Italian National Team: Familiarity in Conte’s First Squad Selection and will the Trend Continue?

In some situations you go with what you know. That’s exactly what new Italian National Team coach Antonio Conte did with his first squad selection. Of the players selected, many were familiar to Conte at Juve. Some selections seemed more confusing than logical, but no one can argue with the results. Conte dispatched World Cup semifinalist the Netherlands 2-0 in his first game in charge before trumping Norway by an identical score in his first Euro 2016 qualifier.

Of the players called up, 11 have Juve connections to Conte, a potential 12th call up, Andrea Pirlo, was out with an injury. Among the 11 were captain and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, defenders Giorgio Chiellini, Angelo Ogbonna and Leonardo Bonucci, midfielders Claudio Marchisio and Emanuele Giaccherini as well as forwards Simone Zaza, Fabio Quagliarella, Ciro Immobile and Sebastian Giovinco. Another player with a connection to Conte, former Bianconeri forward Daniel Osvaldo was ruled out due to injury.

It remains to be seen how many of these players Conte will use in the future. Form and injury will affect his selections going forward, but it will be interesting to see if he sticks with consistently calling up players he has experience with.

Of the Juve/ex-Juve player contingent, some players are logical locks to be continually called up. Buffon, Pirlo, Chiellini, Bonucci, Marchisio and Immobile can all be placed in that category. Giaccherini is another player who will likely be constantly called upon. Previous coach Cesare Prandelli used the Sunderland midfielder in a utility role while Conte deployed him similarly at Juventus. It’s likely the England-based player will stay with the Azzurri. When healthy, Andrea Barzagli is one of the better center backs in the world, however, injuries have derailed him of late. When he recovers, expect the Juve defenseman to play a part in the national setup at least through the 2016 Euros. Zaza’s recent fine form and a potential move back to Juve could see him cement his place in the national team, regardless of what happens with Mario Balotelli.

The last four are harder to predict. Ogbonna and Giovinco have showed glimpses of talent worthy of the national team, however both have had stretches of inconsistency. In addition, neither are established starters in Turin—something that could work against them. Quagliarella and Osvaldo are harder still to predict. Italy’s forward situation is far from certain. Giuseppe Rossi would be the unquestioned first choice, but another injury will keep the New Jersey born forward out for an extended amount of time. When he finally recovers, he’ll be the number one striker option for Conte. In addition, Alberto Gilardino and Antonio Cassano are both near the end of their international careers while Alessio Cerci, Lorenzo Insigne and Stephan El Shaarawy are all talented but are more likely to play behind the striker, or even in an advanced midfield position. Because of all the depth, it will be interesting to see where Quagliarella and Osvaldo fit with the team moving forward.

Overall, Conte will continue to deploy his old Juve players—most of them at least. Established starters like Buffon, Pirlo and Chiellini will all continue to suit up for their former coach. Other players are harder to predict, but if anything is to be learned from this, it’s that Conte goes with what whom he thinks will fit his tactics. For now, that’s a contingent of Juve players. The main reason is because he knows what he wants to do tactically and he knows that his former players can fit into his system.

Why Euro 2016 Will be a Crucial Tournament for Europe’s Best

With the World Cup over, the collective attention of the footballing world has turned to the club season. However— most fans will also be looking forward to the next biggest international tournament. The 2016 European Championships. Like the World Cup, the “Euros” are held every four years and feature a slate of qualification games leading up to the tournament.

Compared to past Euros, Euro 2016 will have a very different feel to it, because it will be a crucial tournament for every country involved. Here are some of those countries and why the tournament will be key for them.

Spain

La Roja’s era of dominance is over. The cracks started to show, however briefly, at the last Euros. By the time Brazil 2014 came and went, Spain’s reign had unceremoniously ended. With the departures of team pillars Xavi, David Villa and Xabi Alonso, the Spaniards will be handed over to a mix of youngsters and veterans to carry the team. The likes of Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Ramos and David Silva will still feature heavily, but Spain must do a better job of integrating younger talents such as Koke, Isco and Daniel Carvajal if they are to stop the tailspin they are in. Euro 2016 will be crucial for Spain. As it stands, they are on the fence – the fence between the world’s elite (i.e. Germany, Argentina and the Netherlands) and the upper echelon’s middle class (i.e. England, Mexico and Croatia). If Spain can integrate its youth, it stands a chance to stay at the big kid table. If it doesn’t, slipping is a real possibility.

