Italy's pragmatism should be celebrated
It is remarkable how entertainment is sometimes considered more worthy of respect than actual success. Italy have won the World Cup more than any European country, yet they have rarely been on the receiving end of real praise.
Italy are seen cynically as efficient, while the glitzy phrases are reserved for other winning teams such as Spain or the Netherlands, teams that play with "beauty" rather than intoxicating organisation.
Beauty is subjective. To many, good football means pace, precision and relentlessly attacking football. Yet for others, the real beauty is in the intelligence of the game plan. The successful execution of a footballing strategy can be so delicious, it hypnotises the mind and captivates its audience.
Italy define intelligent football. They may have their dramatic moments but it's a country notorious for its pragmatic style of football, for understanding their limitations and playing to their strengths. They may not thrill or overwhelm you but they nearly always execute a plan sensationally. In the words of Giampiero Boniperti: "Winning isn't important, it's the only thing that matters."
The Azzurri may have been lucky against England, owing to Wayne Rooney's poor finishing, but they controlled the pace, demonstrated their technique and preserved the energy to last the full 90 minutes. They didn't draw gasps for their quick football but they did set a record, completing more passes than any side in this tournament, and boasting 93 percent passing accuracy -- something we haven't witnessed since 1966.
Did we expect more? Certainly, but it's also wise to consider the weather conditions. Italy did not play a game that allowed them to express their full potential but one that saw them triumph through suffering -- by displaying maturity and doing all they could to seal. Their unity and understanding of the situation led to the win. Let's not demand the impossible from a side playing in extreme heat and humidity.
Certain players thrilled us -- Matteo Darmian, in particular, was sensational. Young and bullish, he pushed his counterpart and exploited the space, offering Cesare Prandelli's men an alternative and a regular place to deliver the passes while Antonio Candreva, hardly the winner of this blog's affections, also deserves praise.
He tends to run and run and offer little else, but he played a great game. He offered balance, attacked and defended well, exploited the space to allow for passes forward and delivered the necessary crosses to help Mario Balotelli.
However, Ciro Immobile has come in for some unfair criticism, with many likening him to Pippo Inzaghi on account of his penchant for running offside. Quick note here -- being compared to Inzaghi is a compliment. He was a nightmare to defend against and a player who never disappointed those who yearn for passionate and intelligent displays.
With only 17 minutes to make an impact, Italy were already winning and concentrating on closing down the space when he was introduced. Providing him with the service he needs was hardly on the list of their priorities. Admittedly, he did not time his runs to perfection but he was predominantly brought on to frustrate the English attack.
Let's see how he plays when he's teamed up with quick-footed players able to feed him, when the team is allowed to demonstrate their speed in exchanging passes and when he has more time to make an impression.
Much has been made of Costa Rica, especially after their shocking win over Uruguay, a nation that knows how to excel in the big tournaments. Have we underestimated them? Certainly, but too many had overestimated a Uruguayan side that has stagnated in the past two years and only reached the World Cup thanks to a win over Jordan in the playoffs.
A country with an extraordinary footballing history, they have achieved much under the tutelage of Oscar Tabarez, including reaching the semifinals in South Africa and winning the Copa America one year later. However, the team has not evolved as it should have, with the younger generation deemed not good enough to take over from aging stalwarts.
They lacked creativity and imaginative players who would know how to exploit space against a tough Costa Rican defence. Their forward movements were predictable and their defence was almost laughable at times, especially with their inability to track runs. Uruguay deservedly lost to a side that played as a unit with balance and great determination.
Jorge Luis Pinto's men are tough to break, with a superb keeper in Keylor Navas and a back line that consists of five men who quickly close down any space they can find. They may not boast creativity going forward but they do have Joel Campbell, a forward willing to chase every ball to create opportunities. Do not forget their aerial ability that allows them to excel in set pieces -- something Italy must watch out for on Friday.
Prandelli may look to rotate the team but the formation will not change -- the onus is still on controlling the midfield. The 4-1-4-1 will remain but Lorenzo Insigne is in contention to start up front with Candreva on the other side, relegating Claudio Marchisio to a midfield role. There is also talk of starting Thiago Motta or perhaps Marco Parolo featuring, as dynamism will be important against such an energetic opponent.
Gabriel Paletta is unlikely to start on account of his poor performance, but Giorgio Chiellini, despite his struggle in pushing forward, may well start again on the left. Prandelli doesn't want to move Darmian from the right, where he was so impressive against England, but the final decision has not yet been made. The nation awaits.