Do you like football? Do you like the color blue? Do you like watching Daniele De Rossi play well?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, then we've got the tournament for you, the FIFA Confederations Cup!...A completely meaningless tournament in which Italy will participate thanks to Spain's utter domination of global football the past several years opening up a spot for another UEFA representative.
Contested under the FIFA banner since 1997 (it existed in various forms since 1992, being staged by Saudi Arabia), the Confederations Cup has undergone several logistical changes but seems to have settled on a four year cycle, being contested the summer before the following year's World Cup. Taking place in the same host nation, the Confederations Cup exists as sort of a preview to the World Cup, as the participants get to experience the venues, pitches and climatic conditions of the World Cup's host nation.
Of course, one glance at the history of this tournament and you'll see that many nations have actually declined an invitation. However, the 2009 edition was noteworthy for several upsets, including the United States handing Spain their first international defeat in nearly three years. But the luck for the Stars and Stripes would only last so long, as the US fell to Brazil 3-2 in the final. Nevertheless, the '09 edition was actually an exciting tournament, one which I'm sure the folks at FIFA would like to build upon and give this prelude to the World Cup some real credence.
As one might guess, Brazil has dominated this tournament, winning three of the first six renditions of the FIFA Confederations Cup. France is hot on their heels, having captured two titles of their own, with Mexico claiming the remaining cup. Alas, Les Bleus did not qualify for this year's cup, so Brazil can add to their haul without worry of France leveling affairs.
With that in mind, let's put on our Azzurri tinted frames and take a look at the 2013 Confederations Cup.
Fratelli d'Italia: The Italian Perspective
With only eight nations competing, split into two groups, it sound silly to say, but Italy was definitely drawn into the Group of Death, sharing a draw with Brazil, Mexico and Japan in Group A. The onus of facing Brazil is obvious, while Mexico clocks in at number 16 on the FIFA world rankings, and features young attacking talent like Giovani dos Santos and Javier ‘Chicharito' Hernandez. Japan, the 30th ranked club in the world, has some familiar faces to fans of the Italian game, including Inter Milan's Yuto Nagatomo. But Japan's roster of European based players doesn't end there, also making the trip to Brazil are Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa and Schalke 04 defender Atsuto Uchida; all told, Japan boasts 13 players plying their trade on the continent.
Group B is headlined by reigning European and World Champions, Spain. Joining La Roja will be Uruguay, Tahiti and Nigeria. While the Uruguay-Spain matchup should make you salivate, the triumvirate of Italy, Mexico and Brazil makes Group A the true gruppo della morte .
By and large, there were no real surprises among Prandelli's 23 designees, save perhaps Alessio Cerci. Cerci, the former Roma man, amassed an impressive combination of eight goals and eight assists this season, while not quite matching Totti's double-double this year, it was an impressive feat from Torino's lone playmaker. With 12 goals of his own, one could've made a case that Marco Sau should have filled the temperamental shoes of Pablo Osvaldo, but Cerci it is. PDO, as you may recall, was shown the door following his antics after the Coppa Italia Finale. Honestly, it's hard to imagine Osvaldo will ever suit up for the Azzurri again, particularly not if Mattia Destro, Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile, or Fabio Borini continue to progress.
Here's the squad in total:
Goalkeepers: Buffon (Juventus), Marchetti (Lazio), Sirigu (Paris St. Germain);
Defenders: Abate (Milan), Astori (Cagliari), Barzagli (Juventus), Bonucci (Juventus), Chiellini (Juventus), De Sciglio (Milan), Maggio (Napoli);
Midfielders: Aquilani (Fiorentina), Candreva (Lazio), De Rossi (Roma), Diamanti (Bologna), Giaccherini (Juventus), Marchisio (Juventus), Montolivo (Milan), Pirlo (Juventus);
Forwards: Balotelli (Milan), Cerci (Torino), El Shaarawy (Milan), Gilardino (Bologna), Giovinco (Juventus)
Prandelli, one would presume intentionally, selected a balance of youth and experience for this trip to Brazil. Azzurri luminaries Andrea Pirlo, Gianluigi Buffon, and our very own Daniele De Rossi, will once again don the blue for La Nazionale. While the dynamic twenty something duo of Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy bring their collective 26 Serie A goals to the Confederations Cup.
Prandelli has selected a pretty solid squad all around, one that should certainly be considered a favorite in this tournament, along with Brazil and Spain. If we look ahead to 2014, assuming Italy qualifies, the assimilation of the U-21s, namely Marco Verratti, is probably the only point of contention, as The Azzurrini has some impressive talent currently on display in Israel.
With that in mind, let's walk through the squad.
Balotelli, you might remember, scored a tournament leading three goals and emerged as the star of Euro 2012 last summer. With another spectacular season under his belt, one in which he scored 12 goals in 13 league appearances and managed to not be embroiled in any major controversies, at least not as an antagonist, Balotelli figures to be the focal point of Prandelli's attack, providing him ample opportunity to stake his case as the world's most dangerous striker.
Taking a book out of Super Mario's page might boost El Shaarawy's international street cred as well. The pharaoh's 16 goals were tied for third in Serie A, and while anyone who follows the Italian game is familiar with him, his name is not yet commonplace on the global stage. However, should El Shaarawy seize the moment like Balotelli did last summer that could change in an instant. He's got the skill, the unique backstory, the panache and the signature hairdo to be an icon; all he needs to launch himself into that stratosphere of stardom are a few highlight worthy goals on the global stage. (And if you're a FIFA bureaucrat, that's exactly what you'd like to see: memorable goals scored by memorable players in tightly contested matches, something to ensure that the Confederation Cup leaves an imprint in the memory of football fans.)
While Alberto Gilardino turned in another fine season, nabbing a baker's dozen goals, without Cassano and Di Natale on the squad, it's hard to imagine anyone unseating the aforementioned Milan duo at the head of Prandelli's attack, so the summer headlines may be theirs for the taking.
Whatever the case may be, the Italians have two supremely young, supremely nimble, and supremely talented forwards at their disposal, a luxury not many nations in this tournament can boast. Well, except for Brazil, obviously.
If Euro 2012 proved anything, beyond Balotelli's prowess for scoring impressive goals, it was that Andrea Pirlo's scalpel remains as sharp as ever; there was no midfield surgeon so precise, so efficient and so effective as Pirlo last summer. Beyond contributing two assists, second in the tournament, Pirlo's best assets were on full display, as he was instrumental in all facets of the Italian attack; spraying long balls all over the pitch, holding possession and creating chances for Balotelli, Antonio Cassano and Antonio Di Natale, among others. He, along with De Rossi and Balotelli, were Italy's standouts at Euro 2012.
This summer should prove no different, if anything with the Azzurri is axiomatic, it's this: As Pirlo goes, so goes Italy. As Roma fans we're all too familiar with how the lack of an effective deep-lying playmaker limits what you can do offensively, so, if you can, set your envy aside and enjoy the game's best do his thing for two weeks. Ultimately, much as it is with Roma, it is with Gli Azzurri; the effectiveness of one's regista determines the extent to which your offense can operate efficiently and effectively. Needless to say, Pirlo's performance could make or break Italy in this meaningless tournament.
The rest of the midfield remains largely unchanged from last summer, headlined by Claudio Marchisio, Riccardo Montolivo and Daniele De Rossi. De Rossi's performance at last summer's Euros left many Roma fans salivating for the season that lay ahead, but since you're reading this, you know how that story ended. For some reason--some explicable, some not--the gulf in DDR's performances for club and country have been stark; the fierce box-to-box maniac we've all grown to love seems to appear more frequently when dressed in blue. But why? Is it Prandelli? The superior supporting cast? Could there possibly be less pressure representing his country than his city?
While we may never know the answer, the paradigm remains the same as when he's dressed in Roman red. De Rossi's unique set of skills and importance within the tactical framework are such that the team's success is dictated in large measure by his execution and tenacity. Whether it's Roma or the national team, there is really no one who can do what De Rossi does, and outside of Pirlo, no player's performance is as crucial to the Azzurri's success as De Rossi.
The defense, ever the Azzurri strong suit, should be no different this summer. Led by the Juventus trio of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, and Leonardo Bonucci, Italy allowed only two goals in Euro 2012 group play. With Juve once again leading Serie A in most defensive categories, including only 24 goals allowed, Prandelli would be wise to lean upon that trio once again, with Chiellini most likely serving as a make shift leftback.
The Juve trio aside, there was one surprising development in Prandelli's back four last summer, Federico Balzaretti. Balzaretti surprised many people at Euro 2012 by working his way into the starting eleven during the tournament. He then parlayed that success into a multiyear deal with Roma, where he then proceeded to surprise us with his spotty play, go figure. Because of his inconsistences, one would presume, Balza did not make the cut this time around, leaving a competition for the remaining fullback spot between Ignazio Abate, Christian Maggio and perhaps even young Mattia De Sciglio.
Either way, with the trio of Old Ladies at the back, Italy is in good hands.
Hey, speaking of Old Ladies with good hands, Gigi Buffon is back!
No disrespect to Salvatore Sirigu or Federico Marchetti, both fine keepers, but it's hard to imagine anyone but Gigi being Italy's last line of defense. At 35 years old and with nearly 130 caps to his credit, this is most likely Buffon's last cycle with the national team, so he'll want to get his road to Brazil 2014 off to a good start.
That's really all that needs to be said. When you have a legend in goal, the dissection and analysis required is minimal.
Countdown to Kickoff
In the grand scheme of things, the FIFA Confederations Cup is little more than an elaborate exhibition, providing little value beyond time for a squad to mesh. Although the opportunity to experience the climatic conditions, pitch quality, and venues of next year's World Cup could be considered a benefit of sorts, provided you still qualify, of course.
Perceived and real advantages aside, it's an opportunity to watch Italy's finest take the field together. The Confederations Cup, if nothing else, offers the opportunity to root for Pirlo, Buffon, and Balotelli without shame or fear of reprisal from your fellow Romans. Instead of cursing their names and lamenting Roma's sad state of affairs, you can bask in the glory of Gigi Buffon and stand in awe of Andrea Pirlo. Much like our revered Saint Totti, the opportunities to see those two at the peak of their powers, particularly for the Azzurri, are dwindling by the day. While there is certainly some undeniable talent in the youth ranks, it might be ages before we see two players of their stature suit up for Italy, so enjoy it while you can.
What we offered here was just a general look at the Confederations Cup; we'll have match specific posts for Italy's group matches and beyond when the time comes.
With group tilts against Brazil and Mexico, Italy promises to have some exciting and tensely contested matches ahead of themselves. Italy begins play on June 16th , so until then, as always, Forza Azzurri!