France

France carries the weight of a nation, or rather the support of one. The French will host in 2016, and after a favorable showing in Brazil, Les Bleus will look to build upon the positivity. The team only lost by one goal to eventual champs Germany, something that can’t be said of Brazil, and seamlessly integrated future stars Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann into the team. For one reason or another, the team that went to Brazil didn’t feature Samir Nasri, Clement Grenier or Gael Clichy. If Didier Deschamps can integrate those players, along with talented youngster such as Florian Thauvin and Alexandre Lacazette in the same fashion he introduced Pogba and Griezmann into the side then France could win the tournament on home soil.

Italy

Like various other European powers (see Spain, England, and Portugal) Italy struggled in Brazil. The victim of somewhat unfortunate circumstances, cannibalism included, the Azzurri struggled. With new coach Antonio Conte in charge, the team suddenly has a much brighter future. Conte, the former Juventus manager, relied heavily on a back three in his formational forays at Juve. His goalkeeper and back three at the Old Lady typically had Gianluigi Buffon in goal with the trio of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli sitting in front. All four will be at his disposal with the national team. Because of the renaissance the back-three has experienced in world football and the Juve players’ familiarity and success with the formation, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Italy achieve success at Euro 2016.

Germany

The World Cup winners lost Phillip Lahm, Per Mertesacker and Miroslav Klose to international retirement. However, thanks to their status as World Cup trophy winners, and their tremendous depth, the team should be considered favorites heading into 2016. Germany has an abundance of quality to replace Lahm, Mertesacker and Klose, with the respective likes of Jerome Boateng, Benedikt Howedes and Mario Gomez (among others) waiting to fill in. The 2016 Euros will be especially crucial for the Germans as they look to build a dynasty similar to the one Spain recently had. Only this time, with the tremendous depth and development in the German senior and youth ranks, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Die Mannschaft win more trophies than the Spanish.  

England

England is in transition. With Steven Gerrard retired and Frank Lampard likely to follow the same path before too long, the Three Lions will be without the midfield backbone they’ve had for the past decade. The fate of England lies with its youngsters. If exiting talents like Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley and Luke Shaw can continue their trajectory towards being elite, world-class players, then the one-time world champs will have a chance in France. If not, it could be a long road back. Wayne Rooney is the only consistent/elite leg the English have to stand on. Despite a roster littered with Premier League veterans, Roy Hodgson’s team looked challenged in Brazil. If the youth comes through, England shouldn’t be discounted. On the other hand, if the youth falters, it will be another international tournament where Wayne Rooney carries more of a burden than is necessary.

Portugal, Sweden and Wales

All three teams are extremely star driven. For Portugal it’s Cristiano Ronaldo, for the Swedes it Zlatan Ibrahimovic and for the Welsh its Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale.

Ronaldo will be 31 in 2016, and it may be the Portuguese’s last chance to win a major piece of silverware with the world’s best player. The situation is similar for Sweden. After failing to make it to Brazil 2014, 2016 could be the last time we see Zlatan on a big international stage. This could be the last time for each to make their mark internationally.

Wales’ duo of Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale won’t be going away any time soon, but this will be a crucial tournament for the Welsh as they look to establish themselves as respectable players in world football. The team isn’t just Ramsey and Bale either, the Welsh also boast quality players like Swansea captain Ashley Williams, recent Spurs signing Ben Davis and Liverpool midfielder Joe Allen. The 2016 European Championships will be Wales’ chance to get their foot in the door of international football.

Cinderella-type runs aren’t as unheard of at the Euros as they are at the World Cup. Greece won it all in 2004 and Italy made a run out of nowhere to finish second in 2012. All three countries (Portugal, Sweden and Wales) certainly have the talent to do it.

Croatia  

The Croatian national team has some truly gifteded players like Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric just to name a few.  However, outside of group stage exits, the country doesn’t have much, to show for since finishing third at the 1998 World Cup. The 2016 Euros and 2018 World Cup are the last chances for a supremely talented generation of Croatians to prove that they can make an impact. If the team can put in a positive, lengthy run at 2016, they can build momentum for a strong finish in 2018. Maybe a return to France (where their 1998 World Cup success occurred) will help Croatia. They certainly have the talent to accomplish bigger things.

