Italy - World Cup 2014 Team Profile
Sean O'Conor reports
Road to Brazil
The Azzurri cruised to Brazil, winning UEFA Group B with two games to play. Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Denmark proved no match and Italy finished six points clear.
Italy Kit 1
Italy Kit 2
Cesare Prandelli's Italy have tried out a variety of formations, from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1, 3-5-2 and a Christmas tree, but with Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli the key players, the shape settles around a 4-2-3-1.
At the root of any of their lineups is veteran Juventus custodian Gianluigi Buffon, a reassuring presence between the sticks. 'Gigi's experience and desire exudes confidence from the end line.
Prandelli may bite the bullet and pick three out of four defenders from The Grand Old Lady to ensure telepathy with Buffon: Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci in the middle and Giorgio Chiellini at left-back.
Right-back will probably be Milan's fleet-footed Ignazio Abate with Napoli's Christian Maggio as reserve. If Chiellini reverts to his initial centre-back posting, Zenit St Petersburg's Domenico Criscito should slot in at left-back. Prandelli has just been full of praise for Matteo Darmian of Torino, but perhaps he is just keeping his opponents guessing.
In midfield, Italy lost the dynamic right-sided Riccardo Montolivo to a broken leg recently but there is still the experience of Roma's Daniele de Rossi on the left and the old master Andrea Pirlo orchestrating in the centre.
As for the other midfield slots, PSG's energetic Marco Verratti, who impressed against in a warm-up against Ireland, is tipped to star in Brazil and Prandelli could also find space for Juve's versatile Claudio Marchisio. Fielding him with Lazio's underrated right-sided midfielder Antonio Candreva could supply Mario Balotelli with the service he desperately craves.
With Pirlo the fulcrum, the shape is more 4-2-3-1. De Rossi played in defence at Euro 2012, but his ball-winning and passing skills are best utilised in his natural position in midfield. If Italy need to protect a lead or dam the river, then there are the experienced boots of PSG's Brazilian-born Thiago Motta, and Fiorentina's much travelled Alberto Aquilani to replace De Rossi and Pirlo.
Up front Balotelli is a shoe-in at centre-forward, but his supporting cast is unclear.
Marchisio and Candreva is one option which would offer more attack-minded thinking than De Rossi and Verratti, while Torino winger Alessio Cerci is pushing to be first pick on the right.
Napoli's diminutive yet penetrative Lorenzo Insigne, who can operate on either flank, has been winning rave reviews well as interest from Arsenal for his pacy attacking runs and set-piece ability. Until recently he seemed certain to start, but if Prandelli puts two up front he may have to make way.
With Giuseppe Rossi missing another mondiale, ostensibly because he was not match-sharp following injury, Prandelli answered his critics by calling up the long-serving Antonio Cassano, who at 31 will feature in his first World Cup finals. Like Balotelli the Parma forward has a fiery character and has been a cult figure of sorts since making his league debut last century. The statistics show Italy threaten more with him playing, so maybe he is the one who can bring some fire to a currently smouldering attack, but Prandelli seems to prefer him coming on from the bench as a pair of fresh legs in the last half-hour.
Another candidate for the ticket to ride alongside Super Mario is Serie A's capocannoniere (top-scorer) Ciro Immobile, who has just signed for Borussia Dortmund from Torino, but has only one cap for Italy up until now.
Balotelli remains their best marksman but his propensity to let the red mist descend is his perennial undoing. Last season he scored 18 for Milan but also got booked 14 times and sent off once. Can 'Super Mario' keep his cool in the heat of Brazil?
In their last warm-up game before Brazil, Prandelli left his final clues to the starting lineup against England: Buffon was in goal with a back four of Abate, Bonucci, Chiellini and De Sciglio; De Rossi the anchorman, Pirlo and Verratti in central midfield, Candreva on the right and Marchisio on the left with Balotelli alone up front.
The Italians are worried about the team's goal drought and the fact England has been playing better than them in recent matches. The stats show England created and scored more than Italy in qualifying and the Azzurri's figures are on the wane since the Euros.
2014 results have been disappointing - draws with Ireland and Luxembourg and a 1-0 loss in Spain whose score line belies La Roja's superiority on the night. In fact Italy have not won for seven games, but lost only once, proof of their resilience.
