32 Teams in 32 Days: Italy
Group D | England | Uruguay | Costa Rica
This is not a typical Italy football squad. That's what we have come to expect over the past four years from Cesare Prandelli. He has inverted the stereotypes about Italy and changed people's opinion of them as a football nation. When they win, it's no longer begrudged. Why? Because it's deserved.
Instead of playing opportunistic, counterattacking football, Prandelli's Italy play on the front foot, try to take the initiative and put on a show. Runner-up at the 2012 Euros, the Azzurri were the fans' favourite. Bronze medalist at the 2013 Confederations Cup, their changes in style and mentality haven't compromised their tradition of reaching the final stages of major competitions.
An experienced core of players who have been there and won the World Cup before -- captain Gigi Buffon, centre-back Andrea Barzagli, playmaker Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi -- is complemented by a new generation of players showing genuine promise.
Mario Balotelli isn't the only talent yet to approach his mid-20s. Marco Verratti, Ciro Immobile and Mattia Destro all give Italy a freshness they haven't had for a while. The range of options available to Prandelli and the flexibility of his players remain the Azzurri's greatest strengths. Expect them to play several systems over the course of the tournament, flipping from 3-5-2 to 4-3-1-2 formations and more. No team is as tactically adaptable as Italy.
One of the most storied countries to play in the World Cup, Italy have missed just two tournaments -- not entering the inaugural event in 1930 and not qualifying in 1958. A four-time World Cup winner (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006) and two-time runner-up (1970 and 1994), the Azzurri failed to escape group play for the first time in over 30 years at the 2010 tournament in South Africa.
How they reached Brazil
Italy qualified for Brazil with two games to spare, something they've never done before, in September after edging the Czech Republic 2-1 at the Juventus Stadium on a night Buffon became their all-time appearance leader.
Unbeaten throughout qualifying, there was a touch of regret, as the Azzurri drew their final couple of games against Denmark and Armenia. Prandelli was particularly disappointed because, according to FIFA's ranking system, those results meant they weren't seeded for the World Cup draw. A tough group awaited Italy, and that's what they got.
Numbers never lie
Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:
Prandelli considers Brazil the favourite in light of their home advantage and presence of a former World Cup-winning coach on their bench. Next is Spain. Beating them when it matters would be of great satisfaction to Italy.
The Italian coach has faced Spain five times. He oversaw a surprise win against the holders in a friendly in Bari, Italy, shortly after taking charge, and Italy almost shocked Spain in the group stage of the 2012 Euros. Defeated in the final, the class of their opponent spoke that night, but so too did the one less day the Azzurri had to prepare. They decided not to travel straight from the semis to the final venue and made the mistake of returning to their training headquarters, losing precious rest and recuperation time.
Italy came close to knocking Spain out of the 2013 Confederations Cup, succumbing on penalties. If they upset Spain this summer, it would be about time.
Most important player
It sounds so simple: Stop Pirlo and you halt his team from playing its game. And yet, as Pirlo turns 35, opponents still can't get a hold of him. He has learned various countermeasures over the years, drifting from the centre, coming wide to pick up the ball and influencing the play from there. Man-mark him and a ball-playing centre-back can step out and dictate the play instead.
On the off chance Prandelli is courageous enough to play Verratti alongside Pirlo, it will be that much harder for opponents. If they pick up one and not the other, they're in trouble. Give away a free kick and Pirlo can go up and over (or under) the wall from any angle. Present him with a penalty and he might just Panenka your goalkeeper. The man is a genius. He nearly always finds a way.
Definition of success
After Italy's elimination and humiliation four years ago when they finished at the bottom of a Group F that included Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand, more is obviously expected in Brazil.
Prandelli has done a lot to restore confidence. After reaching the 2012 Euros final, finishing third at the Confederations and showing an invaluable reconnaissance ahead of this summer's World Cup, Italy can be competitive. The representation of Serie A and Italian football at the club level shouldn't diminish the outstanding individuals on the squad and how well they come together as a team. Still, some are claiming a quarterfinal berth would be a good result.
How far will Italy go?
ESPN FC analysts' take: Michael Ballack
The Italians are perhaps the best team in the world from a tactical standpoint. They are frustrating because they are so defensive. Maybe their brand of football is not so good to watch, but it's successful.
They will struggle to keep up with the pace of other teams. In a World Cup, it's difficult to keep fit and up for every game, and it will be especially so in the South American climate. When a young, inspired team attacks Italy over 90 minutes, I am not sure the Azzurri can compete on a physical level.