By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Editor
There was a similar selection headache in the forward line when Italy last played against the USA in Europe. With Francesco Totti having started behind Luca Toni in the previous game, and Vincenzo Iaquinta having come off the bench to score his first international goal, Alberto Gilardino was also pushing for a place. And then there were Alessandro Del Piero and Filippo Inzaghi to consider.
Azzurri coach Marcello Lippi sure had a quandary ahead of the second Group E match at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, but he was the envy of just about every coach on the planet.
Fast-forward six years, and Cesare Prandelli knows that his choice of strikers may well be the difference between a successful Euro 2012 campaign and a disastrous one, but that is where the similarities apparently end. For, while Lippi had forwards boasting a total of 70 international goals between them to choose from against Bruce Arena’s outfit in Kaiserslautern, the current incumbent has no such resources as the two sides get set to meet again in Genoa tonight.Prandelli’s options are stunted partly by illness and injury, and partly due to his admirable principles, but the pool of strikers he called up for duty this time around have racked up a grand total of five goals in the famous blue shirt thus far. Five! And the starting forward line for tonight’s fixture accounts for just one, with Alessandro Matri and Sebastian Giovinco still novices on the big stage.
Many people are quick to discard international friendlies as a nuisance, but the truth is that they are fast running out in number before the commissario tecnico meets with his destiny. Whether he becomes bracketed with the Lippis, Bearzots and Vicinis, or the Donadonis, Trapattonis and Maldinis will largely depend on his side’s performance at this summer’s event.
Until now, this writer has backed Prandelli in his stance against ill-discipline, and will continue to do so, but is overlooking an “agitated” player quite the same? And especially at a time when he needs to be assessing the full range of his options? Mario Balotelli has been rightly left at home before, but this time he may well have reason to feel hard done by.
In his place comes Fabio Borini, the former Chelsea forward having been one of the main bright spots in Roma’s stop-start campaign so far, but there is still no call-up for the ridiculously prolific Antonio Di Natale. A recent lay-off through injury could well have been used as an excuse in part, but the continued exclusion of the Udinese striker, who returned to action – and the scoresheet – at the weekend is becoming somewhat disturbing now.
With no Antonio Cassano to call upon this summer due to his much-publicised heart trouble, Prandelli cannot become too experimental at what is a crucial time. It is only 102 days now until Italy face Spain in Gdansk to begin the European finals, and that time will fly by before we know it.
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Matri has too often proven to be affected by bouts of profligacy, Giampaolo Pazzini is going through one of the lowest phases of his career, Borini is an uncapped, unknown quantity at international level, and while Giovinco has shown ample promise, he remains a support striker to whom the goalscoring burden cannot be passed.
A huge stroke of fortune notwithstanding, Italy will not reach the business end of the Euros without at least two of Balotelli, Di Natale and Cassano, and with the latter probably ruled out along with his long-time strike partner Giuseppe Rossi, there is a clear message to Prandelli.
The qualifying campaign was a more than satisfying one, but then it was under Roberto Donadoni before the last European finals too, and look what became of him. Prandelli is undoubtedly made of better coaching stock than ‘the Don’, but his international legacy may well be identical if he doesn’t act wisely over the next four months.
And that will almost certainly be dictated by his forward line. No area of his squad is 100 per cent perfect, but none looks quite so anaemic as his striking stocks. His well-intentioned stance on discipline cannot reach a petty level, nor can his seemingly baseless refusal to give Di Natale a chance.
Few coaches have ever been quite so blessed as Lippi in recent times, meaning something has to give if Prandelli is to become the top international coach he has the ability to be.Follow Kris Voakes on