Prandelli's men play to traditional Italian strengths - a rock hard defence, possession play to sap the opposition or catenaccio to draw them in and hit them on the break. Italy's ability to hold the ball and frustrate should serve them well in the Brazilian heat. But the decline of Serie A sides in the Champions League has led to calls for Italy to play more of a high-tempo pressing game. So far, Prandelli has resisted.
Key player: Andrea Pirlo
It is not just that the Juve schemer looks like a renaissance painter. His game breathes artistry and as the highest-profile playmaker in modern football since Juan Riquelme left the stage, he was won a host of admirers worldwide.
Like the pure winger or target man, the regista is a crowd-pleasing role which seems to have been left behind by modern tactics.
Debuting in 1995 with Brescia, Pirlo's football has matured like a fine wine into something transcending sport. Like the best artists, you can almost feel his brain working and rejoice when his mind defeats others' brawn. His recent book "I think therefore I play" is proof of what Italian soccer calls "un atipico" - a special one.
Outstanding at Euro 2012 when England and Germany were laid waste by his visionary powers, he now has England, again, Costa Rica and Uruguay in his sights.
Pirlo's age (35) might appear a handicap but in the debilitating Amazon heat and the high-pressure knock-out games, his cool head and orchestral manoeuvres may come into their own.
One to watch: Alessio Cerci
An international only since last year, the 26 year old Torino winger appears conventional in his movements, cutting inside a defender, accelerating and then calmly slotting a diagonal ball into the net ahead of the advancing goalkeeper.
But he does what he does so effectively, whether it is crossing, shooting or penetrating down the flank, that Prandelli could not ignore him forever.
If there is something familiar about him, his hometown nickname "The Henry of Valmontone" confirms it. As well as the similarities with the French legend, Cerci's wing play has been compared to Dutch master Arjen Robben's. No surprise then that he is rated around €16 million and Juventus and Roma are tracking him.
Being a left-footer on the right allows him to fox defenders so well and he has a fierce shot to boot, with a decent ratio of 13 goals in 36 games for Torino last season. Now at his sixth Italian club, he seems to have found consistency, and hopefully, a starring role at this summer's World Cup.
Coach: Cesare Prandelli
Cesare Prandelli is one of the finest generals at the World Cup.
He works hard and expects his employees to do the same. If they step out of line he drops them. An astute tactician who leaves nothing to chance, his record in getting Italy to the Euro 2012 final and the Confederations Cup semi-final prove he understands tournament dynamics.
Perhaps the greatest ace up his sleeve is that he gets the best out of his temperamental yet sometimes unplayable shooting star Mario Balotelli. He claims he just tells him to relax, but whatever it is it does the trick where other managers have failed.
Winners 1934, 1938, 1982, 2006; Runners-up 1970; Semi-finals 1990, 1978; Quarter-finals 1998; Second Round 1986, 2002; First Round 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1974, 2010.
As at Euro 2012 and the Confederations Cup 2013, Italy will be so well-organised that only a top team will be able to undo them, but while they have brains in their midfield, they are unlikely to win many fans for their style, which relies on possession and closing up the game when ahead. One goal will always do for the Azzurri.
Italy are traditionally slow starters at tournaments, but will have to get their skates on from the off with England and Uruguay to hurdle in Group D. The rumble in the jungle with England has draw written all over it, and Italy look on the Uruguayans as their major group rivals anyway, which leaves their second game against Costa Rica in Recife a must-win. Meeting Luis Suarez & Co. in their final group match should then be a tussle for first place.The road ahead looks bumpy however. The second round should hold no fears but the last eight presents a minefield. FIFA's insistence on its inadequate World Rankings has overloaded the first half of the draw, meaning Italy would face one of Brazil, Spain, Chile or the Dutch in the quarters. Reaching the last four would surpass most rational expectations.
2014 World Cup Squad
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Salvatore Sirigu (PSG), Mattia Perin (Genoa)
Defenders: Mattia De Sciglio (Milan), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Matteo Darmian (Torino), Ignazio Abate (Milan), Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Gabriel Paletta (Parma)
Midfielders: Thiago Motta (PSG), Antonio Candreva (Lazio), Claudio Marchisio (Juventus), Alberto Aquilani (Fiorentina), Daniele De Rossi (Roma), Marco Parolo (Parma), Andrea Pirlo (Juventus), Marco Verratti (PSG)
Strikers: Mario Balotelli (Milan), Antonio Cassano (Parma), Alessio Cerci (Torino), Ciro Immobile (Borussia Dortmund), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli)