Prandelli ushers in brave new world
Italy's attacking ethos has been risky but it has taken them to the brink of European glory against expectations
The first thing Cesare Prandelli did yesterday was present a letter from the Italian president Giorgio Napolitano which the coach of the national team said had praised his players for their "team spirit, determination and generosity". They are all admirable qualities but Signor Napolitano was selling his boys a little short if he was just prepared to characterise them as a team of willing grafters.
Things have changed since Prandelli took charge of this team two years ago. Tonight, in the final of Euro 2012, this Italian team are up against Spain, comfortably the best international side of their generation and arguably the greatest of all time. There is little doubt that many Italian coaches of a certain generation would have been tempted to park the bus against such opposition, just as Fabio Capello did at Wembley in November.
Unless Prandelli has sold the football world the most outrageous decoy – think Muhammad Ali duping everyone into believing he would come out and attack George Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle" – his team will have a go at Spain tonight. It should be a fascinating game and while the European and world champions are the favourites, Italy's bravado is intriguing.
It is a brave man who changes the approach of a successful football nation. It is one thing to change England, with one lonely star on their shirts from 1966; it is quite a different prospect to do so with Italy and their four World Cup victories. Yet even Xavi Hernandez, the beating heart of Spain's passing machine, yesterday acknowledged Italy's change, praising Andrea Pirlo and his team-mates for adopting what Xavi calls "the spectacular game".
It was telling to hear goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, one of the four players in Prandelli's squad who won the World Cup in 2006, concede that even he, at 34 and with a glittering career behind him, had to accept that there was a need for change. Having finished bottom of their group at the last World Cup finals something had to give.
"In spite of the fact we've been world champions four times, there comes a point where you have to admit you have to change your approach," Buffon said. "The coach has been fantastic implementing that, giving us the right approach and tactics to make this possible."
Undoubtedly, tonight's game will ask more questions of Prandelli's system than were posed by England. He is intent, so he says, on playing two strikers. Ordinarily for an opponent of Spain, with the honourable exception of Croatia and Italy, in the group stages, the strategy would be to flood the midfield .
"We've tried to play using the strengths of our players," Prandelli said. "We've risked a bit in that approach, but we've trained a lot and used training games which have drummed home how we want to play football. We needed to get rid of a bit of 'tension', so we need to keep working in the same way. It'll be a difficult route to take, but it will eventually bear fruit. We need to keep going."
In Gdansk, in the two finalists' draw in Group C, Spain had 60 per cent of the possession but they were not that far apart when it came to attempts on goal (9-6 in Spain's favour). By the end of the game, Italy were hanging on for the draw but they have improved steadily throughout the tournament. Against England and Germany, in the semi-finals, they seemed to get stronger as the game progressed.
Prandelli said he trusted the "quality" of his central midfield. "We can run a lot, we can press the ball a lot in central midfield, and of course, in Andrea Pirlo, we have a great player who can raise the level if we get the ball to him. The other players have to do the work to make sure Andrea gets the ball." It is difficult to see Prandelli opting for anything other than the side he played against Germany in the semi-final. They are physically strong and the partnership of Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli is in such a moment of form it would seem like madness to meddle with it now.
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