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|EURO 2012 Preview: Italy|
The four-time World Champions Italy have come a long way in the past 24 months, since former Fiorentina tactician Cesare Prandelli replaced Marcello Lippi as coach of the proud nation. Despite cruising through their qualifying group, making light work of the likes of Serbia and Slovenia, similar to their World Cup triumph in 2006 they come into another major international tournament under yet another match-fixing cloud - this time the Scommessopoli version.
While match-fixing and off-field incidents continue to impact the reputation of Italian football, the Azzurri will be quietly confident of repeating their heroics of 2006, with an unexpected triumph in Poland and the Ukraine to once again defy the odds.
How they qualified
It was a traditionally shaky start to the nation's qualifying campaign with a tricky trip away to Estonia, the eventual runners-up in Group C, in September 2010. Despite conceding midway through the first half, the Azzurri rallied in the second period, with two goals in the space of three minutes from Antonio Cassano and Leonardo Bonucci to ensure the perfect start to Prandelli's first campaign as coach of Italy.
Just days later, Cassano was joined on the score sheet by four others, as the Italians crushed minnows Faroe Islands 5-0 in Florence, before 2010 was brought to a disappointing end, as they were held to a scoreless draw at Northern Ireland, before seeing their clash with Serbia in Genoa abandoned after just six minutes of play, due to the behaviour of the Serbian ultras. Italy were later awarded a 3-0 win.
2011 started in style for La Nazionale, as Thiago Motta scored the only goal in a crunch clash away to Slovenia in late March, before Cassano, Giuseppe Rossi and Giampaolo Pazzini put Estonia to the sword in Modena one year ago. This was followed by a couple of nervy 1-0 wins, firstly away to the Faroes, and then at home to Slovenia, with Pazzini grabbing a goal five minutes from time to book the nation's ticket to the finals.
With their unbeaten record in tact, and having just conceded one goal in eight fixtures to this point, the Italians travelled to Serbia with little to play for. Claudio Marchisio scored within the first 45 seconds, however that was the only reason to celebrate on the night, as the hosts eventually grabbed an equaliser, and denied the group leaders of all three points for just the second time in the qualification campaign. A double to Cassano and an unfortunate own goal, was enough for the Italians to cruise past Northern Ireland on the final match day, ensuring they finished 10 points clear at the top of Group C, recording 26 points from a possible 30, conceding just two goals in that time.
Prandelli's men primed to perform
Many eyebrows were raised two years ago, when Lippi unveiled his 23-man squad for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, selecting almost exactly the same squad that led the nation to glory in 2006. It was never going to end nicely for the Azzurri on that occasion, however no one would ever have predicted the eventual result to have been so poor.
This time around however things are different. A new coach, with new ideas, and one who is confident in making the tough decisions as he has regularly done over the past 24 months. Whether it concern suspensions, lack of playing time, or the latest match-fixing scandal, no one player is favoured in the eyes of the current national team boss, and for that reason Italy as a group are primed to excel at this summer's tournament. With a rare variety of quality on show, Azzurri fans should be very excited heading into the finals.
Italy are famously, and consistently very strong in between the sticks and in defence, and although it is a similar story this time around - with the likes of Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini and an in-form Andrea Barzagli in the squad - there is a brilliant balance of strength all over the park.
For years Italy have been crying out for an energetic and lively attacking group, which Prandelli has perfectly ensured will be the case in Poland and the Ukraine. Compare the 2006 World Cup winning squad of attackers to the current crop. Back then there was Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, Luca Toni, Pippo Inzaghi, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Alberto Gilardino, compared to today's squad of: Mario Balotelli, Fabio Borini, Antonio Cassano, Antonio Di Natale and Sebastian Giovinco. While the names may not be as high-profiled as in '06, the quality and variety is surely something for all fans to feel very positive about.
In midfield, Andrea Pirlo is undoubtedly one of the top five central players in world football at the present time, so if he is on top of his game, it will be very difficult for any of the Azzurri's opponents to dictate play in midfield. Supported by the talented Daniel De Rossi, who finished the season off on a positive note with AS Roma, Claudio Marchisio, who had his best season yet with Juventus, and Thiago Motta, Riccardo Montolivo and Antonio Nocerino who did likewise for their respective clubs, you have a solid core of players in the middle of the park.
Throw in Alessandro Diamanti (one cap) and Juventus' Emanuele Giaccherini (no caps) as well, and you have an exciting crop of players, who are capable of playing in a range of formations. Coincidentally this time around, it is at the back where the Italians will be under pressure most, as the loss of Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and Gianluca Zambrotta is sure to have an impact on the nation against some of the world's best. Additionally the exclusion of Domenico Criscito, following his involvement in the Scomessepoli scandal will not help their cause.
All in all, do not expect the latest match fixing scandal or any of the changes over the past two years to have any impact on the current crop of players. Prandelli has assembled a well-balanced and capable squad that are adaptable to change. With confidence sky high in the playing group, expect the unexpected from the Azzurri in the EURO 2012 finals.
PLAYER TO WATCH: ANTONIO CASSANO
There are a number of key players to keep an eye on in Poland and the Ukraine, but Antonio Cassano has to be the most notable of them all. While Andrea Pirlo's form and class will go a long way to determining the nations results at the finals, and while the X-Factor that is Mario Balotelli is capable of anything, Cassano is the player who will lead the line for the Azzurri, and ultimately be the difference.
Six months ago it was unlikely that the former Roma and Real Madrid star would even be on the plane to Poland and the Ukraine, after suffering an ischemic-based cerebral damage, resulting in minor heart surgery. In fact, there were question marks over whether or not he would ever play the game again. But now the Italy No. 10, who only returned to action for AC Milan on April 25, is back to full fitness, and ready to fire Italy to their second European Championship.
For so long Fanantonio has been touted as the nation's best outfield player, but thus far, mainly due to the fact that he is surprsingly yet to appear at a World Cup for his country, he has failed to replicate that on the international stage. The upcoming finals provide the 29-year-old the opportunity to do so, having put his issues of the past now well and truly behind him. A more mature Cassano has revolutionised his game since joining the Rossoneri from Sampdoria in 2011, and he will therefore have a vital role to play alongside fellow veteran Di Natale, to not only score and perform consistently, but also to guide the youngsters - particularly Balotelli and Borini up front - through their first international tournament.
Likely to play as a trequartista, Cassano's role in Prandelli's set-up will be the most significant one to play, and for that reason he must be at the top of his game immediately. He has the quality and confidence to do so, and if at his best, life will be very difficult for the Azzurri's opponents starting with Spain on June 10.
ADRIAN'S PREDICTION: RUNNERS-UP - Have the quality to go all the way, and defensively are stronger than any other nation. Will fall at the final hurdle however, possibly to the Dutch, who put them to the sword four years ago.