Focus on Italy

Italian strike force paying dividends

POZNAN, Poland – Heading into Euro 2012, one lingering question for Italy manager Cesare Prandelli was, “How do you solve a problem like Mario Balotelli?” There was no doubting the Manchester City forward’s talent, but could he keep his head? Could he deliver for the team, even if that meant sacrificing his personal goals?

But following the Azzurri’s 2-0 triumph over Ireland, one that clinched qualification to the knockout stages, the question has now morphed into something entirely different: How do you solve the three-headed monster that is Balotelli, Antonio Cassano, and Antonio Di Natale, and determine which two should be in the starting lineup?

Against Ireland, Italy prevailed thanks to goals from Cassano and Balotelli, the latter scoring from a thumping volley despite Ireland defender John O’Shea being draped all over him. And with Di Natale having scored off the bench in the 1-1 draw with Spain, all three Italy strikers have now scored in the tournament.

Yet Prandelli refused to be drawn into disclosing his thoughts on what circumstances would determine his starting striker force.

“I’m not thinking about that at the moment,” he said at the post-game news conference, in reference to his options up front. “For the next two days, I’m just going to try and get my players back to fitness, and then I’ll look. Of course, [the forwards] will be ready go, but the idea of always having these attackers ready to go could be a plus for us.”

Indeed it will. Cassano has been a spark throughout the group stage, and on Monday he was a threat with his creativity as well as his finishing, and deservedly won the Man of the Match award. Only his lack of full fitness due to heart surgery he had back in November has prevented him from being on the field longer, and against Ireland he was replaced after 63 minutes. Di Natale’s slashing runs have made him a handful as well, giving the Azzurri the added ability to get behind defenses.

And Balotelli? After injuring his knee in training two days ago, there were questions as to his availability, but not only did he play, coming on for Di Natale, but he showed his stratospheric  talent level with a goal to light up any match.

It’s a development that will no doubt give Italy’s opponents pause, and give Prandelli plenty of flexibility in terms of how he plans to attack opponents in the knockout stage. That said, odds are that Cassano and Balotelli will be Prandelli’s first choice. During the press conference, it emerged that two years ago, as Italy was exiting the World Cup in shocking fashion after the group stage, Prandelli said that Cassano and Balotelli would be key to the future of the national team. Now they were both on the scoresheet.

But even as the play of his forwards has expanded his tactical options, the sight of defender Giorgio Chiellini hobbling off with an apparent leg injury could very well limit them. While Leonardo Bonucci came in and performed well in Chiellini’s stead, the loss of such a key defender could see Prandelli forced to revert to the 3-5-2 formation that was used in the team’s first two group stage matches, with Daniele De Rossi assuming the role of sweeper once again.

All will become apparent in the coming days. For the present, Prandelli will be content to celebrate his side’s advancement to the quarterfinals.

“I’m happy for the team, I’m happy for the squad,” he said afterwards. “ I’m lucky enough to work with lads who are very serious. And also lads who have won a lot of trophies and are still very motivated. My task in this area is not that huge, because they’re the ones that determine the actual team spirit…These players have a lot of quality.”

The three players who have performed up front certainly fit that description.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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