Handed one of the toughest groups at Euro 2012, Italy’s preparations for the tournament were hampered by the eruption of a match-fixing scandal that saw the team’s training base raided and left Cesare Prandelli without defender Domenico Criscito, who is under investigation for his alleged involvement in a wide-reaching case that has also seen Juventus Coach Antonio Conte come under formal investigation.
With the spectre of criminality hanging over Italian football once more, comparisons have perhaps inevitably been drawn to the 2006 World Cup, when the Calciopoli case was in full force, but the Azzurri somehow defied the controversy to become world champions. This time around, Italy’s tournament is likely to fall into one of two categories – glorious success or inglorious failure. If Prandelli’s team can escape a group containing holders and world champions Spain, dark horses Croatia and a Republic of Ireland side led by Giovanni Trapattoni, they may prove difficult to stop. But if the group proves too much for the Italians, it will be back to the drawing board for the Coach.
The outcome of Italy’s first fixture then will be crucial. Spain are the opposition in Gdansk on June 10 and a victory over La Rioja not only puts the Italians in a strong position to escape the group as winners, but also sends a message that they are a force to be reckoned with after finishing bottom of their group at the 2010 World Cup, picking up only two points in the process. With the talent available to Prandelli, Italy should not fear Spain, but Italy have been slow starters in tournaments of late – a 1-1 draw with Paraguay in South Africa was actually an improvement on the opening match of Euro 2008, a 3-0 defeat to the Netherlands. It was much the same in qualifying, when Italy were a goal down to Estonia with an hour gone, although they did rally with two goals in three minutes.
Italy eventually strolled to qualification, thanks in part to the abandonment of the home tie with Serbia after crowd trouble. A 3-0 win was awarded to Italy, effectively ending Serbia’s chances of qualification and leaving Estonia as Italy’s nearest challengers, albeit only nominal ones. Italy won the group by nine points, did not lose a game and conceded only twice – impressive statistics but it must be remembered the standard of the group was not the highest, certainly not on par with what Italy will face in Euro 2012. Even against such meagre opposition Italy occasionally struggled, needing an Antonio Cassano goal that looked suspiciously offside to defeat the Faroe Islands in the away fixture after the home side had twice hit the woodwork.
Prandelli can at least call on some stalwarts of qualification and Italy’s past success. Gianluigi Buffon remains a formidable figure in goal and will captain the side, while a number of Juventus’ Serie A-winning squad will also be present – hard-nosed defender Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Pirlo, the metronomic playmaker, their all-action teammate Claudio Marchisio, World Cup winner Andrea Barzagli b, but Alessando Matri misses out in attack. Attack is the area of the field to give Prandelli greatest concern – Mario Balotelli is likely to lead the line, but the Manchester City striker is as liable to cost his side the game as he is to win it for them. Who will partner Balotelli in Prandelli’s 4-3-1-2, and who will support the attack, are issues to press the Coach further.
One to watch – Mario Balotelli: The 21-year-old could be the player of the tournament if he avoids the off-field and disciplinary problems that have shadowed his career thus far. Prandelli has claimed to trust Balotelli after the striker promised to behave in Euro 2012, but only time will tell if the Premier League winner is true to his word.
Maggio – Barzagli – Chiellini – Balzaretti
De Rossi – Pirlo – Marchisio
Balotelli – Di Natale
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