FFT.com's Italian expert Richard Whittle on the ageing wonders still producing when it matters for the Azzurri...
Cesare Prandelli is about to write his name into Italy’s record books.
The Azzurri’s 1-0 victory over Bulgaria means a win against the Czech Republic on Tuesday will ensure their place at the World Cup in Brazil with two games to spare. The national side have never achieved such smooth progression before - and if they pull it off, Prandelli can be installed among the great Italian coaches.
Friday’s Group B encounter in Palermo was Prandelli’s 45th international in charge, which drew him level with the old maestro, Giovanni Trapattoni. But unlike Trap, who took Italy to a World Cup in 2002 and stayed for Euro 2004, the 56-year-old is almost certain to walk away from the international scene next summer and return to club football.
The lack of day-to-day involvement has been Prandelli’s only regret from taking up the reins of the beloved national team, which is said to have at least 50 million coaches – the adult population of the country – offering constant advice.
Like Brazil and Spain, Italy have never lost a home World Cup qualifier, winning 38 and drawing five. After seeing off Bulgaria in Palermo – a traditional stronghold – the Azzurri now take their proud record to the Juventus Stadium for the very first time.
Against Bulgaria, Prandelli was without the services of key trio Mario Balotelli, Pablo Osvaldo and Riccardo Montolivo, and retained the 4-3-2-1 line-up that served him well at the Confederations Cup.
Alberto Gilardino started alone up front on 18 international goals (outside the top 10, one behind Roberto Bettega and two off Paolo Rossi), supported by the pacy tandem of Lorenzo Insigne and Antonio Candreva.
With Claudio Marchisio injured, Thiago Motta was back in the squad for the first time since defeat to the hands of Spain at Euro 2012. The PSG man was entrusted on the left of an experienced midfield that included Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi.
Prandelli was questioned whether he should be looking for younger alternatives... but pointed out that the World Cup was a place for “grown-ups”
While the latter pair gave a good account of themselves it was two other veterans from the 2006 World Cup-winning side who spared Italy from losing two, if not all three, points.
Gilardino, an unused substitute on that memorable night in Berlin, scored the only goal of the game, while Gianluigi Buffon made a string of world-class saves in a performance that ranked alongside his stunning international debut against Russia in 1997, when he was just 19.
Prandelli was questioned whether he should be looking for younger alternatives leading up to Brazil, but pointed out that the World Cup was a place for “grown-ups”. With experience like this at both ends of the pitch, who can blame him?
At 31, Gilardino is a polar opposite to the hot-headed Balotelli and Osvaldo, who could just as easily leave the team a man short as score a wonder goal. Gila is a level-headed goal-grabber with a tireless work ethic. He understands the importance of patience and waiting for the crucial moments that matter.
The striker could have joined Juventus or AS Roma from Genoa in the transfer window but felt he would have only spent more time on the bench, thus hindering his chances of staying in Prandelli’s plans. He’s certainly come a long way from the player who scored with his hand in 2008.
Indeed, as Italy cranked up the pressure in the latter stages of the first half, there he was to head home Candreva’s pinpoint cross.
With only two games gone in Serie A and the players therefore not yet at full match pace, the tempo dropped markedly after the break - but nothing was going to sway Buffon’s concentration. The captain, at 35, will equal his former team-mate Fabio Cannavaro’s all-time appearance record of 136 on Tuesday, but his reactions are as sharp as they were when he finished second to the World Cup-winning skipper for the Ballon d’Or in 2006.
Back surgery in 2010 had many writing him off – as did a number of high-profile errors – but like Gilardino, Buffon never lost the belief. Now two of Italy’s ageing heroes of Berlin are leading their nation towards Brazil in double-quick time.