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Friday, Jun 6, 2014

World, Sports

Italy a threat despite ageing players, mavericks

Reuters | Friday, Jun 6, 2014

Italy's coach Cesare Prandelli looks on during their international friendly football match against Luxembourg at Renato Curi stadium in Perugia June 4, 2014.

ROME - Italy's two most influential players have a combined age of over 70, their most prolific striker has been omitted over fitness concerns following injury, and other key players are prone to wild swings in temperament.

Meanwhile, an unproductive youth system is struggling to replenish the talent pool and, despite his best efforts to promote younger players, coach Cesare Prandelli, 56, could end up fielding a starting XI with an average age of around 30.

Domestic football is in seemingly perpetual decline, many stadiums are in a dilapidated state, match-fixing continues to raise its ugly head, and the world's top players have gone elsewhere.

Yet for all of Italian football's problems, the four-times world champions remain a World Cup threat, and there is a sneaking suspicion that Prandelli, one of the game's most likeable and eloquent coaches, will somehow come up with the right formula when it matters.

His first task is to steer them through a tough-looking first-round group against Uruguay, England and Costa Rica and make sure they do not suffer a repeat of their elimination at the first hurdle in South Africa in 2010, when they went home early following draws with Paraguay and New Zealand and a defeat to Slovakia.

In nearly four years since then, he has restored Italy's credibility and largely succeeded in removing the histrionics and negativity from their game.

Against the odds he led them to the final of Euro 2012 and they nearly upset Spain in the Confederations Cup semi-final last year before losing on penalties.

Helped by a code of ethics which he has applied implacably and led to Daniele De Rossi, Mario Balotelli and Dani Osvaldo being dropped at various stages, he has shown an uncanny knack for dealing with problem players.

Italy certainly have plenty of those.

Balotelli, who seems almost certain to lead the attack, has managed to curb the worst excesses he showed at Manchester City since joining AC Milan just over one year ago, but is still prone to mood swings and often acts as if he is carrying the world on his shoulders.

Argentina-born Osvaldo, who scored four goals in the qualifiers and has left a trail of training ground rows and other controversies behind him in his turbulent career, was ultimately left out. Yet this was due to a lack of form rather than misbehaviour.

De Rossi, a superb all-round midfielder, also has a wild side which has earned him a hatful of red cards during his career for AS Roma and Italy. Meanwhile, forward Antonio Cassano embarrassed Italy at Euro 2012 when he said he hoped that there were no gay players in the squad.

OLD FAITHFULS

Italy fielded 40 players in the World Cup qualifiers as Prandelli searched for some younger blood, yet his side in Brazil is likely to feature plenty of old faithfuls.

Gianluigi Buffon, 36, remains the undisputed first-choice goalkeeper and is set to play at his fourth World Cup while Andrea Pirlo, who will be 35, is still pulling the strings in midfield.

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