Italy has a tough road ahead of them to get deep into the World Cup, as they will have to face England, Costa Rica and Uruguay in Group D.
Italy will square off against England first. This match will be a double-edged sword for the Azzurri as they will face what could be their toughest opponent of the group stage, whilst adequately preparing them for a less formidable Costa Rica squad and a sound Uruguay squad. One of the largest concerns for Italy in this matchup is an intangible, as England likely has not forgotten their most recent battle against Italy, in which they lost in a penalty shootout in the UEFA Cup knockout round in 2012.
The determining factor for Italy will be how well they can hold off England’s offensively minded squad. Italy’s back four will be solid as always, regardless of which seven defensive options Cesare Prandelli elects to utilize, but they will have to stop the likes of Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Steven Gerrard among others.
On the other third, however, the weaker England defensive side will have to be the trial run of the abilities of the mostly youthful Italian forwards, most of which have few international caps for the senior squad (Immobile with 1, Insigne with 4 and Cerci with 11).
As a result, this game is going to be played largely at midfield, and the team that can dominate the neutral third should take this game. The seven midfielders Prandelli has selected, though experienced, are vastly more conservative than the attack-minded England side. Italy will have to step out of their comfort zone and play with more urgency than they are used to, as Group D is a group so talented that a draw may not be an option against England if Italy looks to advance. However, it is not far beyond the realm of believability to think that Italy can take this match, as they match up quite evenly against this England side.
The easier of the three sides Italy takes on is Costa Rica. Ordinarily this matchup would be much closer, but the loss of Alvaro Saborio will prove to be detrimental to this Costa Rican side. Moreover, there is a lack of depth at the forward, not only in talent, but in numbers, as Jorge Luis Pinto opted to take only four strikers.
Even with Saborio, Costa Rica’s offense did not look strong enough to penetrate the Italian back four, and with his loss, things look much more bleak for the Costa Rican’s. Since Italy matches up well in this match, this may be when Prandelli explores the depth of his bench as the lesser experienced played such as Marco Verrati, and Lorenzo Insigne may get the nod at one point or another.
This is far from a throwaway match for the Azzurri, however, as Costa Rica sports a quite cohesive squad. Many of the players play in North and South America and have teammates on the squad, and that type of chemistry could proved to be vital for Costa Rica should Italy take their foot off the gas. Nevertheless, Italy matches up very well against this side, which is essential as this is a must-win matchup for Italy. Should they lose to Costa Rica, dreams of the knockout round will be all but shattered.
The last fixture of the group stage for Italy is Uruguay. Uruguay is a dangerous squad, coming off a remarkable fourth place finish in South Africa, followed by a first place finish in Copa América in 2011. It is easy to sleep on Los Charrúas, but by the time Italy squares off against them, they will likely have proven just how dangerous they are. Depending on the performance England puts up, it is possible that the result of this game will result in who moves on to the knockout stage.
Much like the England match, the result will be largely based on the aggressiveness of the Italian midfield and if Uruguay can break the back four of Italy. Uruguay presents a scary line of forwards, with threats like Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan, though all five forwards have the potential to give the Italian back four fits.
On the other end, Italy will have likely determined what pieces fit together at the forward, and those pieces must come together in order for Italy to have any chance at success. Though Italy holds the advantage on defense, do not sleep on Uruguay’s back four, as the chemistry of the two Atletico Madrid centerbacks Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez may be too much for the Italians to handle.
This final match is where Italy matches up the worst. Uruguay has had vast success in tournament play in recent memory, and their speed could frustrate Italy to no end. The Azzurri must find a way to establish their pace of play in order to keep Uruguay from running rings around them.
Overall, Italy matches up evenly with England, well with Costa Rica, and poorly against Uruguay. However, all three fixtures have variables that could make or break the Italians, and none of these games will be won on paper. The one constant Italy has will be Gianluigi Buffon, who at age 36 may very well be playing in his final World Cup.
Since 1997, Buffon has been remarkable in his 139 caps and he shows no signs of fading between the woodwork, as he provides Italy with a tremendous last line of defense. Much like 2010, the Azzurri have all the components to be a winning side, but if they rest on their laurels and try to play on autopilot, they will need binoculars to see the top of the Group D table. However, they are not far removed from a remarkable performance in the UEFA Cup in 2012, and depending on if the 2010 or 2012 squad shows up in Brazil, Italy has the potential to run the table.