For the first time since 2006, the Italian national team can stake a major claim of having a reasonable chance of winning the European finals. Coach Cesare Prandelli has worked wonders with the Azzuri, incorporating a meritocratic squad selection process as well as balancing out experience and vitality by mixing the old with the young.
In such a way, the wisdom of Gigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo and Andrea Barzagli are ably complemented by the energy of international upstarts Claudio Marchisio, Sebastian Giovinco and Angelo Ogbonna. With Italy breezing through the qualification process, the nation eagerly looked forward to see what Prandelli had in store for them as he announced his 32-man preliminary squad.
To say the list threw up a few surprises is an understatement, as five of the players called up had either never played under his reign or even been called up to the national team squad. While Antonio Di Natale rightfully earns his place amongst the hopefuls to make the trip to Poland and Ukraine, other selections the 54 year-old coach made can be called into question.
Federico Marchetti, the man who famously conceded four goals out of the five shots that were fired at him in the 2010 World Cup when he stepped in as Buffon’s understudy, is a notable exclusion from the long list. Neither Morgan De Sanctis, Salvatore Sirigu or Emiliano Viviano can claim to have had a season as good as the man who defended Lazio’s goal, on the way to accumulating 31 games played in Serie A this season.
It is testament of Marchetti’s commitment to working hard that has seen him prove to be one of the most valuable acquisitions of this season, as his greatly-heightened command of the area, anticipation and reflexes ensured Lazio continued challenging for Champions League qualification next season. Missing out due to disciplinary action after he punched the referee in Lazio 2-0 loss to Udinese, it’s no surprise there is a feeling Italy fans will miss Marchetti’s presence between the sticks this June.
On to the defence, and Salvatore Bochetti and Domenico Criscito unexpectedly find themselves on Italy’s shortlist. While young and promising, neither can claim to provide adequate competition to fix Italy’s Achilles heel at left-back alongside Palermo’s Federico Balzaretti. Given the excellent season Paolo De Ceglie had as Juventus strode to the Scudetto, it is indeed surprising the 25 year-old has never been utilized by Prandelli.
De Ceglie gradient of improvement has been sharp these past two seasons. While his progress was abruptly halted by a season-ending injury the last time, this season had seem him firmly cement his place in Antonio Conte’s new champions via his tireless running, intelligent movement and pinpoint crossing ability. If De Ceglie’s chance doesn’t come this summer, expect him to be noticed very, very soon.
19 year-old midfield playmaker Marco Verratti had a fairytale season topped off with a call-up to the preliminary squad, and while it is undeniable the Pirlo-wannabe has talent, it should be said the Pescara native, along with fellow surprise inclusion Ezequiel Schelotto, does not have the international experience required to make the cut.
Verratti has proven his eye for the pass on the edge of the box in helping Zdenek Zeman’s Serie B side win promotion, but the blood does occasionally go to his head in either a poorly-timed lunge or forgetting his position on the pitch. At this level, such mistakes are cruelly exposed, and Verratti should be made to wait his turn by being called up for World Cup 2014 instead. Lazio duo Antonio Candreva and Stefano Mauri present interesting options in place of the youngster, after enjoying a stellar season with the Biancocelesti.
While Argentine-born Schelotto can be pleased at playing his part in keeping Atalanta afloat in Serie A after the club was hit by a 6-point deficit enforced by a match-fixing investigation, there is a more experienced like-for-like alternative in Juventus man Simone Pepe. If Prandelli aims to switch to a tactical style that emphasizes wider action compared to his standard 4-3-1-2, he will have no choice but to bring the young winger along, who could find himself out of his depth at the most crucial of moments.
Just as a wide formation requires a good outlet on the wings, it also entails having a good, old-fashioned primo punta on hand to bang in the goals. Again, that’s something crucially missing from the Italy squad, with the likes of Giampaolo Pazzini, understandably, and Pablo Osvaldo, less understandably, left out.
Nevertheless, good ol’ Italian improvisation won out against sides better equipped for the World Cup in 2006, and Prandelli probably has a few tricks up his sleeve yet. If Italy can squeeze out of the group stage, given Spain also form part of that group, and go on to get past the round of 16, the Azzuri will have a fighting chance of lifting the European cup and confirming their newly-restored credibility.