The second most difficult group at the World Cup, Cesar Prandelli’s Italy side will have to be up to the task right from the get go, with their first game against Roy Hodgson’s England. It will not be the same type of England set-up that Prandelli faced in the first match of Euro 2012, where Hodgson took charge of his first competitive game and decided to play it more cautiously. England still boast several threats in attacking areas that Prandelli will need to shut down before his own attacking talents can pour forward, with the likes of Adam Lallana, Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and even Wayne Rooney to look out for. Italy will have the benefit of facing the group’s easiest opponent, Costa Rica, in the next game, where they have to ensure three points to ease their qualification into the next stage. The Italians will not want to leave it to the last match against Uruguay, given the Italians’ pressure to perform and the Uruguayans’ own ambitions could see them come undone.
The Italians will be heavily reliant on their midfield linchpin Andrea Pirlo, who at 36 years of age can still dictate the play against world-class opposition. He is of course helped by the fact that teams are built around him, and that he is always around athletic midfielders who will do the dirty work and hard running for him. Pirlo will likely be surrounded by his Juventus team-mate Claudio Marchisio and Roma’s experienced midfielder Daniele De Rossi, two midfielders who aren’t that bad themselves. Both will be looking to get into the opposition box while doing the closing down around Pirlo.
Their midfielders in reserve are of some quality too. PSG duo Marco Verratti and Brazilian-born Thiago Motta are handy midfielders to bring off the bench, whether to add an extra central midfielder or to replace tiring legs. Essentially, the Italians are well-stocked in midfield, and that is the one area they will look to dominate in order to shift the ball upfront to their strikers as well as cover their defence.
As mentioned, the weak point of the Italian side is probably their defence. Juventus’ trio of central defenders Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli are quality defenders, with Chiellini the best of the three and the only one who could be considered world-class. However, they are more used to playing together in Antonio Conte’s three-men defence, and Prandelli will have to pick two from the three. There will be questions over their full-backs, likely Milan duo Ignazio Abate and Mattia De Sciglio. They are decent going forward, and will have to go forward to give Italy any width in their narrow set-up; but with Pirlo likely not to be tasked with covering the full-backs, Italy’s centre-backs will be dragged out of position.
A minor problem that could leave Italy undone is their lack of width. With Prandelli likely to deploy two forwards behind a main striker, it is unlikely that either forward will drift out wide. Should they fall behind and get overcrowded in the middle of the park, there is little specialist wingers to bring off the bench. Alessio Cerci is the best option to play out wide, while Antonio Cassano can do a job if required. Antonio Candreva is more of an attacking midfielder than winger. Prandelli’s plan B might be to switch to a five-men defence with wing-backs providing the width.
Wild Card: Giorgio ChielliniItaly used to be blessed with world-class defenders in the past, the likes of Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Fabio Cannavaro amongst others in the past decade. Barzagli and Bonucci are good players, while Argentine-born Gabriel Paletta is a late bloomer. Chiellini is the best of the lot at the moment, with his experience and leadership abilities key to the Italian defence holding together. Prandelli might also have to rely upon Chiellini in terms of bringing the ball out of defence, an extra passing option should Pirlo be man-marked by the opposition.
Along with goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, Pirlo and De Rossi, Italy will look towards Chiellini to shine if the Italians are going to have any chance of making it far in this year’s tournament.
It is too tight to predict which two of England, Uruguay and Italy will go through, and even tighter to predict which one will top the group. Italy should have enough quality to just qualify, where either way they will look forward to a round of 16 game against Colombia, Ivory Coast or Japan. A potential meeting with either favourites Brazil or Spain in the quarter finals should probably mean that their journey ends there, but with the unpredictability of this Italian side, there is every chance they can upset the odds and make their first final for the first time since their unlikely win in 2006.