The newly appointed Cesare Prandelli has captured the imagination of the Italian public with his first squad selection as manager of the national team. His provisional thirty-man squad has been hailed by both the media and fans alike, with the predicted selections of Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano seizing most of the headlines. The duo will infuse the Azzurri with the creative, unpredictable streak that was so sorely missed by the four-times world champions in South Africa. Both Balotelli and Cassano were persistently excluded from the national set-up by Marcello Lippi, with the 2006 World Cup winning coach reluctant to select any potentially disruptive influences.
Also of note was the inclusion of the oriundi - South Americans of Italian ancestry who have since returned to their adopted homeland, the most famous recent example being the Argentine – Mauro Camoranesi. This time around there have been call-ups for Lazio midfielder Cristian Ledesma and Inter Milan’s Thiago Motta. This multi-cultural aspect to Prandelli’s squad bears at least some resemblance to that of Joachim Löw’s ‘neue Deutschland‘. The former Fiorentina manager himself nodded to that German policy, referring to his players as ‘nuovi Italiani’, the new Italians.
With so many new players amongst the thirty named in the squad, it is difficult to predict how this new Azzurri class will line-up against Côte d’Ivoire in Upton Park on August 10th. During his tenure at Fiorentina, Prandelli opted for a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-5-1 depending on the players available to him. Whichever tactic Prandelli chooses, Riccardo Montolivo is undoubtedly a central figure in his vision. A favourite of Prandelli in Florence, Montolivo has the talent to thrive in the ‘regista‘ playmaker role alongside the combative Daniele De Rossi in midfield or, alternatively, in a more advanced role where he can galvanise the attacking intent of Balotelli, Cassano et al. His fluency in the art of passing is almost unrivalled in the Italian set-up and Montolivo should serve as a suitable replacement for Andrea Pirlo should the Milanese talisman continue to struggle to find fitness and form.
Defensively, Italy enter the post-Cannavaro era with unprecedented uncertainty. The relocation of their former captain to the United Arab Emirates relieves Italy of something of an obligation to field a player who had long ceased to play at an impermeable, Ballon d’Or standard. His partner in South Africa, Giorgio Chiellini, was equally culpable for this summer’s failure but is likely to helm a defensive unit featuring his new Juventus colleague Leonardo Bonucci. Injuries to upcoming fullbacks such as Inter’s Davide Santon and Genoa’s Domenico Criscito will stifle Prandelli’s ambition to find a complete back-four at this early stage but presents Luca Antonini, Mattia Cassani, Christian Maggio and Cristian Zaccardo with the opportunity to impress their new coach.
The forwards, as is nearly always the case with the Azzurri, is where the most contentious decisions were made. The previously noted recalls for Balotelli and Cassano grants Italy with the chance to field a genuine successor to the likes of Baggio, Del Piero and Totti in the trequartista role just behind the lead striker. Napoli’s Fabio Quagliarella, perphaps Italy’s best performer at the World Cup, has been recalled and will prove to be invaluable to the new squad should he emulate his form of last season. Giuseppe Rossi, purportedly the target of Rafael Benitez’s Internazionale, is offered another chance to impress following his omission from the final squad for the World Cup.
For all of the new beginnings and second chances afforded to Prandelli’s team, the man himself constitutes a worry for many critics. There is no doubting Cesare’s amicability or strength of character, having overcome the personal tragedy of his wife’s death to lead Fiorentina to the Champions League. There is however, a nagging doubt about Cesare Prandelli’s stature. For all of his success in leading Fiorentina from bankruptcy to the Champions League, La Viola have failed to capture a trophy for the city of Florence nor have they managed to secure many favourable results against Serie A’s elite clubs.
Despite these minor suspicions there is little doubt that Prandelli is a skilled man-manager, who has created strong relationships with his players, including formerly problematic examples such as Adrian Mutu. The ‘Bresciano’ is a figure of worship in Florence with both fans and the media showering a degree of adulation on him normally reserved for deities. His status and resilience will be tested by the pressures of working for the FIGC. Italians are infamously fickle when it comes to the Azzurri but should Prandelli inspire even close to a similar level of devotion as he did at Fiorentina, then his reign will have been a success.