On Friday night Cesare Prandelli took his Azzurri into Slovenia for a Euro 2012 qualifier. Hopes were high before the game and the fans were rewarded for their patience on the night with a 1-0 win after Thiago Motta scored his first goal for the National team. There were a few points of interest that are worth taking into account as we go forth in search of qualification.
1) Italy imposed themselves on the game
Rather than playing on the counter attack, soaking up pressure and waiting to overrun an opposition defence it was great to see Italy keeping possession in the middle of the park and making use of advancing full backs. Much of this may have been to do with Slovenia’s game plan, which appeared to be to sit back almost playing as the away side.
2) Buffon’s presence important
In his absence the team were able to get by with Sirigu and Viviano between the sticks. Both deputies were decent but the return of Buffon offers a huge psychological boost to the 4 defenders in front of him and beyond. He hasn’t had the best of returns to club football since coming back from injury – Buffon has been out since June following an operation for sciatica suffered at the world cup.
It’s easy to forget how much longer he has in the game given his early debut at Parma. At 33, if he remains free of any crippling injuries he can be Italy’s number one for the next four or five years. This stability gives Azzurri fans plenty of hope.
3) Balzaretti the first choice at left back
Italy isn’t a nation brimming with full backs at the moment, but Federico Balzaretti is not just the best of a bad bunch. He is a vital part of this Italy side, offering tons of width with his attacking forays and has good defensive attributes too. Balzaretti has more than proved his worth to the national team in his call ups under Prandelli.
His performance on Friday was capped with an assist for the game’s only goal – a burst up the pitch before cutting inside to avoid a crowded flank and a touch for Thiago Motta to strike home. Other options at left back – such as Domenico Criscito – will have to do amazing things in the league to get their starting place back.
4) Best midfield combination still remains an uncertainty
Aquilani, Motta, Montolivo and Mauri provided a midfield that was cohesive but not expansive. Thiago Motta sat and had very little to do barring a few Slovenian counter attacks, he added to the attack when he did venture forward.
The skilful duo of Aquilani and Montolivo tended to move across the pitch as a pair and, Aquilani especially, showed off some classy passes to get their team moving forward. It is Stefano Mauri who has received criticism in past games, many calling for him to be dropped. Mauri started the game tentatively and wasn’t involved often to start with, but grew into the game and dovetailed very well with Cassano going right to give the defence more to think about.
It will be very interesting to see what Prandelli does when all his midfielders are fit. With De Rossi and Pirlo still to come back, Prandelli will be inundated with possibilities in the middle – a situation he, sadly, won’t have to deal in terms of wingers.
5) Prandelli asks too much from Cassano
As the second half kicked off Antonio Cassano drifted out of the game. Prandelli hoped to squeeze a few more flashes of magic out of the Milan player, but perhaps should’ve taken him off earlier than he did. This begs the question as to what happens when Cassano isn’t available.
Giuseppe Rossi could be the answer, and should be given more opportunities to integrate himself into the team. The Villarreal star is having a superb season and his pace and guile are of use to this side.
This isn’t a side that strikes fear into the hearts of their opponents, any hopes of success in Euro 2012 is likely to be a surprise. After the dark cloud of shame that surrounded the humiliating World Cup exit in 2010 there is cause for moderate optimism when following the Azzurri. Prandelli is restoring pride at the moment, but we’re some way from being able to dream.
Images from ESPN.