manager their Italian opponents will know very well. 73-year-old Giovanni Trapattoni became manager in July 2000, replacing Dino Zoff who was in charge when Italy lost to a golden goal from David Trezeguet against France in the finals of the European Championships. The stalwart expressed disappointed about how his country is portrayed amongst the rest of Europe “I, who have travelled abroad for some time, must say that we give an ugly image of our football. As an Italian, the first feeling is that we are mocked abroad; we are always linked to illicit dealings and are considered mafia members.”
On the back of the current allegations, it will be no surprise that Prandelli should use it as an impetus for the players to win against all the odds. “There is a great atmosphere in the team and there is a big awareness that something significant can be achieved. The players know this is an exceptional opportunity for them, they are taking responsibility and they will not fail.” Despite a 3-0 defeat to Russia on the eve of Euro 2012, the Italians will enter this tournament with the knowledge that nobody gives them a chance, and this is when they are at their most dangerous.