By Mark Doyle
Italy boss Cesare Prandelli admitted before Saturday's Confederations Cup clash with Brazil that "the important thing is to find the balance we lacked against Japan". It is fair to say that it proved an embarrassingly futile search.
For the second successive game in this most chaotic of tournaments - on and off the field - the Azzurri were a shambles, defensively and tactically. Indeed, for the second successive game, Prandelli was forced into a change of personnel after less than half an hour of play - a necessity that should be as humiliating for the coach as it is for the player concerned.
On Wednesday night, against Japan, it was Alberto Aquilani who suffered the ignominy of a first-half withdrawal for purely tactical reasons. On Saturday night, Riccardo Montolivo lasted just 26 minutes before being replaced by Emanuele Giaccherini, with Italy being once again overrun in midfield. If it had not been for Italy's admirable resilience and character, they would never have claimed the most undeserved of victories over Japan, and would have been thrashed by a Brazil side that is not without its own defensive deficiencies.
|MATCH FACTS | Italy 2-4 Brazil
As already discussed in detail on these pages, the Azzurri are crying out for a true trequartista and have been since well before Euro 2012.
Furthermore, Stephan El Shaarawy's dip in form and apparent incompatibility with Mario Balotelli has forced Prandelli to shelve his hopes of playing the pair in tandem, or as part of a three-man front line. Hence, the change of formation on the eve of the Confederation Cup to 4-3-2-1. Balotelli, Italy's most consistent performer to date, did excel in the lone forward role against Mexico but Italy were ripped to shreds by Japan in their second outing, while the Azzurri proved just as vulnerable after switching to 4-2-3-1 for the meeting with Brazil in Salvador.
It must also be acknowledged that, as far as the Confederations Cup is concerned, not only did Italy have to face the hosts without their playmaker, Andrea Pirlo, and their most industrious midfielder, Daniele De Rossi, a number of top players have simply performed uncharacteristically poorly.
Gianluigi Buffon has arguably never turned in a worse display during his stellar international career than he did against Brazil. He looked every inch the "pensioner" that Franz Beckenbauer described him as during the Champions League quarter-finals, getting beaten by a Neymar free kick on the side of the goal that he was supposedly protecting, going inexplicably AWOL in the lead-up to Fred's first goal and then gifting the Fluminense forward a second by spilling a tame enough effort from Marcelo.
In fairness, Buffon has been repeatedly let down by those stationed in front of him. Andrea Barzagli, the model of consistency for Juventus, has been sluggish and sloppy in equal measure, giving away a penalty against Mexico that should have also resulted in a red card. Mattia De Sciglio, meanwhile, must take a significant share of the blame for the spot kick Buffon conceded against Japan, on account of a sloppily underhit back-pass. As for Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, quite why they decided to allow Fred the freedom of the park before his first goal in Salvador is anyone's guess.
Case for the defence | Giorgio Chiellini netted against Brazil but his defending was unusually poor
That is undeniably true, so why the constant tinkering? The Azzurri need clear tactical thinking right now, particularly with a semi-final showdown with Spain looming. The uncertainty surrounding who will start from game to game, and how Italy will line out from game to game, is placing further strain on tired minds and tired legs.
The harsh reality of the situation is that a year out from the World Cup, Prandelli knows neither his best line-up, which is hardly surprising given that he does not know his best formation. If anything, they are even less equipped to tackle Spain than they were in Kiev this time 12 months ago, which is desperately worrying - both in the short-term and the long-term.