When Cesare Prandelli took over, he wanted to play 4-3-3 but injuries put an end to that. Now, a 4-3-1-2 formation with Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano up front looks more likely
This article is part of the Guardian's Euro 2012 Experts' Network, a co-operation between 16 of the best media organisations from the countries who have qualified for the finals in Poland and Ukraine. guardian.co.uk is running previews from two countries each day in the runup to the tournament kicking off on 8 June.
"There is a need for quality and I will ask it from the men who are able to give it to me." Cesare Prandelli's manifesto as Italian manager originated from the following consideration: Italy sunk without a trace at the 2010 World Cup because they had disregarded the technical aspect of their game. "Perhaps it was too much gratitude towards the men with whom I won the World Cup in Germany four years previously that led me to pick a worn-out squad," Marcello Lippi admitted after the fiasco, but quickly added: "But I did not leave anyone at home who would have done any better."
For Prandelli, however, there were three players whom his predecessor could have picked for the World Cup because they had the talent, but they were left at home. Giuseppe Rossi, who was dropped from the squad at the last minute, as well as Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli, could have been selected but Lippi felt that the characters of the latter two could have upset the harmony of the squad.
Prandelli, immediately, wanted to use all three of them. The idea was to play them together in a team with an attacking spirit, who would be good at keeping the ball and run games, abandoning completely the Italian style of defensive tactics and counter-attacks. In reality, it was never possible to realise Prandelli's project because of various reasons, not least injuries.
At Euro 2012 Prandelli will have to manage without Rossi, who has again ruptured a cruciate knee ligament, after the one that forced him to have an operation in October. Cassano has had serious heart problems and, although he returned to action in April after six months out, he may not reach top form during the tournament.
As for Balotelli, Prandelli has needed a lot of patience and may be about to see the best of the controversial striker. How has he done that?
Well, he is pretending that the Balotelli who turns out for Italy is very different to the one who appears in a Manchester City shirt. "I can't possibly put my trust in someone who could get sent off in the first game," Prandelli has said.
Prandelli had initially hoped that his Italy would line up in an attacking 4-3-3 formation but in his two years in charge of the national team only two qualifiers were played with three players up front: in Torshavn against the Faroe Islands with Alberto Gilardino, Cassano and Rossi and in Belfast against Northern Ireland with Simone Pepe, Marco Boriello and Cassano.
In the other games he has started with two strikers, with a third coming off the bench, like he did in Florence in September when Giampaolo Pazzini came on and played together with Balotelli and Rossi in the final game against Slovenia, which secured qualification for the tournament in Poland and Ukraine.
Tactically, the problem keeps recurring. Prandelli claims he does not have good enough wingers to play 4-4-2 so the system of choice has been 4-3-1-2 with players filling in as central playmakers without playing in that position for their clubs.
At first, Prandelli tried Stefano Mauri of Lazio but then he got injured and dragged into the match-fixing scandal (which, in recent weeks, has caused havoc with the manager's plans, considering that Domenico Criscito was left out). Thiago Motta and Riccardo Montolivo were alternatives for the No10 role, although not very convincing ones.
At the moment 4-3-1-2 is still the most likely formation with the possibility of playing 4-3-3 at times. Prandelli has to some extent, however, been rescued by Juventus's good season and the club will hand him a trio of rejuvenated defenders in Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli, as well as the midfielders Claudio Marchisio and Andrea Pirlo, back at their best.
As for the probable formation for Italy's first game at the Euros, Gianluigi Buffon is a certain starter in goal.
Defence, from right to left, is likely to be Christian Maggio, Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini.
The three central midfielders should be Daniele De Rossi, Pirlo and Marchisio with Montolivo playing in the No10 role. Up front it could be Balotelli and Cassano starting with the former Chelsea player Fabio Borini and Sebastian Giovinco on the bench.
Who is the player who is going to surprise everyone at the Euros?
A do-it-all midfielder, Claudio Marchisio was a key player in the Juventus side that won the Scudetto without losing a single game, forming a dominating midfield trio alongside Pirlo and Arturo Vidal and finishing the season as the Bianconeri's second best goal-scorer with nine goals.
Still the 26-year-old is something of an unsung hero, certainly outside of Italy. A good friend of Balotelli despite their completely different styles of life – opposite attracts – the family man, father of two sons, could really shine at the Euros with his great understanding of the game, timing of runs and ability to find space. Especially considering that he will continue to benefit from Pirlo's creativity and passes.
Who is the player who is going to disappoint the most?
Prandelli is tempted to reproduce Juventus's winning formula using a three-man midfield but one piece of the equation is missing, meaning De Rossi will likely be asked to play "à la Vidal" in the Azzurri midfield. He can do it, even if he is certainly a different player compared to the Chilean. De Rossi is more used to a holding role in central midfield, while Vidal is Juventus's main attacking treat alongside Marchisio.
The 28-year-old is also coming from a difficult season at Roma where Luis Enrique often used him as centre-back, similar to what Pep Guardiola did with Javier Mascherano at Barcelona. Enrique's move, however, will not be remembered like one of those famous Guardiola 'Eureka' moments. With Pirlo untouchable just ahead of the defence, De Rossi will have to adapt again to a slightly unfamiliar role. Will he manage?
What is the realistic aim for your team at the Euros and why?
The Azzurri are famous slow starters in big tournaments so facing the best team in world in the opening game is not necessarily a bad thing. Regardless of the result against Spain, Italy are stronger than Croatia and Ireland even if Prandelli is fully aware that facing Giovanni Trapattoni in a must-win situation will always be tricky. The Azzurri would have a chance in the quarter-finals against any of the Group D teams but when it will come to either Holland or Germany in the semis, the task could be too difficult. But then, no one ever knows how Italy will react to the latest match-fixing scandal. Will it bring the squad together, as it has done in the past, or will the players feel disillusioned?
Marco Ansaldo writes for La Stampa
Click here to read the profile of Cesare Prandelli
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