Quality the watchword for new-look Italy
As Cesare Prandelli approaches his tenth month in charge of Italy (in Italian parlance, he's the 'CT', commissario tecnico), his outlook on the potential of his side has grown ever more positive by the day. Wins in Slovenia and Ukraine in vastly different circumstances within the past five days have vindicated his optimism, and that they were achieved with a different formation and philosophy from the one he had set out to pursue last summer is even more remarkable.
Five points ahead of Slovenia and Serbia with a game in hand, passage to Euro 2012 is all but assured unless disaster strikes, but Prandelli must be as pleased with the way results have come as with how many points have been accumulated.
He was expected to bring a very different working environment from his predecessor Marcello Lippi, whose final months as coach were tainted by controversial team selections and a general disdain for both the media and the outside world - a pity, as the memories Lippi provided with success at the unforgettable 2006 World Cup should never be overshadowed by last year's failure.
The bunker, us-against-the-world mentality may work from time to time, even as a fictitious product of a squad's self-serving imagination, but you simply can't transform it into a routine, not when you only meet up four or five times a year and have to pretend the intervening months have not passed.
Ultimately, Lippi was criticised last year for the very same reason he'd been praised in Germany: building a close-knit squad whose loyalty was never in question, with the occasional addition or subtraction of players whose performances fluctuated too much to be ignored (he did not take Alessandro Del Piero to South Africa, for example).
Prandelli's task from the start was to make the Azzurri 'nicer' off the pitch, a goal he seems to have accomplished, while apparently concentrating on the more pressing need of fielding a decent side after the train wreck of the World Cup.
Quality was the operative word; quality, which seemed to have deserted most of the natural candidates for the Azzurri shirt. This is why Prandelli soon mentioned what he calls "the new Italians", players with an acquired citizenship like Lazio's Cristian Ledesma, Inter's Thiago Motta and Parma's Amauri, although you could be forgiven for arching an eyebrow when the word 'quality' is placed next to the latter.
Quality, though, is back, as a bandage masking the lack of a truly world class player in the side. Or at least it seems that way. Italy passed the ball around in Slovenia, mitigating the effect their more athletic opponents set out to have on the game, and had a good display in Ukraine while fielding six different outfield starters from the previous match (that soon became seven when Davide Astori came in for Giorgio Chiellini early on).
Prandelli again decided to use a midfield diamond, a 4-3-1-2, which can also be seen as a 4-1-2-1-2 as the central midfielder is deeper than his colleagues. Stefano Mauri in Slovenia and Alberto Aquilani in Ukraine played in the trequartista role, something the Liverpool player (currently on loan at Juventus) does not really like as much as being in the middle of the action. He played to the right of Thiago Motta in the first game, with Riccardo Montolivo on the opposite side, then, ominously for Juve coach Gigi Del Neri, remarked how he feels better with the Azzurri as he has the ball at his feet more and gets tired less easily, "rather than chasing opponents around like I do with Juve, with the effect of losing sharpness of mind".
Aquilani was perhaps the best player on the pitch in Slovenia, but Motta again impressed for his ability, as Prandelli puts it, to display a Brazilian touch and a European attitude - qualities which are having an increasing influence at club level for Inter where he seems to be one of the first names on the teamsheet for coach Leonardo.
Montolivo, whose only shortcoming comes in rarely providing a goalscoring threat, played well in the Motta role on Tuesday evening, adding to Prandelli's choices in the middle of the park. That's where the strength of the current side lies, as the forwards are not providing goals with any consistency.
At least those who should be first choice, like Giampaolo Pazzini, Alberto Gilardino and Antonio Cassano, which may leave an opening for the increasingly impressive Villarreal striker Giuseppe Rossi - who bizarrely, having been raised in New Jersey, now speaks with a distinguishable Spanish accent.
Pazzini, whose sheer goalscoring talent is perhaps unmatched in the side, again failed to impress, and his former Sampdoria partner Cassano again proved, in Slovenia, that Lippi was right in not trusting him to produce on a consistent basis, an attitude which brought the former CT a lot of criticism from fans and media who were always willing to overlook the negatives.
The best way to make fans forget about clamouring for Cassano may be, in fact, to include him in the side and let outsiders judge for themselves. Roberto Donadoni had done it to little effect in Euro 2008, something which the Cassanophiles had forgotten, but the danger is obvious: wasting time on a player blessed with great natural skills but unable to produce with the kind of reliability that coaches love.
Not even the sports dailies and around-the-clock TV news channels, who regularly fawn over any player who joins one of the big clubs and has popular backing, can mask the fact Cassano has been just slightly above average for Milan, who he joined in January. He has scored just two goals and claimed a handful of assists in three months, and Milan are now in danger of being overtaken by Inter in Saturday's big derby.
While the Cassano conundrum lingers on, you can already spot an evolution in Prandelli's attitude towards another of the players he once marked down as integral to his plans: Mario Balotelli.
He had been included in Italy's squad in November when his sending-off for kicking out at Youssuf Mulumbu in Manchester City's 2-0 win at West Brom on November 7 was not deemed to be as bad as to warrant exclusion on a ethical basis. But as much as he likes Balotelli, Prandelli could not bring himself to call him up this time after another red in the Europa League and followed the same line with Daniele De Rossi, who paid the price for punching Shakhtar's Dario Srna in the Champions League.
You have to praise Prandelli for his courage in dispensing with the services of De Rossi, a stalwart for Roma and Italy despite an increasing penchant for losing his temper, for the potentially tricky encounter with Slovenia, as an example had to be set, a statement made to anyone who thinks talent should be their trump card in the face of questionable decision-making.
As Giancarlo Abete, the chairman of the Italian FA, told RAI before Tuesday's match, "Balotelli is still young and has time to improve his behaviour, but the Azzurri are moving on and thinking ahead while focusing on building a good core of players". Translating the diplomatic speak: Dear Mario, hurry up, or we'll leave you behind. And if you ever catch up with us, please discard your darts before entering the facility.