Nickname: Gli Azzurri
Schedule: June 14 vs. England, June 20 vs. Costa Rica, June 24 vs. Uruguay
World Cup History: Winner (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006), Finals (1970, 1994), Semifinals (1978, 1990)
Rankings: FIFA (9), SPI (12)
Winning Odds: 25-1
Most nations play checkers. The Italians play chess. They are masterful defenders. They are disciplined tacticians. They have well-honed technical skill. All three factors correlate with soccer success. The Italians have had a lot of it in major tournaments.
That precision comes with a dark side. Italian teams can stagger with their cynicism. They can be dirty. They can dive. They can (allegedly) manipulate results in meaningless matches for their own financial benefit. They conserve their best for when it counts (no friendly wins except San Marino since Nov. 2011).
Italy has a tendency to look poor in the tournament buildup, to underwhelm through the opening matches and to light the burner at just the right moment. Beware.
RELATED: The Big Lead World Cup 2014 Previews
Coach: Cesare Prandelli is a longtime Italian club manager, most notably with Fiorentina. He qualified the club for the Champions League and brought them to the Knockout Round in 2009. Italy hired him after the disappointing 2006 reunion tour at the 2010 World Cup. He took the Azzurri on a surprising run to the Euro 2012 Final, where they lost to Spain.
Qualifying Form: Italy qualified first from UEFA Group B, six points ahead of second-place Denmark, with a +10 goal difference.
Tactics: Italy plays a 4-3-1-2 or a 4-3-2-1 depending on the forward personnel available. They rely on Andrea Pirlo’s vision and pinpoint passing to start attacks from his defensive midfield play-making role. Prandelli entered with an attacking mentality (out of place for an Italian) and likes to play with two strikers. But, he doesn’t quite have the personnel, especially on the wings, to spread out into a 4-4-2 and truly go for it.
Player to Watch: Mario Balotelli. He may be the most mercurial figure in European soccer. But he’s also that rare caliber of player who can take over a tournament by himself. With his physical gifts, he can be unstoppable. With his mental frailty, he can be unusable. Whatever happens with him in Brazil, it will be notable. He was a target for racial abuse before Italy even left for the tournament.
Squad: A national side is throwing together a motley assortment of players for sporadic matches. Continuity from players playing together at club level can be a crucial advantage. Italy have Juventus goalkeeper Gigi Buffon, may field three Juventus players in the back four and will have them fronted by deep-lying Juventus midfielder Andrea Pirlo. That should be a firm foundation.
One major concern is age. Twenty-one of the 30-man provisional squad are 27 or older, including nine of the 10 midfielders. That percentage grows when you consider players like to see the field. The ideal, entering the World Cup, is a core of players at or entering their prime. See Spain 2010, Italy 2006, Brazil 2002 and France 1998. Italy’s core is well past it, a few are holdovers from the 2006 team. The Italians will be resilient. But, they will be vulnerable to tests of fitness and teams with pace.
Another issue is who starts up front and how they are positioned. Italy has a number of options personnel-wise and tactically. Though none is a sure thing. Balotelli can be dominant, when he’s up for it. He hasn’t for an entire season at AC Milan. Antonio Cassano is coming off a solid season for Parma, but is a fitness concern. So is Giuseppe Rossi. The American/Italian got off to a flyer in Serie A, scoring 15 times in 19 starts. But, he missed the season’s second half with a knee injury. He hasn’t started a match since January. Another option could be Serie A leading scorer Ciro Immobile. Don’t sleep on Alessio Cerci, who can play on both wings and behind a lead striker.
Group Outlook: Group D shapes up well for Italy. They have more talent, depth and experience than Uruguay, England and Costa Rica. Finishing either or first or second lines them up a relatively soft opponent from Group C in the knockout round. There’s leeway for them to start slow and round into form around the quarterfinals.
Arbitrary Italian Power Ranking: 1. Leonardo Da Vinci 2. Enzo Ferrari 3. Giacomo Puccini 4. Giuseppe Garibaldi 5. Sophia Loren
[Photos via Getty]