Italy starts their march towards being masters of the meaningless tournament Sunday afternoon in Rio de Janeiro against Mexico in the hallowed grounds of Maracanà. Besides having similar flags, Italy and Mexico have been similarly stout in their World Cup qualifying campaigns, with Italy allowing only four goals in six matches, while Mexico has shut the door on its opponents, conceding only two goals through their first six qualifying matches.
Despite the dominating turn each nation's defense can take, this matchup does offer some impressive attacking talent, and if each side decides to take this tournament seriously, this could prove to be an exciting matchup.
- Sunday June 16th
- Estadio Do Maracana, Rio de Janiero
- 16:00 Rio Time, 15:00 EDT
- Italy: 6 wins, 4 draws, 26 goals scored
- Mexico: 1 win, 4 draws, 9 goals scored
World Cup Group Play-June 13, 2002
- 1-1 Draw, goals from Jared Borgetti (MEX) 34' and Alessandro Del Piero (ITA) 85'
I've noticed our readership runs the gamut in terms of ages, so for those of you who were in diapers in June of 2002, take note; there was some impressive talent on the pitch this day. Mexico trotted out Jared Borgetti, scorer of El Tri's lone goal here and their all-time leading scorer, Cuahtemoc Blanco, perhaps the finest player Mexico ever produced, and Rafael Marquez, who would go on to play eight seasons for Barcelona, becoming the first Mexican born player to ever win the Champions League.
For the Azzurri, the ranks were even more impressive. In addition to the likes of Vincenzo Montella, Christian Panucci, Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Maldini and Christian Vieri, the Azzurri featured an awesome assemblage of twenty somethings who would guide the nation to glory four years later. Among that group was a 25 year old Francesco Totti, one year removed from his only Scudetto, a 24 year old Gianluigi Buffon, who made 45 appearances in Juve's 2002 title season, a 24 year old Gennaro Gattuso and an in his prime 27 year old Alessandro Del Piero.
Despite all that impressive talent, Italy would crash out in the round of 16, falling to co-host South Korea, but thanks in part to the ascendance of that youth, Italy would achieve its greatest success four years later.
International Friendly-June 3, 2010
- Mexico 2, Italy 1. Goals from Carlos Vela (MEX) 17', Alberto Medina (MEX) 84', and Leonardo Bonucci (ITA) 89'
With a little more than ten days before group play began in World Cup 2010, Italy's performance in this friendly was a harbinger of things to come...bad things. After being outclassed by Mexico, the Azzurri would go winless in group play, finishing dead last in Group F.
Both squads played to draws in their most recent World Cup Qualifiers, with Mexico being held by Panama and the Italians failing to put away the Czech Republic. Prior to last week's qualifiers, Mexico defeated Jamaica 1-0 and played to a draw against Nigeria, 2-2, while the Italians managed two victories, besting both San Marino and Malta.
With Gli Azzurri leading their qualifying group in goals scored and conceded, while dropping only four points through six matches, Italy is clearly the hotter of the two sides. But coming off successive draws against the Czech Republic and Haiti, "hotter" is a relative term. Mexico has just been downright putrid in their qualifying campaign, currently level on points with Costa Rica, who just happen to have a game in hand over Mexico. The Mexican attack has been virtually non-existent, scoring only three goals in five matches.
So neither side is exactly setting the world on fire, but Italy has been slightly better.
Given the sporadically scheduled nature of international football, it's a bit hard to predict how each team will approach the match, particularly when the teams in question have only met twice in 11 years. So rather than predicting who will do what, let's take a glance at what Prandelli's men did last week against the Czech Republic.
(Quick side note for Roma fans: Beyond DDR, Italy's starting XI was comprised of six Juventus players and four Milan players-so if you're looking to place bets for next year's Scudetto winners, I'd start there....Vive La Rudi!)
Prandelli has experimented with several formations since taking over La Nazionale, but on this occasion he opted for the 4-3-1-2, and the results were, putting it nicely, underwhelming. The Italians managed only five shots, which was pitiful enough, but looks even more pusillanimous when weighed against the 18 shots the Czechs managed. Because of this listless and uninspired play, Buffon was under constant pressure. Fortunately for Italy, when you have one of the world's best keepers, you can escape relatively unscathed when your opponents attempt nearly 400% more shots than you did.
Prandelli has turned Italy into more of an attacking side since taking this gig, but the spark just wasn't there against Peter Cech and the Czechs-apparently my effusive praise of the El Shaarawy-Balotelli tandem wasn't enough to garner any goals from the Milan pair, let alone shots on goal. In fact, Italy didn't manage a single, solitary shot on target. Not a one. The Balotelli red card obviously effected matters, but Prandelli's substitution pattern, particularly with the forwards, was a bit different from recent matches and is probably the only subject of debate in the Italian camp.
