Rankings: FIFA (12), Elo (11), SPI (16)
Euro History: Champions (1968), Final (2000), Semifinals (1980, 1988), Quarterfinal (2008), Qualified (1996, 2004)
Last Five Tournaments: GS – QF – W – GS – R16
Italy is traditionally the consummate tournament team. Disciplined and cynical, they frustrate opponents, keeping things tight at the back and having the quality to pounce on mistakes. It is boring, Machiavellian and ethically dubious. It is also ruthlessly effective. The Azzurri have reached at least the semifinal in 10 major tournaments since 1968.
The 2006 World Cup winners epitomized that ethos. The 2012 version, aping their group mates in Spain with a more proactive, possession-based passing attack, could look different. The ominous, off-the-pitch clouds, however, will feel depressingly familiar.
Qualification: Italy eviscerated qualifying group C, earning a 7-0-2 andallowing just two goals through nine matches (best defensive record in Europe). UEFA awarded a 3-0 win in the tenth match to them, after Serbian fans rioting forced the match to be abandoned, allowing them to clear second-place Estonia by 10 points. Italy has lost its last two friendlies, by 1-0 margins to Uruguay and the United States.
Coach: The architect of the Azzurri’s tactical switch is 54-year-old Cesare Prandelli, who accepted the position in 2010 after a long spell managing Fiorentina. He did not win La Viola a trophy, though he did bring them to the Champions League knockout stages. His stylish, positive passing game breaks the Italian cookie mold. His team finished second to Spain in possession during qualifying.
Squad: The Azzurri strength is in midfield. Andrea Pirlo had a spectacular season for Juventus. One of the sport’s finest passers, he’ll serve as a deep-lying playmaker. He should have De Rossi and Marchisio on the flanks and Riccardo Montolivo in a more advanced role. It’s not the tournament’s best midfield, but they are close. With no real stopper, they’ll defend through possession.
There are questions in the back four. Giorgio Chiellini is an elite center half, though is battling a hamstring problem. His club counterpart Leonardo Bonucci did not have a strong season. They will hope those factors are overcome by the club continuity between those two and legendary goalkeeper Gigi Buffon. Christian Maggio is an experienced right back, though Italy face a true conundrum on the left. Presumptive starter Domenico Criscito has been dropped from the squad after being caught up in a match-fixing scandal (see more below).
Another choice will be up front, where Italy have no clear answer, but multiple interesting options. Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano are the two most brilliant talents. They are also incredibly erratic and temperamental. Cassano also sat out much of the season after suffering a minor stroke. Prandelli could also opt for Udinese’s prolific Antonio Di Natale. Though 34, he has become finer with age, scoring 80 goals in Serie A the past three seasons. They also have a diminutive, though dynamic attacking force in Sebastian Giovinco (15 goals and 11 assists for Parma) and a 21-year-old potential star in former Chelsea academy player Fabio Borini.
Tactics: Prandelli plays a 4-3-1-2 formation. Two forwards and a diamond, ball-playing midfield. They will hold possession though the forward selection and interplay will be crucial. The Italians dominated play, but did not do so well translating that into goals. It’s still possible Italy could revert to more customary, less ambitious tactics against better opposition.
Match-fixing: More match-fixing scandals have shaken Italian soccer. An initial investigation into lower league matches, most notably one in Serie B between Siena and Novara in April 2011 has expanded to Serie A matches with Lazio, Lecce and Genoa. Several high-profile Italian soccer figures have been implicated. The Italian PM has called for soccer to be banned.
Former Siena coach Antonio Conte, who just led Juventus to the Scudetto, is under investigation. Lazio captain Stefano Mauri and others were arrested on Monday after police raids in 23 cities. Dominico Criscito who would have started for Italy at left back, is under investigation (played with Genoa last year) and had his room raided by police at the Italian training ground.
It’s not clear how many (if any) more players might be involved. It’s not clear whether their involvement is direct or indirect. It’s not clear how much of this is hard evidence versus a police publicity stunt. Leandro Bonucci, despite being linked, remains with the squad. Reports are emerging today that authorities have found 14 checks, worth nearly $2 million, sent by Gigi Buffon to a tobacco shop owner in Parma, suggesting a possible gambling link.
Italy had a similar, though impersonal cloud around the team in 2006 when they won the World Cup. Pulling players off the field could have a far more tangible effect.
Balotelli: Why always him? Mario Balotelli is one of soccer’s most gifted forwards. He’s powerful, has great technique and was born to finish. He’s also enigmatic and unpredictable, creating explosive controversies with startling frequencies both on and off the pitch and with his fellow players and opponents. He could score the winning goal. He could get sent off with a dumb red card. He could do both in the same match. Choosing him was a risk. Starting him may be an even greater one, but it may be one Italy has to take if it hopes to win this tournament.
Prognosis: Italy could be a dark horse. A second-place finish in the group would get them a beatable France or England in the quarterfinal, leaving them potentially a semifinal upset of Germany or the Netherlands away from the final. They could look as insipid as 2010, lose to Spain in the first match and never wake up. With Pirlo healthy this go around, they should at least make the knockout stages.
Fun Fact: Italians call soccer fans “tifosi,” which literally means “carriers of typhus.”
[Photos via Presswire]