If this summer's World Cup was a chastening experience for Fabio Capello then he will at least know that he got off more lightly than his countrymen. England's 4-1 defeat to Germany may have been humiliating but Italy's exit at the group stage was, for the leading national newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport, "the darkest and most terrible day in our football history". Never before had the country left a World Cup without a single victory. By achieving just two draws in Group F they had performed worse, even, than New Zealand.
The lone positive note for Italy was that they at least had an immediate succession plan in place. Cesare Prandelli had agreed before the tournament to replace Marcello Lippi as coach, and was duly unveiled on 2 July. From a symbolic standpoint, the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) could scarcely have chosen a better man. Prandelli may not have the medals ? as a manager his biggest achievement so far is winning Serie B ? but he does possess a warmth, openness and charm that make for a stark contrast with his predecessor.
Where Lippi's second tenure had come to be characterised by an us-against-them mentality in which questioning the manager would not be tolerated, Prandelli's stewardship was soon being referred to by journalists as L'Italia del sorriso ? the Italy of the smiles. Even after losing his first game in charge, a friendly against Ivory Coast in London, the manager remained upbeat. "For me the glass is half-full," said Prandelli, who takes his team to Windsor Park to play Northern Ireland tonight. "Lippi, too, lost his debut before going on to win the 2006 World Cup."
That Prandelli was capable of appealing to a disillusioned public had already been affirmed by his team selection for that friendly. Lippi insisted that the squad in South Africa was as good as it got for Italy, railing angrily that "I haven't left any champions at home", but Prandelli immediately summoned the one man the whole nation had been crying out for long before last summer: Antonio Cassano. In fact, he went as far as to say he planned to build his side around the forward.
Cassano rewarded such faith with a decisive performance in Prandelli's first competitive game in charge in the Euro 2012 qualifiers. Estonia are hardly fearsome opponents but had led after a goalkeeping blunder in Tallinn. The backheel flick with which Cassano set up Leonardo Bonucci's winner, after having himself scored the equaliser, exemplified an ability to think beyond the most obvious option that was sorely lacking in South Africa.
He was on the scoresheet again as Italy thrashed the Faroe Islands 5-0 in Florence, the Azzurri's biggest win since 1993. There, again, Prandelli's public relations value could be seen. The national side have been deeply unpopular in Florence for many years and in the past could expect to be heckled and abused by the home support. For this fixture the stadium remained half-empty, yet those who came received Italy and, in particular, Prandelli, fresh from five successful years as manager of Fiorentina, warmly.
But goodwill can only take you so far and Prandelli knows he has his work cut out. His team looked laboured for long stretches against Estonia and despite having already given first caps to eight players, including Mario Balotelli and the Brazilian-born striker Amauri, Prandelli has acknowledged the talent pool is not deep at all positions. After recalling Gianluca Zambrotta for the games against Northern Ireland and Serbia, he lamented his inability to find younger full-backs capable of displacing the 33-year-old.
There are reasons to be encouraged as well, though, not least in goal where the emergence of two immensely gifted youngsters ? Palermo's Salvatore Sirigu and Bologna's Emiliano Viviano ? has calmed anxieties about Gigi Buffon's absence through injury. The former Juventus playmaker Sebastian Giovinco had caught Prandelli's eye with a sparkling start to the season following his move to Parma, though his first cap will have to wait after he suffered a thigh strain last month.
Prandelli has talked of a future formation featuring Balotelli and Cassano behind a further striker, and it seems clear that he is a long way from having a settled first XI. But after Lippi's dogmatic commitment to the old guard who had helped him win in Germany, that in itself is most welcome.
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