Never far removed from a scandal, they boast a track record of success dating back many decades yet tend to provoke strong adverse reactions from anyone who does not consider themself a fan. Attempting to reinvent themselves for the umpteenth time, the fear is they simply no longer have the tools at their disposal.
Cesare Prandelli was the man Italy needed in 2010 – an open-minded and optimistic presence whose outlook was a sharp contrast to his predecessor Marcello Lippi, under whom Italy had failed to win a game at that year’s World Cup. Yet where Lippi had already won that same tournament in 2006, as well as five Scudetti and the Champions League with Juventus, Prandelli’s most prestigious piece of silverware as a manager is the Serie B title he won with Verona in 1999.
But Prandelli’s work at Fiorentina should not be underestimated – taking over a team who had finished 16th in 2005 and leading them twice into the Champions League over the next five seasons. He is also unbeaten so far in competitive matches with Italy.
Almost too many to mention. Italy’s formation itself is in doubt after Prandelli last week suggested he would abandon his 4-3-1-2 in order to try a three-man defence, only for Juventus’s Andrea Barzagli – a key pillar of the back-line – to suffer a calf strain in training. He is now experimenting with Daniele De Rossi at centre-back, and there is just as much uncertainty up front – where Giuseppe Rossi’s absence continues to leave a void. Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli are the consensus first-choice pairing, yet have only played together twice.
The latest match-fixing scandal has cast a dark cloud over Italy’s preparations and has undeniably affected their preparations, with Domenico Criscito – who may have started at left-back – was dropped from the squad after his room at Italy’s training base was searched by police last week. Prandelli’s popularity has prevented relations between this team and their public souring quite as badly as it did under Lippi, but following Barzagli’s injury and a 3-0 friendly defeat to Russia, faith in this team has been dented.
Lippi’s greatest regret in 2010 was the absence through injury of Andrea Pirlo – who managed only a second-half appearance in Italy’s final game. There is no question that the same player will be the single most important figure outfield for Italy after a season in which he served up a league-leading 13 assists for Antonio Conte’s undefeated champions Juventus.
Given the uncertainty up front, Antonio Cassano might just be the best bet. Although not a classic goal-getter, he led the team with six strikes in qualifying – a tally which may have had something to do with the fact he was one of only two players to feature in all 10 games. Despite missing much of the 2011-12 season following his mini-stroke last October, he will once again be very hard to drop. Cassano is at 6.00 to be the top Italian scorer
Mario Balotelli, of course. (Despite the fact he has promised Prandelli that he won’t.)
Leonardo Bonucci has made big strides forwards under Antonio Conte at Juventus this season, looking far more composed than he had in the previous year after his arrival from Bari. As well as a solid defender he is an excellent distributor from the back.
Signed by Milan from Palermo for €500,000 on the final day of last summer’s transfer window, Antonio Nocerino turned out be anything but an afterthought – scoring 10 goals for the Rossoneri. Although likely to start on the bench, his ability to provide goals from midfield will be an asset to a team with such uncertainty in attack.
Prandelli’s wildcard option up front, 21-year-old Fabio Borini - a former Chelsea and Swansea player - has just one cap to his name and was not always a regular for Roma this season, but with nine goals in 24 appearances has shown he knows where the goal is.
I fancy Italy to finish second in the group and make it to the semi-finals. Italy to get eliminated at the semi-final stage at 5.50.