Italy have not had the best of preparations, but the improving team can still dream heading into Euro 2012.
If there was ever a list of 'What Not To Do Before A Major Tournament', Italy seem to have covered most of it. Heading into Euro 2012, the team – already hit by injuries – has suffered a loss of form that has seen them lose three consecutive games for the first time since 1983, with another warm-up being cancelled due to an earthquake in northern Italy. This even as Italian football is once again under the cloud of match-fixing, with an ongoing investigation having resulted in arrests of several players, suspicion cast over others including Juventus coach Antonio Conte and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, a police raid at the national team’s training camp, and defender Domenico Criscito being dropped from the Euro squad after being placed under investigation.
With the Italian Prime Minister calling for a suspension of football and coach Cesare Prandelli saying he would not have a problem if they withdrew from Euro 2012 "for the good of football", things are far from ideal for Italy ahead of their first match against defending champions Spain on June 10.
While most teams would be in disarray, Italy have been here before. In fact, such scandals have often only served to get the best out of the team in the past – Paolo Rossi returned from a suspension for match-fixing to help in their 1982 World Cup victory, while the Calciopoli affair only seemed to inspire Italy's 2006 World Cup win. Whether this latest scandal also proves to be a blessing in disguise, remains to be seen.
Italy displayed characteristic solidity at the back during qualifying, conceding only twice in 10 games, the best defensive record in Europe. However, the withdrawal of the in-form Criscito, who played his part in Zenit St Petersburg's title victory in the Russian Premier League, has now left Prandelli with Federico Balzaretti as the only recognised left-back. This will put more pressure on central defenders Giorgio Chiellini, who is battling a hamstring problem, and Andrea Barzagli, and the usually reliable skipper and 'keeper Buffon. The defensive mistakes in the 3-0 loss to fellow contestants Russia in their final warm-up game on Friday will also not have eased Italy's concerns.
With the experienced Andrea Pirlo – whose spectacular form with the title-winning Juventus this season showed the value of the 34-year-old playmaker – pulling the strings in midfield with the likes of Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio, the real problems for Italy lie in attack. No goals were scored in their last three defeats and the team has now gone 300 minutes without finding the back of the net. They have sorely missed Antonio Cassano, who played his first game for the national side against Russia after five months out due to a minor heart surgery, and Giuseppe Rossi, who is out for a further 10 months with a knee injury after suffering a relapse just before his planned comeback in April.
The topscorer in qualifying with six goals, Cassano gave an encouraging performance on his return against Russia, but the options in front of Prandelli for a partner for the AC Milan striker are the young and inexperienced Sebastian Giovinco and Fabio Borini, Udinese's prolific veteran Antonio di Natale, and the volatile and unpredictable Mario Balotelli. Known to favour the 4-3-1-2 formation, the coach may choose to partner di Natale with Balotelli, hoping that the Manchester City striker will provide Italy with the moments of magic he is capable of, rather than the moments of madness he is more prone to.
The Italians haven't had much success in this tournament over the years, with just one semi-final and one final appearance since their victory on home soil in 1968. However, under Prandelli, who took over after Italy's disastrous exit from the 2010 World Cup, the Azzurri have attempted to change their style, with the focus not being just on defence and counter-attack, but on keeping possession and positive passing. "The feeling was that we needed to evolve our style, to try and play a little more on the front foot," explained the coach. "The strength we have with the midfield players means we had to look to make the best use of them. We have to try and find the perfect balance at Euro 2012."
Italy have not been beaten in a competitive match during Prandelli's tenure and before the recent blip, managed a credible draw away against Germany and a victory at home versus Spain. They are yet to reach the standards set by the World Cup winners, but should they improve their finishing, Italy could overcome their troubles and surprise once again at Euro 2012.
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Morgan De Sanctis (SSC Napoli), Salvatore Sirigu (Paris Saint-Germain FC).
Defenders: Ignazio Abate (AC Milan), Federico Balzaretti (US Città di Palermo), Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Christian Maggio (SSC Napoli), Angelo Ogbonna (Torino FC).
Midfielders: Daniele De Rossi (AS Roma), Alessandro Diamanti (Bologna FC), Emanuele Giaccherini (Juventus) Claudio Marchisio (Juventus), Riccardo Montolivo (ACF Fiorentina), Thiago Motta (Paris Saint-Germain FC), Antonio Nocerino (AC Milan), Andrea Pirlo (Juventus).
Forwards: Mario Balotelli (Manchester City FC), Fabio Borini (AS Roma), Antonio Cassano (AC Milan), Antonio Di Natale (Udinese Calcio), Sebastian Giovinco (FC Parma).
Recent Euros performances:
2008 - Eliminated in quarter-finals
2004 - Eliminated in group stage
2000 - Runners-up
1996 - Eliminated in group stage
Keep an eye on: Andrea Pirlo, Antonio Cassano, Mario Balotelli
Prediction: Italy will be expected to make it through a tough group that includes Spain, Croatia and Ireland, and they will stand a chance if they reach the knock-out stage.
June 10, 2012: Italy vs Spain, Gdansk
June 14, 2012: Italy vs Croatia, Poznan
June 18, 2012: Italy vs Ireland, Poznan