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Unanswered questions remain for Italy

Qualifiers for the World Cup and the European Championship are seen by most Italian fans less as competitive, unmissable affairs than chances to witness the progress towards another inevitably exciting month of June, every two years, when all of that will come to fruition.

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In common with several other national teams representing countries blessed with a strong domestic league, the Azzurri never spark the kind of consistent following and invoke the sort of passion that club sides do.

It is easier to work yourself up for matches such as the one against Serbia - a few dozen visitors apparently took that concept to an extreme in Genoa on Tuesday - but the suspension of Serie A each time Italy take to the field is viewed by many as a nuisance, and never more so than in early September, when league action is stopped after just one game to allow the Azzurri to test themselves.

As tests go, the Serbia game had been anticipated more than most, at least by those who saw it as more than a midweek stop en route to the resumption of Serie A, because of its importance in the standings of Group C - especially after Serbia's surprise defeat at home to Estonia on Friday.

It was not to be, of course, and we were left with a few unanswered questions that will have to be posed again no sooner than next March, when Italy play their next qualifier in Slovenia.

The first question involves that old media and fan favourite Antonio Cassano. An ever-present in Cesare Prandelli's squads so far, he has been employed in different positions. In Prandelli's inaugural game against Ivory Coast, Cassano was utilised as one of the three behind lone striker Amauri in a 4-2-3-1 formation, while he played as a left-sided striker in the next three matches, and then as a strike partner of Giampaolo Pazzini in the 4-3-1-2 that was seen for less than ten minutes against Serbia.

For the coach, Cassano has become a figure like Andrea Pirlo: almost indispensible. But what is his best position? As someone not at his best when he has to track back and defend, he needs back-up on his side and almost warrants the use of a more defensive-minded attacker on the opposite side, in order to bring the 4-3-3 back to a more compact 4-4-2. That is the reason Simone Pepe holds down a regular place in the side, to the dismay of many who have failed to be impressed by any of the Juventus winger's displays in the last semester.

As Prandelli put it, shielding himself from criticism while praising his player before the Northern Ireland match: "The problem lies in how you judge someone like him: seeing him purely as a striker may give you a limited perspective. But he's second to none in the whole of his skills."

While admiring Prandelli's protective creativity with words, one cannot help but wonder whether he's following the right path towards building a balanced side with the more workmanlike Pepe on one side and Cassano on the other. His intentions will be clearer once Mario Balotelli becomes available again.

When healthy, Balotelli will surely hold down a regular place, and his introduction to the starting line-up will have a domino effect on the rest of team, too. Not at his best when defending - just ask Jose Mourinho - he will add a better attacking dimension to a side that may find it difficult to get goals from the lone striker, be it Pazzini, Marco Borriello or Alberto Gilardino, who is still the best of the trio at scoring from half-chances. Still, as Prandelli put it after the win over the Faroe Islands, "I still need to find out whether the side can hold up with Cassano and Balotelli playing alongside a central striker".

Another question that Prandelli's first 100 days in charge - a meaningless stage in a career but one the media, for some reason, identifies as pregnant with resonance - has produced, centres on a defence that is still under scrutiny despite playing well so far. The middle, though, seems set: Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci have now become a fixture for Italy as a central pairing despite a shaky start to the season with Juventus, and both seemed to have improved significantly in the past few weeks. Good in the air and dangerous in dead-ball situations, they can also be counted on to provide some kind of build-up play from the back if needed.

Yet Prandelli has publicly stated he prefers not to leave the ball at the feet of central defenders too much: "I do not like defenders making long passes. This ends up reducing our shape - I'd rather see [my players] pass the ball around and go upfield like that".

Having stuck with the Bianconeri duo so far, Prandelli can wait for Genoa's Andrea Ranocchia (ironically, Bonucci's defensive partner at Bari last season) and Torino's Angelo Ogbonna, both members of the Under-21s who missed out on qualification for the European Championships and the Olympics on Tuesday, to gain experience. He does not have much choice, though, as Serie A is not producing the kind of suffocating defensive talent Italian football was once famous for - or notorious for, if you prefer.

All other candidates for a place are 27 or older, and the fact this is considered a young age in a country dominated by the so-called gerontocracy counts for little in football matters.

Prandelli has perhaps more alternatives on the flanks, where Parma's Luca Antonelli, who is able to play in a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 as he did last season, can provide good push on the left along with Genoa's Domenico Criscito, a former central defender. Also vying for a spot are Inter's Davide Santon, who's had little luck with injuries in the past year and has just gotten back into the side, Milan's Luca Antonini and Stuttgart's Cristian Molinaro.

Options on the right are perhaps more abundant. Along with Palermo's Mattia Cassani, a starter at Windsor Park, Prandelli can count on Fiorentina's Lorenzo De Silvestri, perhaps the more impressive physical specimen, while Marco Motta, who's had a shaky start with Juventus, was left out of the last couple of matches and old warrior Gianluca Zambrotta, who captained Italy for the first time on Tuesday and would rather forget the occasion, cannot obviously be considered for the long run.

Judging from the first three qualifiers, though, nothing can be more important for Prandelli than Pirlo's continuing good health. No one else has come close to him in terms of setting the tempo, spraying passes from the tightest of angles and - despite a less than explosive body - creating space for himself in midfield.

Prandelli flirted with the idea of advancing him closer to the strikers, but has so far kept him in front of the defence, just as Max Allegri does for Milan. When Italy played Estonia and Faroe Islands, Pirlo was flanked by Daniele De Rossi and Riccardo Montolivo, and Prandelli expressed afterwards his desire to have either of them - preferably Montolivo, who plays the shorter, crisp ball better than the Roma stalwart - help out the Milan midfielder when opponents man-mark or double up on him.

There are many questions that could have received a clearer answer on Tuesday, when the experiment of Lazio's Stefano Mauri as a trequartista was going to add further tactical intrigue to the march against Serbia. Alas, it was not to be, and a thug wielding flares and shearing scissors got more face - or rather balaclava - time than the Azzurri.

It's going to be a long time before we'll see Italy involved in a significant match again but, hey, bring back the Serie A. Isn't it about time?


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