Almost every Italian player I have spoken to has described Italy's ability to change their tactical shape as 'un'arma in più', or 'an extra string to their bow'. If Thiago Motta fails to recover from his hamstring injury they will have to put that belief to the test again tomorrow.
Italy played their first two group matches of this tournament in a 3-5-2 formation and the last in Cesare Prandelli's preferred 4-3-1-2 system, but one constant throughout has been Motta.
Though not the quickest, his physical presence has given the midfield the right balance. When Andrea Pirlo needs protection, Motta is there to help out; when Claudio Marchisio launches another lung-busting run, Motta drops back to cover, and, as he showed against Spain when forcing a fine save from Iker Casillas, the Paris-Saint Germain FC midfielder is an offensive threat too.
Should he lose his battle for fitness, Riccardo Montolivo is expected to earn a first start of these finals. The AC Milan man is a fine ball-playing midfielder with a thunderbolt of a shot and a wide range of passing. He offers better offensive potential than Motta; indeed, Prandelli's protege at Atalanta BC and ACF Fiorentina had been in the frame for a starting berth until he paid the price for Italy's 3-0 defeat by Russia in their last warm-up friendly.
Prandelli decided more steel was required in midfield and so Montolivo has since only played a 28-minute cameo role against Croatia, in which he warmed Stipe Pletikosa's palms with a ferocious drive.
Montolivo is a wonderful player to watch but there is no doubt that if Prandelli maintains Italy's four-man defence against England, the Azzurri will have to start a lot better than they did against the Republic of Ireland. The Boys in Green might have scored within the first ten seconds had Kevin Doyle been more ruthless when he latched on to Andrea Pirlo's stray back pass, and by Prandelli's own admission it took Italy a good 25 minutes to right the ship before establishing supremacy.
They can ill afford to start so slowly on Sunday night as Roy Hodgson's men have already demonstrated a lethal touch in front of goal, although I suspect England's struggles to keep possession in midfield will help the cause of the four-time world champions whatever formation they play. In that case Montolivo, playing just behind the two strikers, will be in a position to cause all sorts of problems.
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