From Gianni Rivera to Roberto Baggio, Gigi Riva to Alessandro Del Piero, Sandro Mazzola to Francesco Totti, Italy have always boasted players of sublime ability, yet over the years they have acquired a reputation for grinding out results.
Following their disastrous FIFA World Cup campaign of two years ago, however, when the Azzurri finished bottom of their group, the four-time world champions decided to wipe the slate clean. Under new coach Cesare Prandelli, whose free-flowing ACF Fiorentina side won over many admirers, they decided to place the onus on a more expansive game.
From the outset Prandelli made it clear that this was a long-term project, yet results came quicker than expected and, deployed in a 4-3-1-2 formation, Italy stormed through their qualifying group, remaining unbeaten in their ten matches, winning eight, and charming the neutrals with a passing style inspired by Andrea Pirlo.
Three successive friendly defeats, however, have prompted a tactical rethink, and against Spain Prandelli looks set to adopt a 3-5-2 formation with midfielder Daniele De Rossi at the heart of the defensive trio. At first glance, this ploy appears to be a defensive response to shield a rearguard that has begun to spring many leaks and to stifle the midfield tiki-taka of the European champions. The creative player behind Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli – Riccardo Montolivo – will almost certainly be sacrificed for the less artful Antonio Nocerino or Thiago Motta.
Yet a more combative midfielder can help give Pirlo the protection he needs to weave his magic. With 12 assists for Juventus this season, the 33-year-old, who joined on a free transfer from AC Milan last summer, proved to be the guiding force for the Italian title winners, who often deployed a five-man midfield in their unbeaten Serie A campaign. With Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal providing cover, Pirlo was able to pick out an endless variety of pin-point passes.
Rather than being more defensive, Italy can perhaps now bring the best out of a player whom Luis Sánchez, the former FC Barcelona and FC Internazionale Milano forward, considers to be even better than Spain's tempo-setter Xavi Hernández."They are very similar players but in my opinion Pirlo's game is easier on the eye and has more depth, because he can also play the longer pass over the top," said the 1964 UEFA European Championship winner. "Xavi makes less mistakes but that's because his passes are often short and less risky."
By enabling Pirlo to load the bullets for Cassano and Balotelli and bypass a Spanish defence shorn of the injured Carles Puyol, Italy might now be able to break a goal drought that dates back to 11 November last year. And Pirlo, who made a telling contribution to Italy's 2006 World Cup success, could add his name to the pantheon of Azzurri greats.
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