Balzaretti's solidity, Maggio's fragility & the lessons Italy learned from friendly defeat by Russia

After patchy pre-Euro 2012 preparations and with the clash against Spain just over a week away, assesses the current state of play in the Azzurri squad
By Mark Doyle | Italy Expert

Italy boss Cesare Prandelli claimed on Friday morning that he would have no problem pulling his squad out of Euro 2012 if it would be for the good of the Italian game. On the evidence of Friday night's final warm-up match with Russia, that might very well be the case.

Monday morning's chaotic scenes at Coverciano were mirrored in a horribly disorganised and disjointed display in Zurich, with the Azzurri slumping to a thoroughly embarrassing 3-0 defeat at the hands of their fellow finalists.

Aleksandr Kerzhakov belatedly opened the scoring for Dick Advocaat’s side on the hour mark, after squandering a succession of first-half openings, before Roman Shirokov twice capitalised on some ridiculously generous defending from the Italians to seal a humiliatingly facile win for Russia.

Italy never looked remotely capable of turning the game around and they will now head for Poland on Tuesday on the back of three consecutive friendly defeats.

As outlines below, it was not all bad news for the Azzurri at the Stadion Letzigrund, but there is no denying that Prandelli now has more questions than answers to address less than a week away from his side's Euro 2012 opener against Spain.


Let's first accentuate the positives, though. On Friday night all eyes were on Federico Balzaretti, who had been charged with the responsibility of filling the void left by Domenico Criscito, the Zenit St Petersburg left-back having been withdrawn from the squad on Monday due to his involvement in the investigation into Scommessopoli. However, the Palermo man was one of Italy’s better performers on the night, before being withdrawn early in the second half. Balzaretti was immensely comfortable in possession, got forward well and was defensively sound. The same could not be said of the man on the opposite flank...


Christian Maggio had an absolute nightmare. The Napoli right-back was tormented by Yuri Zhirkov and Andrey Arshavin for the entirety of the first half and even though the onslaught abated after half-time, the damage had already been done, with a clearly-rattled Maggio making two schoolboy errors which both resulted in goals. In the first instance, he tried to allow the ball to roll back to his goalkeeper Morgan De Sanctis when he clearly should have dealt with the danger himself ("If in doubt, put it out"). Then, he awkwardly attempted to cut out a cross from the left with his wrong foot, with predictably disastrous results. Maggio’s quality is beyond doubt but one has to wonder now if Ignazio Abate might be a more reliable option at right-back.


Of course, Maggio’s central defensive colleagues hardly covered themselves in glory either. Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli are both coming off the back of fine domestic campaigns with Juventus but at times they looked like they had never been introduced, let alone played alongside one another. The Bianconeri duo were completely bamboozled by the clever movement and intricate link-up play of Arshavin and Co., who offered an array of clever dummies and incisive one-twos.

That does not bode at all well for Italy given that Spain, the masters of short, intricate football, will be waiting for them in Gdansk on June 10. In that context, it is now imperative that Giorgio Chiellini, the Azzurri’s most reliable defender, is fully fit to face the reigning world and European champions.


Then again, if Italy’s defence is not given any protection, what hope do they really have of containing the Spanish? Andrea Pirlo reminded everyone in Zurich that when it comes to defence-splitting passes, he has few equals, while Daniele De Rossi was a threat every single time he ventured forward, going close to opening the scoring early on before later putting midfield colleague Claudio Marchisio through on goal. However, Italy’s midfield trio were found wanting from a defensive perspective and - aside from a 15-minute spell at the start of the second half - also failed miserably to take control of the game.

In addition, Riccardo Montolivo continues to look ill-suited to the trequartista role, albeit not as ill-suited as Thiago Motta, who was utilised as an attacking midfielder against the United States in February with predictably terrible results. Montolivo created just one opening for his front two, a headed chance for Mario Balotelli, and even that arrived after the Fiorentina man had been forced out onto the left wing. There is just no escaping the conclusion that with just eight days to go until the Azzurri face Spain, Prandelli, rather worryingly, still does not know his best midfield combination.


However, perhaps Prandelli does at least now know who to start up front against Spain. They may not have played alongside one another in two years, and neither found the back of the net in Zurich, but there were undeniable signs that Balotelli and Antonio Cassano have at least the makings of a formidable partnership. Balotelli continues to take the wrong option on occasion but he was a constant threat for the Azzurri - particularly in the air - and very nearly put Italy ahead after latching onto a sublime ball over the top from Pirlo after a brilliantly-timed run in behind the Russian defence. The Manchester City striker also showed he can create openings, too, with a sumptuous chip into the area which a still-rusty Cassano ultimately volleyed over.

Prandelli has viable alternatives, of course, in Sebastian Giovinco and Antonio Di Natale, who looked lively after coming on as a substitute. However, having been forced to postpone the Luxembourg friendly (how significant is that looking now?) and with no more games in which to experiment, the Italy boss is unlikely to make any drastic changes to the side which started against Russia. The Azzurri now just need to try to regroup and pray that adversity will once again bring the best out of them at a major international tournament. Indeed, what other option do they have? As American sports fans like to say, they can either go big, or go home.

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