Qualifying Group Winners
Coach: Cesare Prandelli
One to Watch: Antonio Cassano
As we approach the summer of 2012 all of our minds, well most of them at least, will turn away from the domestic football competitions within our own countries, towards the International arena for the eagerly awaited European Championship Finals, to be held in Poland and the Ukraine. At It’s All In The Game, I shall be profiling each of the 16 finalists that will bid to become the champions of Europe until 2016.
In the next of our team profiles for Euro 2012 we cast our eyes upon Italy. Italy played their first match as a nation in 1910 and, ever since then, they have gone on to produce an illustrious record in international football competition. The “Azzurri”, as the national side is known (in reference to the blue shirts in which they play), have appeared in no fewer than seventeen World Cup Finals, hosting the event twice, 1934 and 1990, and winning it on four separate occasions, 1934, 1938, 1982 and most recently in 2006.
In terms of the European Championships, the Italians have appeared in the finals tournament seven times. Their success in the competition cannot compare with their World Cup winning credentials however. Italy have won the tournament just once, when it was staged on home soil in Italy in 1968. At this time the event was smaller, with the finals comprised of only four teams, and it was known as the European Nations Cup.
Italy are best known for being a fairly defensive minded team, this comes from the Cattenaccio style of football that the national team employed, certainly, during the 1960’s and 1970s. This defensive system employs a sweeper behind three marking defenders and is specifically designed to frustrate opponents, close down any space and ultimately stop the other team from scoring.
Although the Italian game has moved away slightly from this rigid defensive system over the years, they are still often criticised, particularly from outside quarters, for playing a very controlled form of the game, with less focus on scoring goals and more focus on keeping clean sheets.
While some of the criticism stems from frustration on the part of the success of these tactics, Italy’s appearance in the 1994 World Cup Final for example, some criticism has been justified. Good Italian teams, with plenty of attacking options have, in the past, found themselves heading home from tournaments early due to negative tactics. A fine example of this was in the last World Cup in South Africa when Italy exited at the group stage after poor results against Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia.
Following that embarrassing exit current coach Cesare Prandelli took the reins of power. The new coach has brought in a number of new players and has successfully managed to bring the average age of the squad down. Italy’s run in qualifying for Euro 2012 was impressive, eight wins and two draws saw them top their group on 26 points, conceding just twice, all of which stands them in good stead for this summer’s tournament.
The squad looks good on paper and has a number of exciting prospects like Rossi and Balotelli, however, unfortunately for Rossi and Italy, the former Manchester United striker has now been ruled out of the tournament after picking up yet another in a long line of injury problems. Gianluigi Buffon is undoubtedly one of the World’s best goalkeepers, with a wealth of experience for both club and country. His form will be vital to Italy’s chances of success and, should they go far, he is bound to be a contender for the Golden Glove.
Antonio Cassano though, is the one to look out for in Poland and Ukraine. Back in the squad after undergoing heart surgery earlier in the season, Cassano has the ability to really stamp his mark on the competition. An incredibly talented, composed playmaker in the prime of his career, with plenty of experience, his six goals in the qualifying campaign are not to be scoffed at. Cassano is a touch of class and, under Prandelli, has really blossomed in the blue of the national side.
Italian football has again been in the headlines for the wrong reasons in the last couple of seasons, with player strikes and fan violence amongst the problems revealed. This may turn out well for Italy though as they always seem to produce their best when they have something to fight against, the World Cup winning sides of 1982 and 2006 both arrived at the tournaments emerging from scandals.
However, with just two weeks before the tournament is due to get under-way, the Italian camp has been raided by police officers investigating further match fixing allegations concerning, current champions, Juventus. Hardly great preparation for the squad and more problems could follow.
Given their historical strength in major championships, their results in qualifying and the rebirth that Prandelli seems to have engineered, I think Italy will certainly reach the knockout stages although how far they can go beyond that is a moot point. They have by no means been drawn in an easy group; Spain are the current World and European champions, Ireland are tireless and strong defensively and Croatia are talented and, to a certain degree, dark horses. It is a tough group but I’d back the Italians to come through it.
Should Italy finish second behind Spain, they will be likely to play France in the quarter final, an interesting match-up for two formerly great European footballing powers in the process of regeneration. Although there are other, to my mind, stronger teams in next year’s finals, history has taught us never to write of the Italians in major tournaments, you do so at your peril.
Prandelli image by Gianluca Gozzoli. Fans image by Osei Thompson