By Mike Piellucci
It's difficult to ascertain when, exactly, the impasse between imagining England as the world conqueror they once were and acknowledging them as a relevant, deeply flawed middle-tier power, broke down in favor of cold reality, but one of the small joys of the 2014 World Cup is our arrival at a time when -- finally -- no one is making the English anything more than what they are.
You're more apt to find the Three Lions tabbed as a dark horse or an underdog than a serious championship contender, hardly a given to make it out of a stiff Group D that will pit them against Euro 2012 finalists Italy and 2010 World Cup semifinalists Uruguay. This being England, there's as much ravenous discussion about all of this as there would be even if they had been favored; heavy-hearted fatalism is as woven into the fabric of English soccer culture as the origins of the sport itself. But the ceaseless repetition of failure -- England won its only World Cup in 1966, and has cracked the semifinals just once since -- has made it all so much more casual now, with grim resignation having stamped out enough delusion that their inevitable pratfall will arrive with all the shock of Kenny getting killed in an episode of South Park. Crashing out in major tournaments is what England does; the only suspense lies in how they'll be maimed.
Despite that, there's been no shortage of buildup for Saturday's opening tilt with Italy in a battle of old-world riche. The Italians are many things the English aren't -- namely, a popular choice among the second-tier championship contenders, buoyed by a roster that blends experienced heads at the top of their game with a cluster of well-developed young talents, and a legacy of big tournament success that legitimizes its status as the major power England only purports itself to be. Pedigree aside, though, it's a curious paradox; England, the exhaustively hyped underachiever, ostensibly should not be able to go toe-to-toe with the Italians, whom they've never beaten in a major tournament, and yet it is among the most eagerly anticipated matches in the group stages.
Disappointment is seemingly imminent, then, but probably not for the reasons one would expect: If anything, this may be a battle of dueling letdowns. That's the role Italy occupied in South Africa as defending champions, a creaky side overly dependent on an outmoded core and, in Marcello Lippi, helmed by a manager whom the game had largely passed by. Although no one expected them to slink to the bottom of a cushy group, there was scant reason to take them seriously as a repeat contender, either.
But if Cesare Prandelli's appointment as Lippi's replacement first rustled the winds of change, Euro 2012 was the cyclone that whisked Italy back into the conversation of relevant continental powers. For so long the tactical equivalent of tapioca, Italy began to mix three-man defenses with varied four-man alignments, sometimes favoring a centrally focused 4-3-1-2 while opting for a 4-3-3 predicated on width in others. When a then-21-year-old Mario Balotelli bagged a brace to upset Germany 2-0 in the tournament semifinals, it became an easily digestible pellet of what this Italy -- Prandelli's Italy -- could do: Defend the way they always have, while dazzling in the process. The eventual 4-0 shellacking by Spain in the final hardly dampened the enthusiasm of what they had accomplished and what they may yet become. Two years after the extinction of an era, Italy had seemingly resurrected itself in record time.
Balotelli is going to Brazil, of course, as are goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, midfielder Andrea Pirlo and midfielder Daniele De Rossi, the final three holdovers from the 2006 championship team. Together, they are a microcosm of personnel shift that accompanies how Italy has been re-imagined strategically. Like 2006 and 2010, Italy will lean on veterans, with that triad flanked by other 30-somethings like center back Andrea Barzagli and forward Antonio Cassano. There are starlets, too, though -- Balotelli and 21-year-old left back Mattia De Sciglio and 24-year-old Italian scoring champ Ciro Immobile and the pint-sized 21-year-old Marco Verratti, who will soon inherit Pirlo's mantle as the ballast of the Italian midfield, to name a few. Not since 2002 will so many young players of significance be blooded into the Azzurri's lineup.