The Netherlands

Similar to other European nations, this may be the Dutch’s last chance to add to their trophy cabinet while Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie are still playing. The rest of the Dutch team is loaded with youth and potential, but for three of the world’s most feared attacking players their international careers are winding down. After finishing second in South Africa and third in Brazil another piece of silverware certainly isn’t out of the question. If the Dutch can continue to mesh young players with their key veterans, they will not only have a chance to be successful in 2016, but also at the 2018 World Cup and beyond.

The European Championships in 2016 will be crucial for just about every contender in Europe. Some countries will be looking to build for the future while other countries will attempt to eke out one last glorious run from an aging generation. Either way, 2016 will be of the upmost importance.

Defending Antonio Conte’s Omission of Mario Balotelli

Newly-minted Italian national team coach Antonio Conte made headlines when he selected his first official squad for a friendly against the Netherlands and the Azzurri’s first Euro 2016 qualifying match against Norway. Those headlines were made based on who he did, and more importantly didn’t, call up. Or in other words, Conte made headlines for not calling up Mario Balotelli.

The coach insists that he is not sending a message with the omission, and it shouldn’t be looked at as such. First off, no player is entitled to a call up every time around. Yes, Balotelli is clearly the most talented striker at Conte’s disposal, but that alone doesn’t merit a call up. It should also be remembered that the last international matches for Italy were at the World Cup—a competition where the Italians struggled. There were few Italian bright spots in Brazil and the former AC Milan striker wasn’t one of them.

Based on Brazil, the only Azzurri members who would have been locks for inclusion in these two games would have been Juventus’ Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo, Lazio’s Antonio Candreva, Torino defender Matteo Darmian and PSG duo Salvatore Sirigu and Marco Verratti. Balotelli obviously is not one of those players.

The newest Liverpool signing is mercurial. In fact, if you look the word “mercurial” in the dictionary, you probably get a picture of Mario Balotelli. Not only that, he picks up his fair share of cards. Among those cards included were two yellows compiled in Brazil including one in Italy’s final game. Because the Italians didn’t progress in the tournament, their star striker will have to sit out the next competitive game on the international calendar. That game is the first Euro qualifier against Norway.

Most will point to the fact of Claudio Marchisio’s inclusion in the team as one of the key reasons why Conte is sending a message by leaving out Balotelli. Marchisio picked up a red card in the Italy/Uruguay game, and like Balotelli will miss the Norway match through suspension. However, this is Conte’s first camp in charge of the Azzurri. He will be implementing his system, his style of play and things of that nature. Not only does Marchisio understand Conte and his tactics from their time together at Juve, he also provides leadership and experience in the midfield. Conte has also been forced to call up a relatively inexperienced group due to injuries. Usual call ups Pirlo, Riccardo Montolivo and Thiago Motta are all out with injuries. Because of this, the likes of Marco Parolo, Alessandro Florenzi and Andrea Poli all been brought in. All have fewer than six caps.

As odd as it sounds, leaving out Balotelli may let Conte evaluate his options in a more comprehensive manner. If Balotelli is in the team, he’s starting. Leaving him at home gives Conte the chance to experiment with and give more minutes to the likes of Mattia Destro, Ciro Immobile, Simone Zaza and Stephan El Shaarawy up front. Doing so will be crucial as all four are under the age of 24 and will play vital roles for the Azzurri leading up to Euro 2016 and Russia 2018.

Antonio Conte’s decision to leave Mario Balotelli off his first Italy roster didn’t sit well with some fans. However, when you consider Balotelli’s mercurial play, suspension and other factors, it makes sense why Liverpool’s newest player was left off the Azzurri team.

World Cup 2014: Positives from Italy’s Campaign

Italy didn’t experience the best of World Cups – not by their own prestigious standards, or the standards of anyone else for that matter. The Azzurri were eliminated in the group stage with one win and two losses to show for it. One of those losses was to an underrated Costa Rica side, the other loss was marred by near-cannibalism. Regardless, Italy didn’t just miss out on the knockout rounds because of a singular incident (although you could make a case with Suarez’ bite…)  they looked slow and uncreative at times.

Once you get past these maladies, there were some bright spots to be had. Here are a few of them.

