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Italian soccer is on the brink of disaster


Italy's Prandelli driving the 'Tikitalia' revolution

On the eve of the World Cup, La Gazzetta dello Sport did some polling to gauge the mood of the nation. They wanted to know who their readers thought would win the competition. Hosts Brazil were made the favourites with 36 percent of the vote. Then Italy with 29 percent.

Rather than reflecting a bullishness about La Nazionale's chances, this was more indicative, however, of the residual expectation of success that follows the Azzurri as four-time winners of the golden trophy, a record bettered only by Brazil (who beat them in the finals of 1970 and 1994).

Supporting that particular interpretation of the data was the response to another question the pink paper put to its audience. Who will be the biggest flop? No country polled higher than Italy with 21 percent.

Even after finishing on the podium at Euro 2012 and the Confederations Cup and qualifying for the World Cup with two games to spare, there was great skepticism around Cesare Prandelli's squad as they flew to Rio and decamped in Mangaratiba. A 1-1 draw with Luxembourg -- a team ranked 112th in the world -- in a pre-tournament friendly was Italy's seventh game without a win since their qualification.

Riccardo Montolivo had broken his leg in the preceding warm-up against Ireland. Giuseppe Rossi wasn't taken on the basis that he represented too big a risk. Romulo had ruled himself out. Mattia de Sciglio strained a muscle. And then Italy's captain, Gianluigi Buffon, turned his ankle the night before their opener against England.

Prandelli named four players in his starting XI who hadn't featured at all in qualifying and lined them up in a new 4-1-3-1-1 system that looked great on paper but had been used only once before on the pitch -- and that was in the less-than-convincing Luxembourg friendly. The consensus was that England were better than they had been at Euro 2012 and would surely be wiser to Andrea Pirlo. In Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley, England also had a couple of young and fearless players with the pace to put Italy's defenders in difficulty.

All of these concerns soon evaporated in the heat of Manaus. Italy's experience of the Confederations Cup last year and their preparations in a climate-controlled sauna that they had built at Coverciano ensured they knew what to expect. The fitness training they had done, mindful of the contrast in intensity between Serie A and the Premier League and other major leagues, paid off. And the game plan based around possession and making the ball do the running -- because it's the only thing on the pitch that doesn't sweat -- was intelligent, not least because it factored in the conditions.

Cesare Prandelli has moved Italy from their usual counterattack approach and has focused on a possession style of play.

Italy had 64.8 percent possession in the first half. That figure understandably declined after the interval as fatigue began to set in and they went about protecting their 2-1 lead. But the Italians still looked in better shape than their opponents. It was a shock to see England players cramping up, the explanation being that they had been made to chase the play more. However, statistics show that Italy ran 3 kilometers farther (110,458 meters to 107,252 meters). To put that into perspective, only Germany have covered more ground (111,651 meters) so far in Brazil. Those numbers will be of immense satisfaction to Prandelli, particularly in light of the concerns he expressed in the spring about Italy being behind other nations in athletic conditioning.

But pride must also have been taken in the technical refinement of his team's performance and the praise their football garnered around the world. Prandelli had already begun to change opinions of Italian football at Euro 2012 from the negative, counterattacking opportunism of old. "Now the inversion of those stereotypes is complete," Diego Torres wrote of la revolución de Italia in El Pais.

It hasn't been resistance-free, of course. "The question is: What if Italy had lost with that lineup and that mentality?" Gianni Mura mused in La Repubblica. "The answer is easy: public execution for the heretic Prandelli guilty twice over for renouncing our traditional school of football and being stubborn in proposing a blue version of tiki-taka without acknowledging the fact that the Netherlands with their long balls had already cut up the Spanish original ... Instead Italy won playing as Prandelli had asked and hoped for. He had courage ... And Pirlo."

Meanwhile, La Gazzetta dello Sport hailed "Tikitalia." The 554 passes Italy put together against England is the most of the tournament thus far (Chile was second with 523 against Australia). Their completion rate of 93.2 percent was the highest at a World Cup since Opta's records began in 1966. Prandelli's Italy has been defined for years now as one of piedi buoni, or good feet. In the days that have followed the England game, he has instead used the phrase piedi per terra -- everyone needs to keep their feet firmly on the ground.

Named man of the match by FIFA and La Gazzetta, Mario Balotelli wasn't allowed to let it go to his head by Prandelli, who admitted telling his striker that "he could do a lot more." What Prandelli meant was that rather than coming short and involving himself in the play, Balotelli must not  forget that he is a striker and that his priority should be finishing moves. His intention, however, was also to ground his No. 9, bring him back to earth and focus him for the next game.

Prandelli warned of the threat posed by Costa Rica even before they shocked Uruguay. This is a trap game if ever there was one. He has some issues to resolve, too. His defence did not offer complete reassurances at the weekend, particularly the left-hand side of it. De Sciglio's injury meant Giorgio Chiellini was moved to the full-back position on that flank, with Gabriel Paletta taking his role as Andrea Barzagli's partner in the middle. After an encouraging debut against Spain in March, when he kept Diego Costa in his pocket, Paletta disappointed and now looks certain to lose his place.

The expectation is that Chiellini will return to centre-back. The ambidextrous Matteo Darmian will move over to the left if De Sciglio doesn't prove his fitness in time, with Ignazio Abate coming in at right back. Some are reluctant to see that happen. The relationship Darmian formed with Antonio Candreva on the right was one of the most encouraging things to emerge from the England game. It would be a shame to break it up.

"Now we have to beat Costa Rica," Prandelli said. "Otherwise what we did [against England] will be for nothing."

Tikitalia takes on Los Ticos.

"If we build the play, we win," Prandelli claimed.

And with an architect like Prandelli in charge of the Azzurri blueprint, you can expect a grand design.