Cesare Prandelli does not to need to call up Francesco Totti to his Italy pre-World Cup fitness test this week. The Azzurri coach must have seen enough to know that the Roma legend is more than ready to play his part in Brazil this summer.
In the tournament that will define Prandelli’s career, he cannot afford to leave the Italian game’s most influential player at home. In fact, he should be building his team around the master conductor in the manner that Rudi Garcia has done at club level this season.
In giving Totti the freedom to play along the front line, or to drop deeper to bring midfielders into the game, it is no luxury license to roam but a pre-defined role that sets the tempo of Roma’s play. It is a finely tuned move that ensures the team functions smoothly, perfectly exemplified in the weekend's spectacular 3-1 win over Atalanta that made it il settobello: a seventh successive win in their chase of Juventus at the top of the table.
The captain was involved in each of the three goals – the pick of which a perfectly weighted chip into the area for Daniele De Rossi (who is also running into form just at the right time for the World Cup) – to set up Adem Ljajic for the second goal. A lay-off to Rodrigo Taddei provided the first, before Totti's trademark backheel found Ljajic who played in Gervinho for the third goal.
Who needs to run around for 90 minutes when you can read the game two moves ahead of everyone else? He may not have played international football since the 2006 World Cup, or in Europe since 2012, but at his imperious best Totti is still untouchable at any level.
In the home of Joga Bonito, where the game's aesthetics count just as much as the result, Er Pupone’s presence would raise Italy’s standing as one of the sides to watch in a competition that seems wide open. The Azzurri will head into their tough group alongside England, Uruguay and Costa Rica knowing that the opener against Roy Hodgson's men will gauge their belief of progression. But just imagine an Italy side where Andrea Pirlo plays one of his trademark 'no-look' passes to his 2006 World Cup team-mate, whose deft backheel opens up a defence for Mario Balotelli or Giuseppe Rossi to finish off the move.
Leaving Totti out of the squad will always raise questions about what he could have provided, but Pirlo will be there keeping the ball moving in midfield, as will another 30-something in Gianluigi Buffon providing the last line in an all-Juventus defence.
Blunt at the sharp end
Italy’s recent problems have come in the attacking third. Since qualifying for the tournament they've scored only three goals – two against Nigeria and one against Germany, before drawing a blank in a 1-0 defeat to Spain in their most recent outing
From the 1990s onwards, Italy have always taken at least two fantastisti to the major tournaments, be it Roberto Baggio and Gianfranco Zola in 1994 or Totti and Alessandro Del Piero in 2006. On both occasions the team reached the final; the former ending in despair, the latter in triumph.
When Prandelli looks at what he has at his disposal for the coveted No.10 role, there is little to set the heart racing. But in Totti he has a player who can change the course of a match in a moment or, more importantly, give the rest of his team confidence that can really cause a stir in the latter stages. Marcelo Lippi knew this ahead of 2006, when he waited until the last possible moment on Totti’s fitness and then called him up despite the metal plates in his damaged ankle. Although he didn't play 90 minutes in every match he was still the focal point of the team, and his last-minute penalty sent Italy into the quarter-finals at Australia's expense. Traditionally that's where the Azzurri grow stronger - which proved the case again.
This time Prandelli has Antonio Cassano blowing hot and cold, and certainly bragging less steel than Totti, who after his own injury problems looks in excellent shape. Alessandro Diamanti is playing in China and Sebastian Giovinco warming the bench at Juventus. If he is to play 4-3-3 as Roma do, then Totti is the perfect fit for the trequartista role behind Balotelli and Giuseppe Rossi, the latter of whom seems to be winning his battle for fitness.
As with Roma where De Rossi dovetails neatly with Miralem Pjanic and Radja Nainggolan, who has taken over from the injured Kevin Strootman, the Roma vice-captain would provide the platform alongside Pirlo and one of Claudio Marchisio, Riccardo Montolivo or Andrea Candreva.
There is certainly an array of rich talent available in midfield, but what Italy need is the extra guile that only Totti can provide. He has long been assured his place in the pantheon of all-time Italian greats, but his recent run of record-breaking exploits have to make him Italy’s most talented post-war player. His personal statistics alone are staggering: Serie A's second-highest goalscorer on 234, and 288 in all competitive games which puts him one behind Del Piero as the player to have scored the most goals for one club. It's all been achieved over a two-decade career that began as a 16-year-old in 1993.
Former Roma coach Zdenek Zeman was once asked for his top three Italian players, to which he replied: “Totti, Totti and Totti.” That still holds true, and is why Prandelli cannot afford to leave him behind.
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