Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Scouting Report: Italy

From the US NAtional Team Players Association:

By Clemente Lisi , Feb 28, 2012

The United States will put its three-game winning streak on the line Wednesday when it goes up against Italy. The friendly against the four-time World Cup champions at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris – a place US coach Jurgen Klinsmann called “a difficult environment” – will be a tough test for the USA ahead of World Cup Qualifying in June.

While the Americans are preparing for the start of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying, the Italians are putting the finishing touches on the 23-player roster that will compete at the European Championship this summer.

Since Italy crashed out in the first round of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the Azzurri have been a work-in-progress under coach Cesare Prandelli and feature a mix of veterans and newcomers. Gianluigi Buffon can become the most-capped goalkeeper in team history if he gets any playing time. Buffon is currently tied for third-place all-time with Dino Zoff at 112 caps. Both rank behind defenders Fabio Cannavaro (136) and Paolo Maldini (126).

With the exception of Inter Milan’s Giampaolo Pazzini (23 caps and four goals for Italy), Prandelli has called up three other strikers with relatively little experience for the senior team. Sebastian Giovinco (Parma) has six caps and no goals, Alessandro Matri (Juventus) has just four caps and one goal and Fabio Borini (AS Roma), who has scored seven goals this season, is uncapped and got his first call up this past weekend. Prandelli left out an obvious option for an experienced striker, Manchester City's Mario Balotelli. Not completely surprising, since Prandelli has hinted in the past that he may not utilize him for the Euro ’12.

It has been Prandelli’s focus on youth players over the past 19 months that has helped the Italians reemerge following their World Cup disappointment.

“This team has done more than anyone had anticipated,” Prandelli told reporters on Sunday. “We hope to do even better and use the next five months to improve further.”

Italy, currently eighth in the FIFA rankings, qualified for the European Championship fairly easily last year, although it remains a team far below the level of a Spain or Germany. Prandelli has tested several tactical formations over the past year and will likely go with a 4-3-1-2 against the Americans. No matter what lineup he uses, Prandelli said he does not underestimate any opponent.

“Just look at what happened in South Africa,” he said, citing Italy’s loss against Slovakia and draws against Paraguay and New Zealand under his predecessor Marcello Lippi at the last World Cup. “We do not take any game lightly.”

Neither does Klinsmann, who has stressed what's happening with his own squad rather than focusing on the opposition. Fitness appropriate for soccer at the highest level is Klinsmann's goal along with regular exposure to top opponents.

“It’s very important that we get these games, and in particular playing them on the road. That’s when you really get players out of their comfort zone, and they have to deal with a difficult environment on a physical and psychological level,” he said. “Italy is a very smart and experienced team and there is a lot to take away from an experience like this.”

The Americans won the last game they played in Europe, 3-2 over Slovenia in November with a first choice squad. In January, they recorded back-to-back 1-0 wins over Venezuela and Panama with a squad made up primarily of Major League Soccer players. His current squad became an unintentional work in progress after a weekend reshuffle due to injuries.

Klinsmann added midfielder Sacha Kljestan and striker Brek Shea to the squad after Timmy Chandler (left hamstring strain), Jermaine Jones (right calf strain), Landon Donovan (bronchitis), and Jose Torres (right hamstring strain) were all forced to withdraw.

Even with those absences, the Americans will likely field a similar side to the one that beat Slovenia. Eight of the 11 players that started against Slovenia are available to Klinsmann. Midfielder Michael Bradley is the only player on the US roster with Serie A experience, having a standout season with Chievo. Bradley started against Genoa at the Luigi Ferraris stadium earlier this month in a 1-0 Chievo win.

Clemente Lisi is a New York-based writer.


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