Cesare Prandelli has always been decisive. Thus, he was never going to be concerned about hurting anyone’s feelings when it came to naming his final Italy squad for the 2014 World Cup finals.
The Azzurri coach had always planned to wait until the deadline before declaring the 23 names who will carry the country’s hopes in Brazil, but although his mind was made up a long time ago, there was always a danger of something occurring beyond his control.
Two 2006 heroes, Francesco Totti and Luca Toni, were never in contention regardless of their performances throughout the season, but Prandelli also demonstrated his ruthless streak when it came to culling players who had featured in qualification and at last summer’s Confederations Cup.
With the initial 30-man squad, the likes of Alberto Gilardino, Dani Osvaldo, Alessandro Diamanti, Emanuele Giaccherini and Domenico Criscito were all cast aside. It makes their returns to the international arena difficult, with Prandelli having extended his current contract with the Italian Football Federation until Euro 2016.
Hard knock life
If the coach thought all of his tough calls had been made, however, he was wrong. Last week's warm-up match against the Republic of Ireland at Craven Cottage was to be used for a final assessment for whether Giuseppe Rossi was ready for the rigours ahead, and if Marco Verratti was a viable foil for Andrea Pirlo at the heart of midfield.
But in the end, the usually unruffled Prandelli was left stunned by the injury suffered by Riccardo Montolivo, who was ruled out of the travelling party after fracturing his tibia in a challenge with Alex Pearce.
The highly competitive Irish rattled the Azzurri throughout in London; Montolivo’s replacement Alberto Aquilani was also forced off with a head injury, although with no serious damage. It was a shell-shocked party that returned to their Coverciano training base on Sunday, shorn of one of the 'certainties' who would have played a pivotal role in Brazil.
Montolivo's World Cup hopes were shattered against Ireland
Italy had shown glimpses of the high-pressing game they will look to employ at the World Cup, but there is no doubt that the players eased up when they saw Montolivo stretchered off, in particular Rossi, who was never more than on the fringes of the action. Verratti, on the other hand, popped up all over the pitch and, at times, was a little too over-zealous in his challenges. The PSG midfielder was positive and grabbed his chance with gusto, however, as did a slicker Antonio Cassano, who was given just over 30 minutes to demonstrate his worth as an impact player.
Still, Prandelli was left in something of a quandary as he weighed up whether to give Rossi another week to find his feet
after a season lay-off. In the end he decided that the even-more-diminutive Lorenzo Insigne, who scored twice for Napoli in the Italian Cup final from a wide position, could not be ignored (even though it was rumoured he had already booked his summer holidays).
With Mario Balotelli already assured of his place, Cassano held onto his spot as the team’s wild card, which meant Roma’s Mattia Destro joined Rossi in missing out. Serie A top goalscorer Ciro Immobile did enough against Ireland to book his place, as did the pacy Alessio Cerci. The final selections in attack suggest Prandelli will play with only one striker through the middle in Balotelli, which means the Milan man will need plenty of support from deeper positions.
Gigi's ninth life
Aquilani benefited the most from Montolivo’s absence – the Roman had been tipped to be cut – but it may well be Verratti who shines when it comes to the real action, possibly filling in further ahead of Daniele De Rossi and Pirlo. The 21-year-old certainly has more skill and a better passing range than Thiago Motta, not to mention the two other willing workers in Claudio Marchisio and Marco Parolo, but he could face stiff competition from Lazio wide man Antonio Candreva if Prandelli decides to opt for three across the midfield.
Salvatore Sirigu’s excellent display against the Irish means the goalkeeping back-up spot looks secure, while third choice Mattia Perin will gain invaluable experience working at close quarters with Gianluigi Buffon, even if the Juventus goalkeeper expects to be around for Russia in four years’ time.
Verratti demonstrated a strong case to play alongside Pirlo
It will be Buffon’s ninth major international tournament, drawing him level with Germany’s Lothar Matthaus as the most represented European of all time. Ahead of him he will have his reliable Bianconeri back line of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. Matteo Darmian's youth edged out veteran Christian Maggio, and the former Milan youth product will be vying with current Rossoneri full-backs Ignazio Abate and Mattia De Sciglio for the right-back slot.
This is not an Italy squad of big personalities and star names like Germany 2006, but it at least has a stronger team ethic than South Africa 2010. Prandelli can rest easier now his squad is finalised, and perhaps remember things could be worse having lost only one player from his original plans. As always, the real Italy will not reveal itself until the team walks out to face England on June 14 in Manaus.
Goalkeepers: Buffon (Juventus), Perin (Genoa), Sirigu (PSG)
Defenders: Abate (Milan), Barzagli (Juventus), Bonucci (Juventus), Chiellini (Juventus), Darmian (Torino), De Sciglio (Milan), Paletta (Parma)
Midfielders: Aquilani (Fiorentina), Candreva (Lazio), De Rossi (Roma), Marchisio (Juventus), Thiago Motta (PSG), Parolo (Parma), Pirlo (Juventus), Verratti (PSG)
Strikers: Balotelli (Milan), Cassano (Parma), Cerci (Torino), Immobile (Borussia Dortmund), Insigne (Napoli).