If the Confederations Cup is nothing more than a trumped up exhibition masquerading as a prelude to the World Cup, then its third place game is truly a haphazard display of half-assery. So even though there will be some enticing talent on the pitch Sunday afternoon when Italy faces Uruguay, it's about as futile a football match as you're likely to see this year. Nevertheless, it's a chance to see Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez, Diego Forlan and the suddenly able Abel Hernandez (second in the tournament with four goals, granted they came in one match against Tahiti) take on Daniele De Rossi and his Italian compatriots.
Despite the relative lack of gravity this tournament contains, it has had several noteworthy performances. Abel Hernandez has seemingly always tantalized observers with his potential, and his four goal explosion might be the spark he needs to make that a reality, while the Spain-Italy shootout was one of the more dramatic ones we've seen in recent times, but the biggest beneficiary of the Confederations Cup is undoubtedly Neymar. His scoring, playmaking and flopping have been on full display over the past ten days. Something tells me, no matter where you reside, you're going to see a lot of Neymar shirts around the next year or so: in school yards, shopping malls, beaches, rec leagues, you name it, his representatives will be there.
And that's really the best the folks at FIFA could've hoped for, the Confederations Cup has given the world a glimpse of what to expect in Brazil and from Brazil in 2014. Neymar should be first chair in the Brazilian symphony next summer, while his people's passion for the game will resound resplendently for the entire world to see.
Make no mistake; next year's World Cup may very well be its greatest display yet.
Until then, there is still one Italy game left in this tournament, but I'm gonna go ahead and assume your juices aren't frothing over a third place match, so let's take a broader view of where the Azzurri stand with 300 some odd days before the big dance next summer.
What We Learned
I have no idea what it's like to be a Juventus fan. They have decent kits, a new stadium, oodles of Euros to spend and carry a somewhat strange nickname (the Old Lady) as a badge of honor. But what I do know is this: because Juventus is good, they play a lot of games and because so much of Prandelli's chosen charges ply their trade for Juventus Torino, summer fatigue is an ENORMOUS factor for the Azzurri.
One needn't look any further than the collective exhaustion on the faces of Gianluigi Buffon, Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo, Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci to see how the weight of summer tours, league matches, cup matches and Champions League encounters impacts the vitality of these players come June. For Marchisio and Bonucci, the problem isn't as bad, as they can be readily replaced.
But when we're discussing Chiellini, Barzagli, Pirlo and Buffon, given how critical they are to Prandelli's plans, fatigue, depth and chemistry suddenly become larger concerns. Juventus shows no signs of slowing down, so it's a safe bet those six players will amass a collective 300+ matches again next season, and while their synchronicity with one another is extremely beneficial to the Azzurri, losing part or all of them suddenly robs Prandelli of this unspoken benefit of relying so heavily on one club to comprise the Azzurri.
These problems are doubled when we whittle the discussion down to Pirlo and Buffon, which we've discussed on here relentlessly the past two weeks, so I'll spare you the details. Suffice it to say, barring a huge step forward from Marco Verratti, Pirlo's prominence within Prandelli's plans won't wane; so his fitness and preparation is of paramount importance. While Buffon is obviously a legendary figure, there are several solid plan B's within Italy ranks, but one look at his performance against Spain in the semifinal, and really all throughout World Cup Qualifying, tells you all you need to know about how great he remains.
Prior to the semifinal we took a look at the Azzurri's statistical performance in their three group matches against Brazil, Japan and Mexico, while cautioning not to draw too many conclusions based on that limited data set. So while the numbers haven't bolstered our faith as much as we'd like, I wouldn't worry too much about Italy's struggles, both offensive and defensive.
But if there's a lynch pin to fixing both of those, it's...
The De Rossi Dichotomy
If any of you had the time or inclination, you could probably run a decent website dedicated solely to examining De Rossi's comparative performances for club and country. The Confederations Cup was, much like every summer, a microcosm of the duality of Daniele De Rossi.
By now most of you know I like dealing with numbers, but in this instance, I'll leave it to the fine folks at whoscored, so take a moment and digest this graphic. (Yes, I realize this made the rounds yesterday)
Again, sample size is a considerable factor, as were the varied approaches of Zdenek Zeman and Aurelio Andreazzoli, but there was a stark contrast between De Rossi the Italian and De Rossi the Roman...again.
De Rossi, to the extent humanly possible, managed to put a stranglehold on Andres Iniesta in Thursday's semifinal, which helped to throw a monkey wrench into Del Bosque's tiki taka, limiting Spain to only a pair of attempts on goal in the first half. De Rossi's defensive prowess was on full display that night, including three tackles, four clearances, and a game high seven interceptions. De Rossi even tried his hand as a central defender again, availing himself quite well in the process.
But it didn't end there. De Rossi compiled an astounding 106 passes, completing an eye popping 95% of those, while hitting on 14 of 15 long balls, pushing his tournament totals to 37/43. Throw his 15th career international goal into the mix, and De Rossi looks like Italy's best player this summer-passing, cover, tackling, creating and even scoring.
So from the Roman slant, please, please, please Pallotta, do not sell this man. And Rudi, you play nice with Daniele, after all, your job probably depends on what you can or cannot coax from Roma's walking wildebeest.