Matteo Darmian

The 24 year old Torino right back burst onto the scene in his competitive debut for Italy, combining with Antonio Candreva to terrorize England down the right flank in both team’s opening game. Darmian looked solid defensively as well and was one of six Italians to start every game. The others? Established starters Claudio Marchisio, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli. That’s pretty good company for a player who made his international debut just weeks before the tournament began. The performance helps Darmian even more so because it solidifies his hold on the position. With Ignazio Abate unable to hold down the position and Christian Maggio getting older, Italy may have found their right back for the next eight years.

Salvatore Sirigu

At age 36, captain Gianluigi Buffon doesn’t look like he’s slowing down, but at some point he won’t be around to mind the net for the Azzurri. For a while, no keepers embraced the mantle of Buffon’s successor. At one point in time, you could have pegged it on Marco Amelia or Federico Marchetti, but both have fallen by the relative wayside. Now the title firmly belongs to Salvatore Sirigu. The 27 year old shot-stopper is already a full-time starter at French giant PSG, arguably one of the top clubs in the world. Winning games in Ligue 1 and the Champions League is one thing, but winning and playing well at the international level is a completely different animal. Sirigu, starting for an injured Buffon, performed admirably against England in Italy’s win. He looked solid in goal all game, and would have kept a clean sheet had it not been for a smash of a goal from Daniel Sturridge that few goalkeepers could have stopped.

Marco Verratti

Another member of the Italy’s “heir-apparent club” is Verratti. Like his PSG teammate Sirigu, is the long-term replacement for another Azzurri legend, Andrea Pirlo. Unlike Sirigu in goal, you can play more than one midfielder in a game, so Verratti is afforded the rare opportunities to play alongside the man he may one day replace. At 21, he was arguably one of Italy’s best and most consistent players at the World Cup. Like Pirlo, he is a superb passer and regularly is handed starts at the club level ahead of the likes of Javier Pastore and Yohan Cabaye.

Giuseppe Rossi

This isn’t fair, Rossi didn’t make the team that went to Brazil. Nonetheless, he remains a bright spot. Why? Because of the role he will play in the future after Italy’s attacking options faltered in South America. Of the five forwards Cesare Prandelli brought to the World Cup, Alessio Cerci and Lorenzo Insigne only made two substitute appearances. Besides those two, you had the trio of Ciro Immobile, Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli. Immobile, still only 24, looked nothing like the goal-scorer he was at Torino. Cassano looked exceedingly sluggish and seemed to struggle physically. Balotelli’s play meanwhile was once again, mercurial. Except this time, it took a downward trajectory as opposed to his previous positive displays in an Italy shirt. After scoring against England, he was relatively quiet and missed a key chance to score versus Costa Rica. However, his yellow card against Uruguay changed the game in a bad way for the Europeans. This meant, if Italy advanced, they would have been without their most dangerous striker. On top of that Prandelli took him out to avoid going down to ten  men only to see the referee give Claudio Marchisio a straight red a few minutes later. The point I’m making with Rossi is that none of Italy’s strikers wowed anyone in Brazil. Together they managed just a singular goal. Teams need goals to win, and Italy needs players who can get them those goals. Sure, the Azzurri have a superbly talented group of midfielders who can score, but the team needs strikers who can consistently put the ball in the back of the net. They know that they have that in the New Jersey born Rossi.

World Cup 2014: 5 Things We Learned from Day 3 of the World Cup

  1. Greece will struggle to score

The Greeks struggled to create scoring chances for much of the game against Columbia. While this strategy is excusable when you don’t allow any goals, it makes for a long day when the other team is scoring against you. It won’t get easier as the Greeks will have to face the physical Ivory Coast and the technical wizards of Japan. This group is being dubbed the “Group of Life,” where everyone has a shot to advance. Greece needs to shows signs of life offensively to have any hope of advancing.

  1. Costa Rica is no pushover

That could have been the headline after a first half where Costa Rica played well and only conceived a well-struck penalty to Uruguay. However, the Ticos came roaring back for a historic win. This put a colossal dent in Uruguay’s hopes moving forward, but also gave Costa Rica a huge chance to move forward.  The CONCACAF reps not only beat their South American counterparts, but they also controlled the game and kept the likes of Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan in check.

