World Cup 2014: Italian chances hang on Prandelli’s choice of striking options

Rich in experience in defence and midfield, the coach must perm four from six up front as he leaves final decision on his squad for Brazil to the last moment

Most managers have already made their minds up but Cesare Prandelli has chosen to sustain his selection headache for a little longer. The Italy coach has still not declared his final 23 for the World Cup and will wait until after Saturday evening’s friendly with the Republic of Ireland at Craven Cottage before doing so.

Prandelli has good reason to take as much time as he needs and may even wait until Monday, the Fifa deadline, before submitting his final list. Because his remaining decision – which forwards to take to Brazil – will be the most important of his tenure.

His Italy team reached the final of Euro 2012, only to run into the best-ever performance by the greatest team of all time. Italy still have that same strong spine, built around the remaining veterans of the 2006 World Cup winners.

Gianluigi Buffon, now 36, is still in goal and showing no sign whatsoever of letting his mountainously high standards slip. Andrea Barzagli is at centre-back while in midfield Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Pirlo can still offer an unmatchable mix of grit and grace. Buffon, De Rossi and Pirlo have 340 international caps between them.

It has long been thought that a strong Juventus means a strong Italy and Prandelli calls on the same defensive line that has just delivered a third straight Scudetto for Antonio Conte’s side. So in front of Buffon should be – if Prandelli keeps a back three – Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. Milan’s Mattia De Sciglio will play on the right.

There is just as much strength in midfield. Pirlo, as responsible as Conte for Juventus’s re-emergence, is still there, and is the man England must somehow stop from calling the tune in Manaus in two weeks’ time. He will be helped by De Rossi and Thiago Motta, the Brazilian-born midfielder who is endlessly canny and cool. Motta’s Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Marco Verratti, the world’s most precocious young midfielder, is working hard in training to survive the final cut to 23.

So far, so impressive but experience, strength and skill are not enough. Good teams need pace and goals, and it is up front where the last big calls will be made. Aside from winger Alessio Cerci, Prandelli has six forwards competing for what will probably be four places in the squad, and just one or two in the team in Manaus. If he picks right from the following names it could be the difference between serious progress and an early return home.

Possible strike partners Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano with the provisional Italian squad at their training camp near Florence this week Possible strike partners Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano with the provisional Italian squad at their training camp near Florence this week (Reuters)  

Mario Balotelli

The front of the queue, the guaranteed pick for the squad and the likeliest man to lead the line against England. Balotelli was Italy’s star of Euro 2012, producing the performance of a lifetime in the 2-0 semi-final win over Germany, in which he scored both goals. Since then, though, he has failed to become the regular top-level performer many hoped. Despite 18 goals for Milan, it felt like an underwhelming season after a good spell when he first joined from Manchester City. But he can still do things no one else can do and that no one else can stop, and in a tournament that can be enough.

Antonio Cassano

It says a lot about the experience Italy have lost up front – no more Antonio Di Natale, Francesco Totti or Alessandro Del Piero – that Cassano is the wise old head of the front line. But the 31-year-old has just produced his best season in years, dragging Parma up to sixth in Serie A. He has lost weight and is fitter than ever, meaning that Prandelli’s high standards for physical conditioning will not rule him out. Like Balotelli, he is a wild card, but it worked in 2012 so why not again this time?

Ciro Immobile

The story of the season in Italy and the man who has earned his spot more than any other. Immobile was Serie A top scorer, with 22 goals for Torino and is close to an £18m move to replace Robert Lewandowski at Borussia Dortmund. Immobile is fast, energetic and hard-working, dangerous on the break, always willing to run in behind or to sacrifice himself for the team. Like a few of Italy’s options, he is not especially tested at the top level – in European or international football. But his good form and the different threat he poses should see him make the cut.

Giuseppe Rossi

The most natural goalscorer of his generation but one of the unluckiest, Rossi scored 15 goals for Fiorentina in the first half of the season – top scorer in Italy – before injuring knee ligaments, keeping him out for four months. He scored twice on his return in May but is unlikely to be fully fit. If he was, he would probably be starting up front but it would be a major risk now. Rossi failed to make the cut for World Cup 2010 – Marcello Lippi recently said it was the only mistake he has ever regretted – and missed Euro 2012 with another ligament injury. It could be another sad ending this time.

Mattia Destro

The young striker was in Prandelli’s preliminary squad for Euro 2012 but did not make the final 23, and he is probably facing the same outcome this time. Destro, 23, scored 13 goals in 14 Serie A starts for Roma this year, only starting his season in December after injury. Best used as a penalty-box poacher, Destro is a good option to have on the bench and has always had the strength and speed to make room for himself to shoot.

Lorenzo Insigne

A final wild card in a squad with two already, Insigne has the talent and nerve to make a difference in Brazil, if Prandelli can find room for him. A stocky, spiky inside forward, adored by the Napoli fans, Insigne has become an important part of Rafael Benitez’s side this season, scoring twice in their Coppa Italia final triumph over Fiorentina. Not especially consistent or reliable – he turns 23 just next week – but able, like Balotelli or Cassano, to produce the unexpected, which may be exactly what Italy will need.

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