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Oct 10, 2011

Prandelli plan taking shape

It says a lot about the lack of drama during Italy's Euro 2012 qualifying campaign that the most memorable picture from the whole set of matches shows someone wearing a tracksuit and carrying an iPad.

Mario Balotelli listened to music while walking around the pitch before the away game at the Faroe Islands, then sat on the bench and left his device locked away somewhere else, only to be accused of concentrating more on his apps than the game while his team-mates were unconvincingly making their way past the hosts thanks to an early goal from Antonio Cassano.

The controversy died quickly, though. Balotelli met coach Cesare Prandelli, who'd been unaware of the affair at first, and the air was cleared. In fact, the Manchester City striker emerged to become the star attraction again when the Azzurri visited a prison near Florence and several inmates asked him where his iPad was.

There were laughs all around, which set the tone for Italy's win over Slovenia the next day; a result that secured passage to Euro 2012 with two games to go. It was a very good result from a competitive perspective, but the formation of a potential problem for Prandelli, as Italy would now have to go a full eight months before playing a competitive game - with friendly (or meaningless) matches in the past never proving popular among the Italian media.

Having said that, it was Italy's convincing 4-1 win over Germany in a friendly in Florence early in 2006 that probably served as a launch pad for their World Cup success. And a similar improvement of the overall attitude could be detected after Italy beat Spain 2-1 in mid-August this year, an emphatic win that erased the bad memory of its last match, a 2-0 defeat to Ireland in Liege two months earlier.

With a glamorous tie against Uruguay in November set up to fan the flames and another possible high-profile game expected next March, Prandelli might just keep his players on their toes long enough to bridge the gap from the game against Slovenia and the pre-Euro 2012 tournament training camp.

He has, after all, already issued a warning to those, like Balotelli, who have been struggling to get a game for their clubs. While talent and skills will obviously be taken into consideration, only players who have consistently played at club level during the 2011-12 season will be called up for the European Championship; almost certainly a caveat for someone like Antonio Cassano (who at one point seemed set to be the fourth-choice striker for Milan) too.

Somewhat surprisingly though, Cassano has played a lot for the Rossoneri and has apparently become one of the first names Prandelli pencils in for his starting XI. That Italy has now started five of the past six matches with two mobile, diminutive strikers up front has been the most significant tactical development the manager has brought to the side.

Having reached the Champions League with Fiorentina by having Alberto Gilardino leading the line and trying to get on the end of crosses for the Viola, Prandelli experimented with different formations and attacking combinations in his first matches in charge of the national side. Amauri started as a centre-forward in his inaugural 4-3-3 at Upton Park against the Ivory Coast, followed by Gilardino and Marco Borriello, before tactics veered toward a 4-3-1-2 which has seen Cassano and Giuseppe Rossi paired up front with decent results.

Prandelli hinted at this development last November as he reviewed the 1-1 draw with Romania in Klagenfurt: ''The Serie A does not provide me with the kind of wingers that would allow me to look for a different formation. I am looking at a set-up that does not require me to use a central striker. I wanted to see how an attacking triangle would work''. At the time, he was referring to Alessandro Diamanti, Balotelli and Rossi, who had started that match, but it might have been anybody else with the skills to play in those positions.

In later editions, we've seen Cassano and Rossi supported by first Alberto Aquilani then Riccardo Montolivo as a trequartista and this leads us to other considerations about the midfield, which has Andrea Pirlo as the central element, both in position on the pitch and in seniority and leadership. The start of his second career, with Juventus, has been sensational and, while we're only 45 days into the competitive season and conclusions about him should only be drawn next June, Pirlo has looked every bit as creative and functional as he was in his best years.

While Thiago Motta (when healthy), Montolivo, Daniele De Rossi, Antonio Nocerino and Claudio Marchisio have all seen action as Pirlo's protectors - the way Milan used to do with Rino Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini - the Juventus playmaker seems to be the only fixture in midfield and Friday's futile efforts by Serbia's Milos Ninkovic to shackle him will only have encouraged Prandelli to go forward with his plan to have Italy play patient, possession football, with Pirlo as the starting point.

When he's not involved or opponents play him too tight, it will be left to any of the other midfielders, especially those with creative feet and vision like Montolivo or Aquilani, to set the wheels in motion while the trequartista and the two strikers move into space pulling away defenders. This combination of defenders playing high, midfielders exchanging positions - Prandelli does not like to hear the word "trequartista" which he says reminds him of someone who rarely moves from his position - and small, mobile forwards trying to disrupt the opponents' build-up play, is designed to keep the ball as far as possible from the Azzurri penalty area, which may account for the fact Italy has only let in two goals so far. It is an approach that had some mention Barcelona as the side Italy most resembles; a risky comparison which should be put to rest as soon as possible.

The ultimate compliment paid to Italy after the draw in Serbia this weekend, however, was that the team had approached the game and played just like a club side, which means Prandelli has so far been able to squeeze as much as he could from the limited practice time and instil a 'team-first' attitude that has managed to take shape.

This positive outlook does not mean Italy would be ready to start Euro 2012 as favourites, of course, not least since the Azzurri, like most teams, thrive on being underdogs. It remains to be seen whether these tactics can be unleashed on all opponents. It took Italy a shift in tactics, with Giampaolo Pazzini replacing Cassano on the hour, then Balotelli coming in for Montolivo, to form a 4-3-3 for Italy to break down Slovenia, and one of the most glaring weaknesses in the 1-0 win at the Faroes was the Azzurri's inability to stretch the home side's defence.

As Prandelli himself had noted, his own plan called for Cassano and Rossi to stay closer to the midfielders and pull defenders away from their positions, but that had turned sour as possession had not translated into quick passing, and too many times it had seemed no one had tried to exploit space behind the defenders, reducing play to a poor man's tiki-taka with no real outlet that was a source of frustration for the fans.

Speaking of fans, Saturday's game in Belgrade counted little for Italy as far as the group table was concerned, but had all the makings of a drama because of what had happened in the first leg last year in Genoa. Readers will remember the odd, ugly sight of a Serbian ultra, climbing along the chain link fence and meticulously cutting it apart with a pair of pliers while Italian Police stood back in order not to spark a full-scale riot of the type Italian grounds had sadly seen so much in the past.

The match was then abandoned and Italy were awarded a win, with some of the Serbian hooligans given jail sentences. There did not appear to be specific threats before the return leg, then two days before the game the Serbian authorities decreed all tickets bought by Italians fans would be voided and only tickets issued directly to the Italian FA (130) would be honoured. A puzzling decision that perhaps was meant to pre-empt trouble, but then there is never going to be a huge Italian presence anyway: only 150 tickets had been sold, 50 of them, according to Italian Police, to members of 'Ultras Italia', the fan group with right-wing leanings that makes up most of the away fan force in such occasions.

Unlike Prandelli's side, who are yet to lose a match away from home - all defeats incurred in neutral venues - Italian fans do not travel well.

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