  1. No Buffon, no problem for Italy

Italy was without legendary ‘keeper and captain Gianluigi Buffon for their clash with England. His replacement: PSG shot-stopper Salvatore Sirigu was superb in the 2-1 win. The Italians were deserving of the win, and Sirigu was vital in the match. The fact that the team was able to adapt so well without their leader, Buffon, speaks volumes to the quality of Cesare Prandelli’s side.

  1. Italy should have their group rapped up

One would think that the Azzurri are now in control of the “Group of Champions” as a win versus Costa Rica on Thursday would clinch passage to the next round for the 2006 champions. Especially considering that if they beat the Ticos (not a foregone conclusion, just ask the Uruguayans) they could be facing an Uruguay side potentially without Luis Suarez. The South Americans looked derived of creativity in their walloping by Costa Rica, if Suarez can’t make it back, it could be a very brief stay in Brazil for last year’s semi-finalists. Should Italy win all three games, they would face the second place team from Group C. Which, if Columbia wins, will be Japan, Ivory Coast or Greece. That’s a more pleasant route than finishing second in the group, facing Group C’s winner, likely Columbia, beat them (not a forgone conclusion) and then potentially run into Brazil. This is all guess-work and forecasting at this point, but winning the group definitely holds a much easier outlook for Italy.

  1. Is there a changing of the guard in the Ivory Coast Squad? Not yet

Iconic striker Didier Drogba started the Ivory Coast’s opening game on the bench as Wilfred Bony was handed the start instead. Bony responded with a goal, but the African side scored both of its goals in the 2-1 win after the former Chelsea legend’s introduction into the game, cementing his importance.

Six Things We Learned from Italy After the Netherlands Friendly

(Disclaimer: I don’t profess to know a ton about football. I just love the beautiful game.)

  1. Andrea Pirlo’s genius, pace and the fouls/free kicks he draws. Some people play on a whole other physical level, or a whole other level in terms of speed. The latter is Pirlo. (Also, isn’t it nice that in football/soccer, wherever you’re from, a players is simplified to just one name? Even if he hasn’t shortened his name to one name. Messi is called Messi when his full name is Lionel Messi, etc. Anyways, it lends itself to lazy typers like me, and the rest of the world for that matter.) Pirlo plays the game almost methodically. You know when basketball gurus say that the game has “slowed down” for some players? That’s Pirlo. He slows it down. While the tempo killing can sometimes be hard to watch, the Italian midfield maestro always makes the right pass, even if he has to slow down to do it. Expanding on that, especially in the match against the Dutch, everyone else was going 110 miles an hour (if you will) while Pirlo was cruising at a comfortable 85. The result of this is that a lot of hand checks and fouls that might go un-noticed were noticed as Pirlo drew multiple free kicks by simply playing at the speed he feels comfortable playing. I should also point out his genius. Which he is, by the way. Every game there are about three to four plays where he makes a pass that could open up the defense. If your defense gives Pirlo milk and curds he turns it into Swiss cheese. (Especially if he’s playing against the Swiss.)
  2. Buffon does it again. Where Pirlo makes three or four passes that unlock the defense, Gigi Buffon makes three or four saves that the average Joe keeper wouldn’t make every game. He did this again on multiple occasions against the Dutchmen.
  3. Sub Par? Not to say that the starters were lacking, but the substitutions of Pablo Osvaldo, Alessandro Diamanti, Alberto Gilardino and Marco Verratti certainly changed the game in a positive way.
  4. Slick Whats? The field was very slick in case you didn’t notice. At least half a dozen players hit the turf, one of which quelled a promising Italian attack.
  5. Friendly Strategy. (That faux headline didn’t work, but stick with me.)  Cesare Prandelli certainly isn’t using friendlies to get results. The Italy head-man consistently uses friendly games to test younger players and tinker with different pairings and lineups ahead of major tournaments. He’s using this strategy for the upcoming Confederations Cup as well as the Azzurri’s likely World Cup spot in Brazil in 2014.
  6. It’ll Work. Eventually. Italy’s spearheaded attack of Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaaraway seemed to be a bit stagnant in the first half. While the Osvaldo/Diamanti/Gilardino trident worked, the former group will likely be the long and short-term options up front. They’ll figure it out eventually, playing together that is. After all they both play for AC Milan. They’ll be tested and ready by Brazil.

If I missed anything from the game that you thought was mention-worthy, tell me in the comments section.