Two games, six points, top spot in the group – a pleasing start to qualifying for Euro 2012 that was badly needed after a horrible World Cup. It is also pleasing considering the change to the qualifying system from the previous tournament that now entails only top spot and the best runner-up are guaranteed qualification (the top two in each group were granted automatic entry for Euro 2008). It is even sweeter that Serbia, Italy’s main rivals for that top spot, dropped points at home on Tuesday evening, giving the Azzurri a cushion that will be needed later on in the campaign.
They have, of course, played the two weakest teams in the group, and anyone other than Estonia (or Faroe Islands) on Friday would have stood a great chance of taking at least a point from the match, but Cesare Prandelli will be satisfied with his work. It keeps any potential critics looking to jump on immediate signs of weakness at bay, giving him more time to mould the side into playing the way he desires. First on his list is the midfield, an area where he has yet to find the right balance. Playing with three midfielders who can pass the ball – something which he has stated he would like to do – has its advantages, but it is unlikely to be a long-term solution that can be taken forward to major championships. Spain learnt their lesson at the 2009 Confederations Cup (and that is not even a major tournament), when they attempted to take on the United States with a midfield made up entirely of ball-players and were soundly beaten: is it any coincidence that Sergio Busquets has started practically every game for Spain since that match?. Italy does not want such a harsh lesson in Poland and Ukraine.
Italy’s Coach seems more determined to make the most of Daniele De Rossi’s ability with the ball than his defensive skills. Indeed, the Roman is more than capable as a holding player, having performed that role for both club and country. This is not necessarily a bad move – De Rossi’s initial deployment at international level was as a box-to-box midfielder, with Gennaro Gattuso doing the defensive work. Unfortunately, the current midfield has no such player, and Prandelli’s idea of creating a rotating trio in the middle (as revealed by Riccardo Montolivo) will only work if all members of the trio can both defend and attack effectively like De Rossi. Neither Montolivo or Andrea Pirlo can perform the defensive role particularly well, and leaving them to do such a job would end up making the defence more vulnerable. Of course, you cannot have that occurring two times out of three, assuming something resembling an equal rotation during a match.
So the spotlight falls on Montolivo and his place in the team, partly because Pirlo will not be dropped, partly because he struggles to play well for Italy. It would be no surprise to see his place eventually go to a more rounded midfielder and Claudio Marchisio immediately springs to mind here. It may even be given to Angelo Palombo, a less gifted player, but nonetheless somebody who will ensure balance is brought to the midfield: it would leave one player who is strong defensively, one offensively, and De Rossi. It is a classic case of the best players not really creating the best team.
Not only does the impressive start give Prandelli time to work on on-the-pitch issues, he can also continue to lavish praise upon Antonio Cassano between now and 8 October, when Italy travel to Northern Ireland. The most talked-about Italian of the 2010 World Cup (and he did not even get selected) has returned to competitive international duty with two impressive performances against two very unimpressive teams, and in return has been told on a consistent basis how he is an example, a reference and a source of inspiration to his national side, amongst other things. He is, without doubt, more than deserving of his place in the starting XI, but let us see what happens during tougher times for the squad, and against other high-calibre footballers.
It is one thing praising a player for good performances, it is quite another doing it for the sake of keeping an individual happy and making him feel special. Sometimes the praise has clearly come across as the latter. It is all fine for now, but the potential is there for it to irritate other squad members further down the line. Many Azzurri have looked outstanding against Estonia and Faroe Islands. However, the real difference makers affect games against better teams.