Italy flagFor once, Italy go into a major finals starting from the back of the grid. While qualifying form was sparkling, there are many reasons to suggest that Cesare Prandelli’s side remain something of a work in progress and one that perhaps lack the killer punch. 

Their tournament begins with a bang against world and European champions Spain in Gdansk. Prandelli believes that this baptism of fire will serve his cause well, leaving his players under no illusions about the task in front of them.

In reality, Italy may have to lift their game to get out of a tough Group C that also includes Croatia and the Republic of Ireland. The point about Prandelli’s team is that this group clearly represents a much tougher task than anything his side has faced since he took over in July 2010 in the wake of the disappointing first round World Cup exit in South Africa. At this point, just getting into the knockout stage, thus avoiding the ignominy of two successive first-round tournament eliminations, would have to be seen as a positive.

It could be argued this is an unnecessarily minimalist view of Italy’s chances; after all, they romped home in qualifying, winning eight, drawing two and finishing 10 points clear of second-placed Estonia to claim their place in the finals with two games still to play. No Italy side has ever done so well in European qualifiers – and according to opinion polls 55 per cent of Italy fans fancy their chances.

However, it must be remembered that their impressive qualifying run came in the context of a group where Serbia, arguably Italy’s strongest rivals, were effectively taken out of the equation when the game in Genoa on October 12, 2010, was abandoned after only six minutes following violent disturbances by a small number of the 1,600 visiting supporters.

UEFA’s inevitable disciplinary decision to award Italy a 3-0 home win was certainly an unexpected bonus. From that point on they were in total control of a group of relatively poor quality. It says much that Estonia made it to the play-offs – even more that they were then taken apart by the Republic of Ireland.

Given a fright

In the opening qualifier, an away win against modest Estonia, Italy were losing with an hour gone and it took two goals in three minutes, by Antonio Cassano and Leonardo Bonucci, both from corners, to turn it round. Despite dominating, Italy had given themselves a fright.

Even last autumn, when qualification was all but in the bag, they again struggled in wins against the Faroe Islands and Slovenia. One had to sympathise with Brian Kerr’s industrious Faroes team who were beaten by an arguably offside Cassano goal in the 11th minute and also hit the woodwork twice. As for the Slovenia game, this was decided by an 85th-minute winner from Giampaolo Pazzini.

Add to those less than impressive performances the friendly defeats by the Republic of Ireland last June, Uruguay in November and the USA in February, and questions begin to arise. Is this Prandelli team, with its emphasis on an attacking, quick-passing game, simply rather lightweight? Can the enigmatic Mario Balotelli compensate for the injury-enforced absence of Giuseppe Rossi and possibly Cassano too? And can Italy really afford to rely on such a wayward talent?

Attack represents the biggest headache for Prandelli in a side where Gigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Pirlo, Daniele Di Rossi and Claudio Marchisio all look certain starters. But will their immense experience see Italy through?

The difficulties posed by Spain are obvious, while Croatia have traditionally caused Italy problems – in qualifying for the 1998 World Cup and at the 2002 finals. Meanwhile, the clash with Giovanni Trapattoni’s resilient Irish will naturally attract special attention. Prandelli has every reason to be concerned.

Group C
10.06.12 Spain (Gdansk)
14.06.12 Croatia (Poznan)
18.06.12 Republic of Ireland (Poznan)

1 Gianluigi Buffon (34) 28.01.78 Juventus
14 Morgan De Sanctis (35) 26.03.77 Napoli
12 Salvatore Sirigu (25) 12.01.87 Paris Saint-Germain (Fra)

7 Ignazio Abate (25) 12.11.86 Milan
6 Federico Balzaretti (30) 06.12.81 Palermo
15 Andrea Barzagli (31) 08.05.81 Juventus
19 Leonardo Bonucci (25) 01.05.87 Juventus
3 Giorgio Chiellini (27) 14.08.84 Juventus
2 Christian Maggio (30) 11.02.82 Napoli
4 Angelo Ogbonna (24) 23.05.88 Torino

16 Daniele De Rossi (28) 24.07.83 Roma
22 Alessandro Diamanti (29) 02.05.83 Bologna
13 Emanuele Giaccherini (27) 05.05.85 Juventus
8 Claudio Marchisio (26) 19.01.86 Juventus
18 Riccardo Montolivo (27) 18.01.85 Fiorentina
5 Thiago Motta (29) 28.08.82 Paris Saint-Germain (Fra)
23 Antonio Nocerino (27) 09.04.85 Milan
21 Andrea Pirlo (33) 19.05.79 Juventus

9 Mario Balotelli (21) 12.08.90 Manchester City (Eng)
17 Fabio Borini (21) 29.03.91 Roma
10 Antonio Cassano (29) 12.07.82 Milan
11 Antonio Di Natale (34) 13.10.77 Udinese
20 Sebastian Giovinco (25) 26.01.87 Parma

Cesare Prandelli (54) 19.08.57

… Domenico Criscito was omitted from the final squad following his implication in the “Calcioscommesse” match-fixing scandal …

Group C
03.09.10 Estonia (a) 2-1
07.09.10 Faroe Islands (h) 5-0
08.10.10 Northern Ireland (a) 0-0
12.10.10 Serbia (h) A*
25.03.11 Slovenia (a) 1-0
03.06.11 Estonia (h) 3-0
02.09.11 Faroe Islands (a) 1-0
06.09.11 Slovenia (h) 1-0
07.10.11 Serbia (a) 1-1
11.10.11 Northern Ireland (h) 3-0
* abandoned after six minutes and Italy awarded a 3-0 forfeit win

P W D L F A Pts
Italy 10 8 2 0 20* 2 26
Estonia10 5 1 4 15 14 16
Serbia 10 4 3 3 13 12 15
Slovenia10 4 2 4 11 7 14
N Ireland10 2 3 5 9 13 9
Faroes 10 1 1 8 6 26 4

By Paddy Agnew