Italy goes to Brazil with a point to prove. After winning the World Cup in 2006, the mighty Azzurri bowed out in the first round four years ago without winning a game. But they’ve undergone a renaissance under coach Cesare Prandelli, who has stressed possession and quick soccer. It’s paid off, as the Italians reached the finals of Euro 2012. Now they want to show that they’re not a spent force at the World Cup.
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Mattia Perin (Genoa), Salvatore Sirigu (Paris Saint-Germain)
Defenders: Ignazio Abate (AC Milan), Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Matteo Darmian (Torino), Mattia De Sciglio (AC Milan), Gabriel Paletta (Parma)
Midfielders: Alberto Aquilani (Fiorentina), Antonio Candreva (Lazio), Daniele De Rossi (Roma), Claudio Marchisio (Juventus), Thiago Motta (Paris Saint-Germain), Marco Parolo (Parma), Andrea Pirlo (Juventus), Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain)
Forwards: Mario Balotelli (AC Milan), Antonio Cassano (Parma), Alessio Cerci (Torino), Ciro Immobile (Torino), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli)
Full credit must be given to Cesare Prandelli, who has rebuilt the team, stressing a possession game based on the Spanish model and a more attack-driven style of play. The transformation has led to one of the most dynamic Italian teams in years.
4-3-2-1: (GK) Buffon – (D) Abate, Bonucci, Barzagli, Chiellini – (M) Pirlo, De Rossi, Marchiso – (F) Balotelli, Cerci, Insigne
Group D schedule
June 14: vs. England in Manaus
June 20: vs. Costa Rica in Recife
June 24: vs. Uruguay in Natal
How they qualified
Italy’s qualification was never really in doubt, with the Azzurri winning Group B by a comfortable six-point margin over second-place Denmark. After stumbling out of the gate with a 2–2 draw away to Bulgaria, Italy buckled down and took care of Malta, Armenia and Denmark in quick succession before clinching a World Cup berth with two games to spare following a home win over the Czech Republic.
Defence, as always. Italy has plenty of depth and quality at the back. The same can be said in midfield, where Andrea Pirlo stands out the most. Prandelli has also put together a roster that mixes experience and youth, and is keen to attack.
The team relies too much on Pirlo. If teams can effectively man-mark him, the supply line shuts down. Italy lacks a ruthless edge, leading to laboured performances. The Italians have to play with a higher intensity level in Brazil—otherwise they’ll get punished.
Players to watch
Andrea Pirlo: He’s 35, but the classy Juventus midfielder remains elegant in possession and in his passing. Deadly from set pieces, too.
Mario Balotelli: A game breaker. Capable of moments of pure genius, the AC Milan striker is dangerous and hard to contain when he’s at his best.
Gianluigi Buffon: The Juventus man is still one of the best goalkeepers in the world. An excellent shot-stopper who also effectively organises his back line.
Which Mario Balotelli will we see? The one who was out of form this past season with Milan? Or the explosive striker who scores at ease, like he did at Euro 2012? If he throws one his tantrums and suffers a meltdown, Italy will become enveloped in controversy. Balotelli needs to stay focused and keep his cool.
Prospects in Brazil
Italy has been drawn into a somewhat tricky group with England, Uruguay and Costa Rica. But the Italians have been in fine form ever since their 2010 World Cup debacle, reaching the finals of Euro 2012 and breezing through qualifying for this tournament. Are they going to win the World Cup this time around? No. But a run to the semifinals isn’t out of the question, although a quarterfinal exit is more probable.
World Cup history
Four World Cups say it all. The first nation to win on home soil. The first to win back-to-back tournaments. Upsetting Brazil in 1982. Beating Germany on home soil in a dramatic semifinal in 2006 en route to claiming a fourth title. The Azzurri are masters of “tournament management.” Although traditionally a slow starter, Italy is a World Cup powerhouse. Never underestimate the Italians. Never. Under any circumstances.
• 1930—Did not enter
• 1950—First round
• 1954—First round
• 1958—Did not qualify
• 1962—First round
• 1966—First round
• 1974—First round
• 1978—Fourth place
• 1986—Second round
• 1990—Semifinals (fourth place)
• 2002—Second round
• 2010—First round
Algeria || Argentina || Australia || Belgium || Bosnia and Herzegovina || Brazil || Cameroon || Chile || Colombia || Costa Rica || Croatia || Ecuador || England || France || Germany || Ghana || Greece || Holland || Honduras || Iran || Italy || Ivory Coast || Japan || Mexico || Nigeria || Portugal || Russia || South Korea || Spain || Switzerland || Uruguay || United States