Italy look in healthy shape ahead of their Group D meeting with Costa Rica, but may make a change to their defence
It was the image that summed up the new and relaxed Italy. Two days before the opening tie of their World Cup against England, Claudio Marchisio posted a photograph of himself and his two young sons asleep in his bed at the team hotel in Mangaratiba. “We were spied on by somebody during our nap,” the Juventus midfielder wrote, meaning his wife, who took the picture.
It could never have happened in South Africa, at the last World Cup, when Marcello Lippi was the manager and drill sergeant, and wives or girlfriends and children were banned from Casa Azzurri. Lippi thought that their presence would be a distraction, something to cause the players to take their eyes off the ball, but they bombed out anyway – possibly as a result of the isolation. Marchisio was a part of the unhappy squad that exited at the group phase.
Cesare Prandelli has brought only five others from that group to Brazil – Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi – and the manager that succeeded Lippi after South Africa has instigated change on many levels.
Families have been welcomed for a start. The players eat their lunch together but they can also spend plenty of time with their loved ones. In a move that would probably lead to heart attacks at the English Football Association, they are even allowed out in the evenings. Curfew is at 11pm but there are hardly sentries on patrol in the corridors. Prandelli trusts his players. He is laid-back until they step out of line; then, he is tough. Nobody want to step out of line.
The team heads into Friday’s second Group D fixture against Costa Rica in assured mood. The pre-World Cup nerves and the traditional pessimism back at home have been overtaken by a feel-good factor, which has been fired only in part by the scoreline against England, Marchisio and Mario Balotelli getting the goals in the 2-1 win.
It was the manner of the performance that earned Italy the plaudits. They are used to being lauded as streetwise tournament result-getters but it has been different over recent days, when they have heard a lot of praise from around the world for the attractiveness of their game. They completed an incredible 93.2 per cent of their passes. It feels good to be praised.
Prandelli has turned around the old stereotypes. He has promoted technically gifted players and he prioritises attacking football, with the full-backs given the license to press forward. Against England, Matteo Darmian belied his inexperience with a thrusting performance from the right, in which he combined effectively with Antonio Candreva.
The thing that has unnerved Italians has been the relative lack of security at the back, which has been a change for the worse in comparison to previous national teams. Gabriel Paletta has come in for criticism after his performance against England and the Argentina-born centre-back is the likely fall guy for the Costa Rica game.
Prandelli is expected to move Chiellini back into central defence from the left and swap Darmian over from the right in his place. Ignazio Abate could then come in at right-back. With Andrea Barzagli struggling with injury, Leonardo Bonucci could partner Chiellini in the middle. Prandelli said that the goalkeeper Buffon had trained well after the ankle problem that kept him out against England.
Prandelli’s naming of Paletta for the finals had been a surprise. The 28-year-old former Liverpool player only made his debut in a friendly against Spain in March, Prandelli having pushed to naturalise him and some Italians wondered why Argentina had never selected him if he was that good.
Paletta is not the only Oriundo – a player of Italian decent who was born outside of Italy. The midfielder, Thiago Motta, was born in Brazil – he moved to Europe aged 15 – and the local fans here consider him to be a traitor. They jeered his every touch when he played in the pre-tournament friendly against Fluminense and there were whistles when he came on as a substitute against England.
“I’m not thinking about that too much,” Motta said. “I feel like an Italian born in Brazil. Fortunately, I have an Italian family and was able to obtain an Italian passport.”
Prandelli is worried about the weather. Again. If it was stifling during the evening in Manaus against England, he fears that it could be even worse for the 1pm (5pm BST) kick-off here in Recife. Pirlo has said that it felt as though there was no air on the pitch in Manaus and De Rossi has described the Costa Rica game as “the most dangerous” because of the likely conditions in the north eastern coastal city.
The watchword in the Italy dressing room is “concentration”. Despite Costa Rica’s stunning 3-1 victory over Uruguay on Saturday, Prandelli’s team are the red-hot favourites – but do not tell him that. He is determined to keep his players grounded and he even had a warning for Balotelli. “There have been times when he was the man who would have taken us to the moon,” Prandelli said. “But then, after two months, he wasn’t performing. Many thought that he would not even make it to the World Cup. It’s important for him to do what he did in the last match. Otherwise, we will have someone just as good to put in the pitch.”
“Can we beat Costa Rica?” De Rossi said. “Well, there is no longer a World Cup as there once were, like Italia 90, when games ended in routs. Teams are organised, with strong players, and you cannot afford to think that Italy will beat Costa Rica just because we are called Italy.”