Which would be exciting, if the Italians hadn't done a preposterously poor job developing their young talent for the better part of a decade. Indeed, the biggest catalyst behind Italy's 2010 collapse reprises itself as the overarching concern in 2014: Only a handful of players on the roster are in the prime of their careers and offer significant international experience. Just eight players on the roster range from 28 to 32-years-old and two of those -- center back Gabriel Paletta and midfielder Marco Parolo -- boast a scant six caps between them. Of the rest, meanwhile, only the Juventus duo of center back Giorgio Chiellini and midfielder Claudio Marchisio offer dependably standout play. Defensive midfielder Thiago Motta is a solid rotational piece with a limited ceiling, while center mid Alberto Aquilani has run the gamut from to potential savior to injury-blighted burnout, and now figures to settle on the bench as something in between. Cassano is a soccer genius of the highest order and one of the greater talents of his generation, but a combustible personality of the highest order. His lackadaisical work ethic curtailed the majority of what should have been a 10-plus year international career; he's mellowed out at 31, but his poor stamina will likely preclude him from being depended on as much as Italy would like him to be. Though De Rossi will probably find his way into some crucial minutes in the name of guile and bite, his work for AS Roma at the club level always eclipsed what he does internationally and even that has begun to desert him, too. This is what passes for the experienced middle-ground of this Italian side: One genuine star (Chiellini), a few midfielders of varying consistency and competence and a shelf stocked by misfit toys.
There's a powerful allure to a team awash in veteran leadership and promising young talent but Italy's lack of an in-between makes them a see-saw teetering between too soon and too late, and one ultimately too incumbent on everything falling into place just right to make noise in 2014. Prandelli doesn't have, in other words, the luxury of appreciating a few pleasant surprises from the young players should they happen to arrive: De Scligio must anchor the left side of the defense; Verratti needs to play major minutes in the midfield; Balotelli, still young and volatile at 23, has to sustain a level of world class play every single game. It's doable, sure, but it isn't coincidence that, for the third straight tournament, this collection of young hopefuls hardly overlaps with the last. De Sciglio really could be the future of Italy's backline, for instance, but no less was expected for Domenico Criscito and Salvatore Bocchetti when they were selected in 2010, or Angelo Ogbonna in 2012. When none developed well enough to be chosen in 2014, it was a seismic hit to the present -- by depriving the roster of tenured, prime-aged contributors -- but also the viability of the future after producing just two dependable, experienced bodies on defense -- Chiellini and 27-year-old Leonardo Bonucci -- over the last eight years. Consequently, the pressure is only heightened on the 36-year-old Buffon to play without a dip in form in net, and on 35-year-old Pirlo to fend off dead legs; such is life without after failing to develop dependable replacements behind them.
Then there's the matter of how Prandelli figures to deploy his charges. The ability to play multiple formations is an asset when those options are equally effective, but Italy's current personnel dramatically favors the attacking 4-3-3. While that figures to be in Prandelli's arsenal, so too is the more narrow 4-3-1-2, a look he's often shoehorned his squad into despite the lack of a traditional attacking midfielder to slot behind the strikers, and now perhaps bereft of a reasonable facsimile after his preferred choice, Riccardo Montolivo, fractured his tibia in a tune-up match against Ireland. Factor in Prandelli's public declaration that Balotelli and Immobile -- his two best goal scorers -- will not play together and a squad already light on established pecking order may well lack cohesion, among everything else.
None of this is to suggest that Italy is a bad team, or even that there is a ceiling on what they can accomplish; the pieces are there to make a deep run in the tournament, however mismatched they might be. But the more likely scenario is this team is another World Cup cycle away from making a serious challenge, which makes Saturday's match far less appealing than what it could portend for 2016, with a fully realized Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Ross Barkley trading blows with Balotelli, Verratti and De Sciglio. That wouldn't be the exhibition everyone is hoping for, of course, not after four years of anticipation for World Cup action. But we should know better by now: When England's involved, things rarely live up to the hype, anyways.
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Mike Piellucci is a freelance writer from Dallas, based in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter at @MikeLikesSports.