Immobile form key to Azzurri attack
Italy is the home of cynical and efficient football and the country that taught the world the art of defence. Or, at least, that's what Italy used to be. Under Cesare Prandelli, the Azzurri are attempting to turn over a new leaf, one that has delighted many but worried the few who admire a stingy defence.
"Our idea is to score more goals than the opposition, even if it means we concede some," explained the coach.
Prandelli is the modern coach of a modern Italy. The tactics have evolved, the ideas have changed and as we saw in Euro 2012, the Azzurri are defined not by spectacular defensive displays but by their need for possession and their dedication to "beautiful," attacking football.
A few -- including this writer -- are skeptical. Attacking football might sell tickets and enchant the masses, but as Brazil demonstrated in 1982, it can also fail even when carried out by the greatest talents. Teams that appreciate the value of a solid defence, that commit the fewest errors and defend as a compact unit, usually succeed. No side has demonstrated this point better than Italy.
Thus this particular comment, coupled with the Azzurri's poor defensive displays in recent friendlies, have worried a few. Prandelli has said individual errors were to blame for Fluminense's goals in Italy's 5-3 win over the Brazilian club side on Sunday. While it's important to note his first-choice defenders did not start the game, the team will need to significantly improve in defence; otherwise, the country will be desperate for the likes of Ciro Immobile to consistently dazzle.
The Italian forward's mesmeric performance against the Brazilian side has launched him into the spotlight and led to fans demanding he start Italy's first group game against England in the World Cup. Corriere dello Sport even dedicated its front page to the player with a headline reading "Play Ciro."
The nation has taken to voting in online polls, revealing whom they prefer to lead the line against England. Corriere dello Sport wrote, "The figures leave no room for interpretation: 86.8 percent of voters in our poll voted for the Neapolitan striker (Immobile) [and] only 13.2 percent remained faithful to Super Mario Balotelli."
SportMediaset's results were similar: 82 percent of their readers want the new Borussia Dortmund striker to play Saturday, while only 18 percent want to see Balotelli start against Roy Hodgson's men.
So why Ciro? Perhaps because he has an eye for goal, a passionate heart and a foot that's deliciously effective at converting his chances, or perhaps Italians are feeling nostalgic. They yearn for an unlikely hero, the Salvatore "Toto" Schillaci of this generation -- and Immobile fits the bill.
He wasn't present in the qualifiers, earned his first cap for the senior team in March and wasn't even guaranteed a spot in the final squad. Yet he made it, with his love for the shirt evident, and he's desperate to make the same impact on the international stage that he did on Serie A this season -- finishing the year as top scorer with 22 goals.
The way he exploits space, his tactical intelligence and his perfect chemistry with the likes of Lorenzo Insigne, with whom he played in Pescara and on the under-21 team, are just a few reasons he cannot be left on the bench. He has indeed stirred debate in the peninsula, especially as Italy had looked a little flat until he burst on the scene.
With Immobile and Insigne up top against Fluminense -- the first match Italy won since September 2013 -- the Azzurri looked capable of demolishing the opponent, and for that one has to thank Zdenek Zeman. A coach devoted to fast-paced, attacking football that centres around quick, vertical movements, he charmed a nation when he won promotion with Pescara in 2012 and lead them back to top-flight football after a 19-year wait.
His team included the talents of Insigne, Immobile and Marco Veratti, and together they learned how to maintain precision when attacking with speed, how to exploit space and how to overwhelm defences. That table-topping team finished the season with 90 goals.
"Zeman taught us all so much, and we cannot forget what he gave to us," Insigne said in his latest interview. "Ciro, Marco and I all owe almost everything to Zeman."
The talented trio might have parted ways, but each has achieved success with his respective team, and all three are keen to rekindle their chemistry in Brazil. "Even though we haven't played together at club level for two years, we still need just a glance to understand each other," Insigne said.
Prandelli has already made it clear he does not want to play Immobile and Balotelli together unless he is absolutely forced to, given the talent the country has in midfield. So the question is: Who will get the nod to face England? The former Manchester City forward is the bookies' favourite. He might not have offered much in recent matches, but he is considered Italy's great talent and the player with more experience.
While the coach deliberates who will lead the line, it seems he's decided on the rest of the team. The likely 4-1-4-1 formation will feature Gianluigi Buffon in goal, Mattia De Sciglio and Matteo Darmian at full-backs and Juventus duo Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli in the middle. Daniele De Rossi will be deployed just in front of the defence and will drop into the back line when the full-backs attack. Ahead of him, it seems Prandelli will opt for a creative midfield featuring both Andrea Pirlo and Marco Verratti flanked by Claudio Marchisio and Antonio Candreva on the wings.
The training goes on as Italy await the coach's decisions -- just how will Italy play against England?