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.

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.

2013 Confederations Cup Group A Primer

The Confederations Cup is a strange event, a warm up for the following year’s World Cup, and it even takes place in the same country. The Confederations Cup takes the winner of each regional cup (i.e. the winner of the European Championship gets a bid, as does the CONCACAF winner, etc.) as well as the reigning World Cup winner and the host country and throws them into a mini junket of a tournament.

The Confederations Cup is strange; let me re-emphasize, it’s strange. This year’s field features reigning World Cup champ and two-time reigning European Champion Spain. They are clustered in a group with South American champion Uruguay, surprising Oceania winner Tahiti and equally surprising African Cup of Nations winner Nigeria. The other group is the scarier of the two, with host country Brazil, CONCACAF winner Mexico, Asian powerhouse Japan and Italy. Italy is here based on the fact that they finished second in the European championship last summer. Because Spain won the World Cup and last year’s  aforementioned Euros, the team can’t occupy two slots; so Italy, as runners up,  get the Euro spot.

The Cup is strange for a number of reasons. One, participation doesn’t necessarily mean entry to the World Cup the next year. Iraq and Egypt participated in the 2009 Confederations Cup and didn’t appear in the 2010 WC. The second reason that it’s strange is because it’s hard to call this a major worldwide tournament without the usuals in the field. With a smaller field, it’s hard to imagine a tournament with this magnitude and with these implications with only one, or in this case two, of the European giants that dominate the footballing landscape. Or in other words, it’s odd to watch a major tournament and know that you are going to get as many touches on the ball as the entire German, French, Dutch and English national teams are.

The Host

A lot has been made about Brazil’s talent and that talent failing to win a WC in the last decade. The team also failed to win the Olympics last summer, further fueling frustration. But the one thing Brazil has done, and done well in the last decade, tournament-wise, has been winning the Confed Cup (as the kids call it.) Brazil is the two-time defending champion and will look to make it three in a row this summer. While this tournament’s trophy would be nice, I’m sure the South Americans would trade it in in a heartbeat if they could win the cup’s more prestigious “older brother,” if you will, next summer.

Brazilian football is often synonymous with technical genius. Thus everyone expects this of the South American powerhouse, but Brazil’s best asset may be that of its defense. The host nation will deploy some combination of Dani Alves, David Luiz, Marcelo, Dante and skipper Thiago Silva at the back. Any three or four of the group would be among the best in the world.

Prediction- The 19th ranked (lowest in country history) side in the world will have trouble with the tournament’s toughest group. All three teams have the quality and potential to make it to at least the knockout stage, not only in the field, but next summer as well. Brazil will get second in the group and likely bow out to Spain in the next round.

The Dark Horse

The Samurai Blue, as Japan is called, is this year’s dark horse. Like Brazil, they are saddled with the de-facto group of death. However, given the chance in a game Japan is very dangerous. Just ask the French, who the Japanese beat 1-0 in Paris. The Asian bread winners are very technically gifted, led by Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa and free kick master Keisuke Honda.  We’re not talking Andrea Pirlo good, but he’s still better than nine out of ten guys at free kicks. Yasuhito Endo is another to watch on set pieces.

If you give Japan too many set pieces, they will tear your goal to shreds. They could thrive against young, inexperienced squads who foul a bit too often.

Prediction- Japan will give its group a lot of trouble, and could win a game, but third place in the group and a delayed off-season vacation plan is all that’s likely in store for Alberto Zaccheroni’s troops.

The Danger Men Man

Mexico will either be in fine form come Brazil, or gasping for air. The team already drew Nigeria 2-2 on May 31st courtesy of a Chicharito brace and face an away tilt in Jamaica on the fourth of June before playing in Panama three days later against the home country before taking on Costa Rica in Mexico City a mere five days before opening the Confederations Cup against the Italians.

(Gasping for air after reading that sentence aloud.)

El Tri’s previous six games haven’t exactly been a joy ride. All six have been draws. Three of them scoreless draws. Not to mention two of the scoreless ties were at home to Jamaica and the US in World Cup Qualifying. The other three draws were the aforementioned 2-2 deadlock with Nigeria, bailed out by Chicharito’s aforementioned brace. The Mexicans were also bailed out by another Javier Hernandez brace away to Honduras in WCQ and managed a 1-1 draw with Denmark thanks to a penalty. What I’m getting at is that while Mexico has talented players with the likes of Giovani Dos Santos and Javier Aquino, the weight of the team falls on Chicharito. Stop him and you get three points, or at the very least a point by draw.

Prediction- If Chicharito (that’s four usages of the word Chicharito, oops, sorry five usages of that word for all of you playing along at home.) goes on a tear, Mexico has the talent to possibly win the whole thing. But the bold prediction is that they get last, finishing behind Japan in their group by virtue of a Honda free kick in a 1-0 win. Bold indeed.

The Seasoned Bunch

You have Euro 2012 to thank for Italy re-establishing themselves as a worldwide player in the game of football. After a disappointing performance in South Africa in 2010, Italy was picked as nothing more than group-stage fodder by many a talking head in Euro 2012. The Italians shocked everyone by not only holding eventual champion Spain to a draw in the first round, but also knocking out England on penalties as well as dispatching the in-form Germans in the Semi-Final.

Italy is a well-rounded team. They have perhaps the best “spine” in the world. The spine of Gigi Buffon in goal, the center backs Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci in defense, the deep lying playmaking of Pirlo, the industry of Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio and the ruthless goal scoring of Mario Balotelli. Outside of the spine, Italy has talented players such as Stephan El Shaarawy, Riccardo Montolivo and Ignazio Abate to fill out a talented team sheet.

Italy has been very unspectacular in friendlies as of late. They lost to France in Parma 2-1. They let the Netherlands think they were going to win 1-0 before stealing the latest of equalizers to escape Amsterdam with a draw and split four goals down the middle in a 2-2 draw with the Brazilians in Geneva in late March. Almost any country would take draws against the likes of the Netherlands and Brazil, as well as a close loss to France as a good sign, but when you are of Italy’s standard, more is expected. Even though the team has been uninspiring in friendlies, it hasn’t been as bad as one might think. Italian coach Cesare Prandelli likes to use friendlies to tinker with his lineup, fine tune it and see which players play well together. This strategy seems to have worked thanks to his excellent showing at the most recent Euros and in Italy’s utter domination in WCQ where they have scored three times as many goals as they have let in on their way to sitting atop the group table.

Prediction- Italy has what it takes to win it all. They’ll win their group on the last day of the group stage before beating whichever team finishes second to Spain in Group B, finally triumphing over the Spaniards in the final. All the while being glad that a resurgent German side is watching from their couches.

So just to recap, I have Group A finishing in this order- Italy, Brazil, Japan, Mexico.

Check back soon for my Group B Primer.

How do you think Group A will play out? Tell me in the comments section below.