Bringing it back to the Azzurri, the point is clear. A healthy and motivated De Rossi is absolutely essential to success. No player on earth has his balance of defensive fortitude and offensive capabilities-you don't see any other €6m a year midfielders, who also happen to be their nations second most prolific scorer at that position, accepting roles as central defenders, do you?
Quite simply, when De Rossi is given the freedom to do what he does best, the Italian offense flows freely from back to front, allowing Andrea Pirlo to operate unfettered and free from worry, springing Balotelli near and far.
Bringing us to our last point...
The Anemic Azzurri
While Pirlo has done a bit more than be a mere orchestrator, tallying one goal and averaging three shots per match, the Azzurri offense has really been Balotelli or bust. Super Mario has led Italy in shots, shots per game, goals and is even tied with Pirlo in assists. His two goals are good for fourth in this tourney, while his five shots per match lead the pack (we're not including Abel Hernandez in this discussion, since he only made one appearance and "averaged" nine shots per game). Balotelli's two goals and one assist gives him a 38% share in the Italian offense, while his 15 shots account for 26% of the Azzurri attempts on goal....see what I mean by Balotelli or Bust?
Super Mario is ever worthy of his superlative nickname, and while his presence on the global stage is nowhere near its eventual zenith, his eminence within the Azzurri offense is, in some fashion, somewhat problematic.
If Prandelli manages anything over the next 12 months, beyond hoping the Old Ladies in his squad carbo load all summer, he needs to find a source of offense apart from Super Mario. The first name on everyone's lips is presumably Stephan El Shaarawy, he did score 16 goals this term, after all. The problem with this particular Pharaoh is the trend of those goals; a trend which looks quite troublesome when you factor in the timing of Balotelli's arrival in Milan. Of Shaarawy's 16 goals, only one came after Balotelli joined him in the Rossoneri attack.
So, just as it is with Milan, so it remains with Italy. When it comes to Balotelli and El Shaarawy, is Italy facing a zero sum game?
While it may simply be a matter of familiarity, which could certainly be developed during the 2013-2014 Serie A season, this possibility exists that these two players simply cannot operate effectively next to one another. And if it is a zero sum game, El Shaarawy will lose every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Balotelli is the more dangerous player, no question. But such extreme reliance on any sole player is seldom a shrewd move, least of all with one as combustible and card prone as Balotelli, making alternative attacking options even more important.
So if you're a young Italian footballer with an eye on Brazil 2014, this coming season is imperative for you. The casting call is out for Mattia Destro, Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile, Alberto Paloschi and Fabio Borini, with Balotelli and El Shaarawy the only odds on locks for Prandelli's forward rotation next summer, one of those aforementioned U-21s has a grand opportunity ahead of them this season.
As Roma fans, we obviously hope it's Destro who exhibits some ascendency this season-but there are other, older options for Prandelli-the tandem of Toto and Totti. While one is open about his desire to return to the national fold, the other remains coy and non-committal. There is no question, however, when it comes to their proclivity for scoring. With 403 Serie A goals between them, one last global gasp from either of them might be the spark Italy needs to survive another slog against Spain.
Closing the Confeds
I started off this series tacitly (well, maybe overtly) ripping the ways and means of the Confederations Cup, but on the whole, I think it's been successful, certainly for Neymar; what better stage to launch his Barcelona career? However, as I mentioned a few weeks back, the greatest gift the Confederations Cup offers is that it's a facsimile; a reasonable enough re-creation of next summer's stage, affording the managers the opportunity to experiment with lineups and tactics in a similarly structured tournament, chasing that ever elusive chemistry necessary for international success.
For the Italians, the experiment was inconclusive. What we saw is what we knew: Daniele De Rossi is otherworldly when he dons the blues, Gigi, when rested, remains the game's best, while Pirlo's prominence within the Azzurri is second to none. What we didn't see was secondary scoring options, consistency in the midfield (apart from Pirlo and De Rossi), and Italy's traditional defensive dominance.
That last point is the intriguing one. As we discussed last week, Prandelli's paradigm shift is still evolving. Injecting some offensive verve and aesthetic appeal into a traditionally defensive framework was always a difficult and controversial prospect for Cesare Prandelli. So the question we have to ask ourselves is, to what extent is Prandelli committed to completing this transformation? When the chips are down, does he continue to push ahead or does he fall back on catenaccio?
If any of the U-21s steps forward or if the Milan duo can develop some dynamic chemistry, Prandelli might very well have an offensive juggernaut on his hands. Besides, let's face it, as good as Chiellini and Barzagli may be, neither one of them are Fabio Cannavaro, nor are Marchisio or Montolivo up to the level of Totti, Gattuso or even Perrotta.
So without the dominant defenders and the necessary do it all midfielders with which the '06 squad was laden, his choice to assimilate the Azzurri to the ways of attacking football might be rooted in pure necessity rather than personal preference.
The next year will be quite telling for Cesare Prandelli and the Azzurri, in the long game of World Cup Qualifying his approach seems to be working, but his club's performances the past two weeks have been less than stellar.
Prandelli is attempting to simultaneously change the face of Italian football and erase the memories of a disappointing 2010 World Cup. Both challenges will require a tremendous amount of temerity from Prandelli, a little bit of luck, and a lot of tinkering to put the correct pieces in place.
Remodelling anything is always an enormous and hectic undertaking, but when you're dealing with a nation's pride and its very identity, the stakes are infinitely higher.
Needless to say, it's going to be an anxious year for the Azzurri
De Rossi graphic via whoscored.com