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After performing much better in Sweden than they did in the last two U-21 tournaments, this Italy team at least succeeded by reaching the semi finals. Walter Townsend assesses the Italian impact in the tournament…

Success or failure

Deciding whether Italy’s tournament was a successful one or not goes to the very heart of what Under-21 football is all about.  If the games and tournaments organised a way of bringing through the youngsters and preparing them for senior first team action regardless of the results then Spain’s tournament, at least viewed over the two-year period, could definitely be viewed as a success.  They’ve drafted a number of their youngsters into their senior squad, and they now look ready to be part of the main team for many years to come.  But if the football played at Under-21 level is only about results then in terms of the Spanish performance it was an unmitigated disaster

Therefore if one applies the same formula to Italy one could cautiously express the opinion that a number of their players would be ready to take the step into the first team.  When making this statement it’s hard not to take into account the disastrous Italian performance at the Confederations Cup, since the senior squad would appear to require some fresh blood.  What better way to bring on the youngsters then by giving them a chance together at the finals.

However, given that the Italian public are therefore closely scrutinising their youngsters for signs of life in the junior ranks, the importance of the result actually becomes as significant as how many are promoted beyond this level.  Therefore in this regard the tournament has been a failure, as the squad certainly had sufficient quality to take the first prize.

How do you solve a problem like Mario?

If the Italian tournament is deemed a failure, in terms of result, then maybe one of the key areas that let them down was the tactics.  After a slow start against Serbia, when they were arguably outplayed by a team who would go on to be the flop of the tournament, the Italians were galvanised against Sweden winning despite being forced to play the majority of the match with only ten men.  They were made to work hard by Belarus in their final match, but overcome the concession of the first goal to run out 2-1 winners and book a place in the semi final against Germany.

After a strong first half where they looked the most threatening they came unstuck after what appeared to be a change in tactics after the break when Giovinco was assigned a more static role, giving Germany more chances to pin him down.  The decision to assign Giovinco a more fixed position in the attack must have come from the bench, and therefore the Italian management must take some of the blame for Italy’s premature exit after the torrid time the Juventus midfielder gave the German defence in the first half.

Perhaps part of the desire to tie Giovinco down was to try and get Mario Balotelli into the game more down the other flank.  The Inter forward had an erratic tournament with a super goal against Sweden, a dismissal in the same game, and a sporadic performance against Germany.  Football management is always a balancing act and often a subtle change in tactic can greatly affect the outcome of the game. 

Maybe Casiraghi would have been better continuing to let Giovinco roam the pitch, and push Balotelli and Acquafresca into central striking roles, rather than adopt a more orthodox 4-5-1 formation with his two attackers tucking in down either side. 

Still much to look forward to

Whilst the Italians are heading home early, there are certainly signs that one or two of this team could be making an impact next summer in South Africa at the World Cup.  For many football professionals this is the most important task of a junior side; getting youngsters ready for the big matches and exposing them to situations on and off the pitch to which they may respond negatively to at junior levels but thanks to experience gained react more positively to in the senior side.

Sebastian Giovinco was simply sensational especially as the tournament wore on.  The Juventus starlet came into the Euros with a big reputation after claiming the Player of the Tournament at the Toulon Festival just 12 months ago and more than justified the hype in Sweden.  Despite being only small of stature he still wins his fair share of tackles and seems to be able to take care of himself.  The senior side looked to be desperately short of creativity from the midfield and the like of Iaquinta, Toni etc. would relish playing alongside Giovinco as a result of some of the terrific service he provides.

Atalanta’s Luca Cigarini looked like a fine prospect in the centre of midfield, and could be another looking to make the break into the senior side.  The like of Pirlo and Gattuso may find that their days in the senior side are numbered with Cigarini knocking on the door.  Cigarini caught the eye with his range of passing.

Finally in defence there were a number of excellent performances, and arguably the entire back-four could be looking at promotion into the first team.  Marco Motta was perhaps the most eye-catching at right-back, and with Gianluca Zambrotta having a particularly poor Confederations Cup, Motta could be the first of this back-line to get a taste of the senior action.

So far none of this U-21 team have played for Marcelo Lippi’s senior team, but surely a call-up for at least one or two, and maybe more, must be in the offing if Italy wish to avoid a repeat of their South African debacle.

A long-term gain

Therefore we might not be able to judge the Italian performance in Sweden until after the World Cup in 12 months time.  If the Azzurri go on to succeed in South Africa with a number of this side in their ranks, then despite their premature exit from this tournament it can be judged a success.  However, if the senior side repeat the mistakes of the Confederations Cup in 12 months time, with or without members from this U-21 side, then sadly it may have been a wasted exercise for all involved.  Only time will tell.

Walter Townsend, Goal.com

Read Carlo Garganese's thoughts on Italy Under-21s Euro 2009 exit, and what it means for the future of the Azzurri, on Monday, only on Goal.com.

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