ROME (AP) There was the Mario Balotelli-inspired 2-1 win over Germany in the 2012 European Championship semifinals. And long stretches of dominance over Spain in last year’s Confederations Cup semifinals – even though Spain eventually won in a penalty shootout.
More than any others, those two matches epitomize the transformation that four-time winner Italy has undergone since its embarrassing first-round elimination from the 2010 World Cup as defending champion.
After years – decades, actually – of lockdown ”catenaccio” defense, the Azzurri have modernized to the point where attacking is the priority.
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”We began this adventure hoping to prioritize an attacking style of play,” said Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, who replaced Marcello Lippi after the disappointment in South Africa. ”We have a lot of quality in midfield and we like to take advantage of that.”
While it’s unclear who will partner Balotelli in attack at the World Cup in Brazil – with Pablo Osvaldo, Antonio Cassano and Giuseppe Rossi (depending on when he returns from his latest knee injury) among the options – Prandelli’s midfield is virtually set.
Even though he’ll be 35 by the time the World Cup starts, passing wizard Andrea Pirlo is still at the top of his game and stalwarts like Daniele De Rossi, Riccardo Montolivo, Thiago Motta, Claudio Marchisio and Antonio Candreva provide a strong supporting cast.
Candreva made a name for himself in that Confederations Cup semifinal match, when he routinely sprinted by Spain’s defenders down the wings during a match marked by energy-sapping humidity in Fortaleza.
Memories of that game will shape the way Prandelli selects his squad this year. He’s going to take a long look at fitness data collected from a brief training camp in April to see who is in the best shape at the end of the long club seasons.
”I want 23 athletes who can recuperate in three or four days from one match to the next,” Prandelli said.
Fitness should be key in Italy’s Group D opener against England in the Amazon city of Manaus on June 14. Six days later, the Azzurri face Costa Rica in the coastal city of Recife before rounding out group play against Uruguay on June 24 in Natal, a four-hour drive north.
”I’m most worried about the logistics and the climate,” Prandelli said after the December draw.
One area where Prandelli has nearly no worries is in goal. Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon is heading to his fifth World Cup – his fourth as a starter.
”For the 23-man World Cup squad I still haven’t decided anything,” Prandelli said in March. ”The only sure starter is Buffon. Everyone else is under observation.”
In defense, center back Andrea Barzagli has been slowed by injuries all season but will still be expected to line up alongside Juventus teammates Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, with Argentine-born Gabriel Paletta also in the mix.
At fullback, AC Milan defender Mattia De Sciglio seems the only player sure of gaining a spot, with Ignazio Abate, Christian Maggio and Domenico Criscito each battling for inclusion.
So what are the Azzurri’s chances?
”We in Italy think we’re the best, although for years we haven’t been the best,” Prandelli said. ”How many Italians in the last six years have played a final of the Champions League or Europa League? We’re not that strong anymore. … But we’ll be ready.”