Problems up front: Italy struggle with their attack

by Giacomo Fracassi

The qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup have just started, and Italian coach Cesare Prandelli still has issue around the right formation.

At the beginning of the last European Championships, few Italians would have predicted a positive outcome for the Azzurri. Indeed, many even questioned the possibility of making it out of the group stage, as happened too often in the recent past, both at the Euros and in the World Cup.

With the last of a long series of scandals taking up the headlines of newspapers, which eventually led to the exclusion of the starting left-back Domenico Criscito and casted doubts on Leonardo Bonucci, and a series of poor performances in the warm-up friendlies (including a shocking 3-0 loss to Russia), the general tone was that Italy was set for another disappointing tournament. I

nstead, Italy managed to seriously threaten World Champions Spain in their opening match (possibly the best match in the group stage) and make it through, albeit with some difficulties, before eventually reaching the final only to lose 4-0 against Spain.

In the aftermath of the defeat, Prandelli became the favorite target for the poor final performances, at least in the eye of the fans. His after-match interviews didn’t help as he highly criticised the policy of Italian clubs and of the Federation for the development of young players, a critique that many believed was aimed at Inter Milan. Despite this small fracture, it was hard not to have a positive attitude towards the future of the national team. With the likes of Marco Verratti, Fabrizio Borini, Stephan El Shaaraway and Mattia Destro all becoming regulars for the senior side in addition to the crazy talent of Mario Balotelli, the future seems sealed for a new generation of talents to add to the runner-up team of the Euro 2012, a side already composedof the likes of Giorgio Chiellini, Claudio Marchisio, Daniele De Rossi.

The mid-August friendly defeat against England was not considered a negative, as Prandelli used many youngsters and was deprived of all the Juventus bloc as the bianconeri were involved in the Supercoppa final in Beijing only two days before. Plus it is common to see Italy struggling in friendlies, especially in August (two years ago Italy lost 1-0 to Cote d’Ivoire in an empty Upton Park and they also lost in the first match as World Champions in 2006 against Croatia). In a country where results are all that matter, it is of little surprise that Italy are big underachievers in friendlies, but tremendously effective when there is something to win.

Therefore the beginning of the World Cup qualification campaign was meant to show the real Italy. Together with Armenia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark and Malta, Italy were seeded in Group B. Probably one of the most complex among the European qualification groups, with only one ‘minnow’ and the other four are all more or less of the same level, with two other teams (Denmark and Czech Republic) that reached the quarter finals in Poland-Ukraine this summer.

The opening match was in Bulgaria against a national side that is far from their success of the 90s and has its star player in former Manchester City Valeri Bojinov, currently on loan from Sporting Lisbon with Hellas Verona in Serie B. Despite this, the home team took the lead after 30 minutes with a long shoot from the right-back Stanislav Manolev. Some  minutes later the Azzurri enjoyed a five minutes spell as Pablo Osvaldo netted his first two Italian goals and puy Italy 2-1 up. In the second half Italy played poorly, failing to control the lead and eventually Bulgaria equalised through Georgi Milanov after an assist by the same Manolev.

The bad impressions of this debut were confirmed also in the next match, against Malta. Italy won 2-0, with Destro and Peluso scoring their  first goals for the country, but the game was rather poor and Italy played badly. Particularly puzzling was the position of Alessandro Diamanti. The former West Ham player usually plays as a trequartista or as a supporting striker, but Prandelli utilised him as a deep-midfielder and stated that he believes it is the right position for the Bologna player. A partial excuse for the poor performances is the common belief that Italian players were still out of shape as the season has just begun. At any rate, an improvement was needed.

The next match was away to Armenia. After taking an early lead with a penalty scored by Andrea Pirlo, Italy once again failed to control the match and the hosts equalised through their star player Henrikh Mkhitaryan at the 28th minute. Eventually Italy was able to scored twice thanks to Daniele De Rossi and Pablo Osvaldo in the second part of the second half, but before that, Italy was lucky not to concede another goal to Armenia, and generally the team was not brilliant, despite having all the best players available.

Before the match with Denmark there were many doubts surrounding the team as Italy had gone backwards after brilliant qualification for Poland-Ukraine and a good European Championship Finals. Since his appointed as coach, Prandelli has been able to combine results with style, something very rare for Italy. The awarded 3-0 win with Serbia after the notorious riots by travelling fans in Genoa gave them a helping hand, but Italy played brilliantly throughout the whole qualifications, scoring many goals (it is a known fact that Italy rarely scores more than two goals per game, even against the weakest opponents) and they were the first nation to qualify for Euro 2012.

The key for this success was the deployment of Antonio Cassano and Giuseppe Rossi as the starting strikers. Both of them are not traditional number 9s but together they were a very good as they were able to create and score with the same efficacy. However both strikers suffered from injuries last season, with Cassano out with a cardiological problem and Rossi due to an anterior cruciate ligament injury which still has him sidelined.

With the former Manchester United and Newcastle player still out and with Antonio Cassano’s international career probably over, Prandelli has yet to find the right partnership up front, a problem that also appeared during the Euros. Lately Pablo Osvaldo has become a regular in the starting eleven as the Roma striker is playing strongly in the domestic league. The Argentine-born player is a talented target man, with good sense for scoring and the technical abilities for deciding a match, but the identity of his partner is still unknown. Sebastian Giovinco has not been able to replicate his good performances with Parma in the national team, while Mattia Destro and Stephan El Sharawaay are not ready to take over the role, although the Italian-Egyptian has improved tremendously in this season.

This eventually leaves everything once again on Mario Balotelli. The Manchester City striker had a minor role during the qualifiers for Poland-Ukraine, playing in only two matches, and has appeared only in the match against Denmark after the final with Spain. But his skills are unquestioned and he may be the final piece in the mosaic for Italy and for Prandelli. Pairing with Osvaldo may give Italy a very strong forward line, much more physical than the likes of Cassano, Di Natale and Rossi, but still very skillful and able to play the ball. The only problem is that both Osvaldo and Balotelli are unpredictable players who can score wonderful goals and a minute later get sent off for ingenuities. Prandelli must find a striking pair that may work well given the possibility that Balotelli and Osvaldo, as one of the two, or both, may be out in the crucial matches of the qualifications.

Against Denmark again Italy benefitted again from some of the past brilliance and Balotelli was one of the main reason for that, improving the striking force of the team, with one assist for Riccardo Montolivo’s opener and with the third and final goal of the match. Despite this, Osvaldo showed what Italy may expect from him or the City player, as he was sent off at the beginning of the second half for smacking a defender. The Azzurri were not effected a lot by this and eventually won 3-1, but still doubts remain, considering also that in the first half when Osvaldo and Balotelli played together, they did not seem to fit in well and for the first fifteen minutes Italy was outplayed by Denmark. This can improve with time, but the two must be able to play more matches together. Maybe the only player who can be a right partner for both and it is not as unpredictable as the other two is Stephan El Sharawaay. The AC Milan player has growth tremendously this season, and if he keeps playing like he is doing now in the league there is no doubt that he can be the right player for Italy.

Luckily for Prandelli, he still enjoys a largely favorable relationship with the press and this will help him to try and find the best combination without having huge pressure on him. However, next year Italy will play in the Confederation Cup and a negative result there may result in indelible damage for his tenure as Italian manager.

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