Cesare Prandelli has released his squad for the upcoming qualifiers against Northern Ireland and Serbia and, as one would expect, journalists have flooded their sports pages with articles dedicated to questioning the Coach’s choices. Why have certain Azzurrini players not been promoted? Why has Federico Balzaretti been shunned again and was Riccardo Montolivo’s exclusion really down to a request from Fiorentina?
However, the hot topic of conversation is the decision to recall veteran and Marcello Lippi favourite Gianluca Zambrotta, who many feel represents the old Azzurri and is taking the place of a youngster who could well use the time to develop in quality. Zambro is evidently no longer at his peak and having won football’s greatest prize in 2006, many feel he has lost the motivation that once drove him to achieve such success. So what possessed Prandelli, the man Italians hope will revolutionise la Nazionale, to recall the right-back?
Simply put, Italy lacks real talent in defence and especially in full-back positions. The Peninsula’s failure in providing adequate replacements for the old guard in recent years has meant that Prandelli has had to revert back to selecting those veterans that can still boast both quality and experience in order to bolster the squad. At the moment, it is has been made abundantly clear that the current defence hardly lives up to the reputation long bestowed upon Italian teams. Currently, they have no leader that is capable of marshalling the back-line in the way Fabio Cannavaro so convincingly did in 2006. The centre-back pairing of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci has so far failed to take-off in the manner many had hoped and Juventus’ current defensive frailties only serve to highlight the problem with their relationship. Finally, the current average age of the back-line means that whilst they may be high on tenacity, they are low on successful experience and without the commanding presence of Gianluigi Buffon in goal, it seems the back five are constantly in disarray and overwhelmed by the task at hand
As such, and until la Nazionale welcome Buffon back to the fold, Prandelli requires a man of experience at the back who could provide support and who can help co-ordinate and organise. Chiellini has already proved that he is not yet ready to lead the defence line and with a forward line that is already depleted due to the injuries, an attacking full-back who won the World Cup might just be the answer. His inclusion alone will provide the defenders with a sense of security and perhaps help them develop a balance that would see them work together in a tight unit. Furthermore, whilst the full-back may be ageing, he is still capable of impressive displays in both attack and defence. One need only watch his performance against Lazio a mere few weeks ago to witness his impeccable ability to deal with immense pressure, his marauding runs in support of Ronaldinho and his powerful shot that very nearly allowed him a goal. He is not the player he once was but he is still capable of performing at the highest level.
In keeping with the theme of defence, the most keenly debated topic has been concerning the goalkeepers. Both Salvatore Sirigu and Emiliano Viviano have had a blistering start to the campaign and both possess incredible talent. As such, Prandelli is left with the difficult dilemma of having to decide between them. Buffon has already noted the similarities that exist between him and Sirigu and the Palermo keeper’s sharp reflexes coupled with his reliability thus far in the season make him the people’s choice. However, recent reports suggest that the Azzurri Coach is leaning towards the Bologna ‘keeper, and it is easy to see why. Viviano’s imposing stature in addition to his technical qualities and stunning ability to deal with shots from distance should be enough to convince most doubters. Needless to say, whilst Prandelli decides on formations, all eyes will be on who will occupy the space between the sticks.
Recent reports have alleged that the ex-Fiorentina Coach is likely to field a trident attack in a 4-3-3 formation on Friday. Marco Borriello will be the man to play through the centre and it is thought that he will be flanked by Simone Pepe and Antonio Cassano – apparently the only Azzurri player capable of playing on the left. The midfield is likely to feature stalwarts, Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi but it is rumoured that newcomer Stefano Mauri, who is partly responsible for Lazio’s stunning start to the season, will also have the chance to start for the Azzurri.
On paper the match at Windsor Park seems like it will be an easy fixture, certainly when compared to the much tougher test that waits in Genoa four days later, but the physical strength of the home side should not be discounted. This is a side that beat Sweden, Denmark and Spain at home during qualifying for Euro 2008 (a competition the Spaniards would go on to win), to add to a victory over England during the campaign for the 2006 World Cup. Italy would not look out of place on that list.