From being on top of the world in 2006 to a humiliating Group Stage exit in World Cup 2010, with a Quarter-final run in Euro 2008 sandwiched in between, the Azzurri haven't been the most consistent team in the continent. But even with their injury troubles and the unfolding of the latest match-fixing saga, it'd be foolish to write off Cesare Prandelli's men just yet. Here's a detailed look:
Gianluigi Buffon has just had a brilliant season with Juventus, and is a firm favorite to guard Italy's goalposts, with Salvatore Sirigu and Morgan De Sanctis as back-ups. Prandelli has had to deal with lots of issues while naming the rest of his contingent though. Days before the tournament, Italy lost their first-choice left-back Domenico Criscito to the match-fixing scandal. Even though Giorgio Chiellini can fill in on the left, that looks unlikely to happen now Italy have also lost centre-back Andrea Barzagli at least for the group stages. Palermo's Federico Balzaretti looks likely to be given the nod at as a left-back now, with either Christian Maggio or Ignazio Abate on the right side of defense. The Italians do boast of a strong midfield though, with the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Daniele De Rossi and Ricardo Montolivo. Emanuele Giaccherini produced some brilliant performances late in Juve's season to earn a surprising call-up, while Antonio Nocerino and Thiago Motta have also had solid seasons with their clubs. In the forward department, Giuseppe Rossi will be missed sorely though. The diminutive forward would have been the favorite to start alongside Antonio Cassano. But his long term injury means that onus will likely fall on Mario Balotelli, with Di Natale and Alessandre Matri as back-ups. The young duo of Sebastian Giovinco and Fabio Borini does offer pace and creativity on the ball as well.
The Formations and Tactics:
Prandelli is known to prefer a 4-3-1-2 lineup, having used that formation for the majority of the qualifying campaign. With Andrea Pirlo operating as a deep-lying playmaker, Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio, who is fresh from an excellent league campaign with Juventus would be expected to form the midfield three, even though Antonio Nocerino has also made a good case for himself with a stellar year at AC Milan. The main headace for Prandelli though, will be the choice of the trequartista. Italian clubs don't usually have that position in their systems, and even though Montolivo has been used that role before, Giaccherini excelled playing just behind the strikers at Juventus, while Bolgona's Alessandro Diamanti is another option.
With Rossi out injured, Mario Balotelli looks most likely to lead the line along with Antonio Cassano, who recently returned from a heart-surgery, but was excellent throughout the Qualifying campaign. Prandelli can easily switch to a 4-3-3 as well from this system when things aren't working, by employing either Di Natale or Giovinco as wide forwards.
Italy have certainly come a long way from the disastrous World Cup campaign in 2010, with Prandelli imposing a strong "ethical code". Traditionally, the Italians have been known to be defensive-minded, but Cesare Pradnelli's team are anything but that. He promised to make them more attractive and attacking when taking over, and he's managed it pretty well so far. Their game is now based more on possession, and with no dearth of technically gifted midfielders, they can certainly play their own version of tiki-taka.
The "Juventus Impact" is pretty visible on this Italian squad, the Old Lady just coming from a highly successful Serie A campaign. There were also the talks of employing a 3-man defense, in an attempt to replicate Juventus' immensely successful system this season. It'd also have been ideal for someone like Christian Maggio who thrived in an advanced wide role at Napoli. But with Barzagli ruled out now, Prandelli would have to field someone not used to a 3-man defensive system, alongside Chiellini and Bonucci. Also, a lot will depend on Daniele De Rossi. Essentially a holding midfielder, he's likely to be asked to play a role similar to what Arturo Vidal played for Juventus this season, contributing handsomely in attacks as well as shielding the defense.
Fixtures and Permutations:
Italy's group can hardly be called as an easy one, and they haven't been helped by the recent fixing scandals rocking the Italian football again. Even though they had a brilliant qualifying campaign, winning 8 out of 10 games and conceding just 2 goals, they were rocked 0-3 by Russia in their last preparatory match. They find themselves paired with the defending champions Spain, Croatia and Northern Ireland. The biggest challenge for the 4-time World Champions will be to get through the group-stages. While few would fancy them to better the red-hot Spaniards, Italy certainly have the ammunition to survive the dangerous Croats, who pose the biggest threat.
All in all, even plagued with all those problems, the Azzuri do have enough potential to get past the group stages. A lot will depend on whether the Juventus contingent of Buffon, Chiellini, Bonucci, Pirlo and Marchisio can produce the same form that saw the Old Lady go unbeaten through the entire season, and whether Mario Balotelli can finally live up to his immense talent. While no one is expecting them to storm to the title, you'd expect the Italians to have a solid run at the Euros.