Instead of opting for Alberto Gilardino or Alessio Cerci, as he did against San Marino and Malta, Prandelli opted to swap out the ineffective Pharaoh for the Atomic Ant, Sebastian Giovinco. While Giovinco made a couple nice forays forward, in a game clamoring for scoring, leaving Gilardino's 13 domestic goals on the bench was a bit strange. While Gila probably won't be an impact player in Brazil 2014, he is in fine form now and taking three points from this match would've given Italy a stranglehold on Group B. But thanks to Gigi, they managed to snatch a draw from the jaws of defeat.
With late week injury doubts to Balotelli and El Shaarawy, as well as Prandelli toying with a 4-2-3-1, it's possible that one of the aforementioned Rossoneri might be replaced by Emanuele Giaccherini. Despite only standing 5'6'' and bagging only two goals in Serie A, Giaccherini made his case for more playing time upfront, scoring a mere 19 seconds into the friendly against Haiti. So it's very possible that Giaccherini could leapfrog Cerci and Gilardino in Prandelli's pecking order.
As for Mexico, it's all about Chicharito. Whether they play with one or two players up top, Javier Hernandez has been the bellwether, scoring five goals in ten world cup qualifying appearances. All told, Chicharito has 31 goals in 49 caps. Although his future with Manchester United is a matter of speculation, he is undoubtedly the cornerstone for El Tri, a fact not lost on Italian defender, Andrea Barzagli.
Beyond Chicharito, you'll want to keep an eye on his forward partner, Aldo De Nigris. Nigris, a forward for Mexican side Monterrey, isn't as internationally known as Chicharito, but he did manage 21 goals across all club competitions this season and has scored three times in his last ten appearances at the international level.
The question with Mexico, as of late, is exactly how manager Jose De La Torre will deploy these two forwards. Against Panama, Chicharito flew solo, steering Mexico to a disappointing 0-0 draw, while the two were paired together against Jamaica, with De Nigris scoring the lone goal. So the tactical choices, as well as the results, have varied in Mexico's recent matches. But no matter who joins Chicharito up front, the Mexican attack has been virtually non-existent throughout their World Cup Qualifying campaign, resulting in only three goals scored.
Against a side as defensively adept as Italy, this offensive uncertainty carries added weight, but if you've read any of the press leading up to this match, Italy is well aware of what Chicharito means to this Mexican side. So I wouldn't expect too much breathing room if I were Hernandez.
Wrapping It Up
As I mentioned, any prognostications about this match, given the infrequency with which the sides play each other, is bound to fail. However, when we look at their respective World Cup Qualifying campaigns, we see some similarities.
Through six games, Italy has conceded only four goals and boasts a + 8 differential. Mexico, meanwhile, has allowed only two goals through five matches, but has managed only a +1 differential. That point is really the salient one. While both sides have exceptional keepers, Buffon for Italy and Jose Corona for Mexico, the dividing line begins to appear when we look at their respective offense marks. The Azzurri has managed a group leading 12 goals through six World Cup Qualifiers, while El Tri has only summoned a paltry three goals in five matches, which might account for their one win and four draws.
But therein lies the true value of a tournament such as this, it provides the nations involved an opportunity to solidify lineups, iron out some wrinkles, and tweak tactics and formations ahead of the dog days of World Cup Qualifying. For Italy, the remains of the day will deal with how Prandelli rotates his forwards. As much as we all hope Balotelli matures by 2014, the early returns aren't promising; besides which, he will always remain a target for opponents and referees alike, so the fashion and extent to which Prandelli rotates in the likes of Cerci, Giaccherini and Giovinco (and looking down the road, perhaps Insigne, Borini, Immobile and Destro) will ultimately prove how much depth this squad does or does not have in attack, which could be a lingering concern heading into 2014.
As for Mexico, it's simply a matter of survival. With many of its opponents in World Cup Qualifying having a game in hand and with El Tri's offense languishing, finding a spark and even a shred of consistency is of upmost importance, without it, Mexico might be on the outside looking in next summer.
With all its members among FIFA's top 30, Group B offers no sure things, and with three matches in six days, Italy will need to secure three points when and where they can. Given Mexico's inconsistencies and their poor play in general, this might actually prove to be Italy's easiest match in group play. Easiest, but not a gimme; Italy's forwards, particularly El Shaarawy, need to be more crisp and precise in front of goal. And let's face it, if the Czech Republic match was any indication, they simply need to be in front of goal; registering five shots, none of which were on target, won't cut it against anyone in this tournament, let alone a defensive side like Mexico.
The story of this match is really which nation can find offense outside of its usual sources. If Balotelli doesn't suit up, can Giaccherini and Marchisio provide enough support to El Shaarawy? Can Mexico find any offense apart from Javier Hernandez?
But when you take the numbers, the names on the squad sheet, and the recent results into account, Mexico increasingly looks like the real one trick pony...a pony named Chicharito. Corral him and the day should be Italy's.