2014 World Cup team preview: Italy

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Getting to know…Italy
Gli azzurri are aiming to put a fifth star on their country’s crest. Italy have won the World Cup four times. They lifted the trophy the first time they entered (and hosted) the competition, and took it again the next time around. Then there was a wait of nearly forty years before Italy won again, this time in Spain. Their most recent win came in 2006, when the azzurri beat France in a penalty shootout. 

Italy didn’t do so hot in the last World Cup. Drawn into a group with Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand, they looked to be a lock to move on to the next round. Instead, they drew two and finished out by losing to Slovakia, finishing bottom of the group. The azzurri went on to redeem themselves at Euro 2012, however, where they wound up second only to Spain.

If you’re curious as to why Italy are the blues, when their tricolore flag is red, white, and green, it’s all down to royalty. That shade of azure blue comes from one of the royal houses that played a role in unifying Italy. The blue was then adopted in the seal of the Italian presidency, and is traditionally worn by Italian national teams.

Now, if that question comes up in a World Cup pub quiz, you’re all set.

Record in qualifying
Undefeated in ten, Italy took top in UEFA Group B.

But there are a few points to qualify here. First, Italy found themselves challenged by teams such as Armenia and Bulgaria – they’ll be running up against much stiffer competition in Brazil.

Second, nine of Italy’s 19 goals were scored by players not going to the World Cup. Dani Osvaldo, Alessandro Florenzi, and Mattia Destro were not selected, while Riccardo Montolivo was a last minute scratch due to injury. Cesare Prandelli is more about the system than the talents of the individuals, but this still may be cause for concern.

A look at Group D
Italy found themselves in a dangerous group, but not one that’s unbeatable.

Costa Rica are almost certain to go out, especially with two of their best players injured. The real struggle will be among Italy, Uruguay and England. Uruguay head to the tournament with a rather aged squad, but if Luis Suárez is fit, they’re almost certain to get through to the next round. Then again, England are likely prepared to sit back and close down an opponent, keeping a solid defense to ensure they progress.

In other words, this could very well be one of the groups in which advancement is determined by goal difference. Which could make things very exciting indeed.

Game schedule

Saturday, June 14 at 6 p.m. ET: England vs. Italy (Arena Amazonia, Manaus)

Friday, June 20 at 12 noon ET: Italy vs. Costa Rica (Arena Pernambuco, Recife)

Tuesday, June 24 at 12 noon ET: Italy vs. Uruguay (Estadio das Dunas, Natal)

Star player

Hands down, it’s Mario Balotelli. He lifted Italy to near-dizzying heights in the last European Championship, and if he’s on form, he’ll be the one pulling them through to the later stages.

Notice we’re talking “star” quality, here. If you’re looking for the key to Italy’s play, that lies with Andrea Pirlo. When the midfield maestro is at his silky-smooth best, Italy ticks along beautiful. But if the opposition man-marks Pirlo out of a game, the azzurri start to struggle.

But Balotelli is a star. He’s a star in the way he plays – he’s capable of getting himself into dangerous positions, where he’ll either produce a sublime finish in the tiniest amount of space, or, yes, win his side a penalty. The drama definitely follows wherever Balotelli goes. He’ll appeal to the referee, he’ll sulk if taken out of the game, he may even set off fireworks in his hotel room. But it’s worth it to watch him score goals.

Manager
Cesare Prandelli was brought on from Fiorentina in the summer of 2010, but unfortunately for the azzurri, he didn’t actually take the reins until after their dreadful World Cup. He then reworked the side, guiding them to the final in Euro 2012.

Prandelli is an interesting character, emphasizing coherence in the squad almost above all else. Players that violate his Code of Ethics will find themselves on the sidelines. He certainly plays favorites with the Italian players, but it can’t be denied that he knows what he’s doing. His Italy side plays a patient game with a rather slow build up – but don’t go calling them defensive. Let’s leave that old stereotype aside, shall we? They’re respectable enough at the back, but it’s the midfield play that makes them shine.

Secret weapon
Gianluigi Buffon. This will be the 36-year-old’s fourth World Cup, and his fourth as the starting goalkeeper for Italy. His time in South Africa was cut short, however, when he left at halftime in the first group stage game. Injury kept him out of the remaining matches – and we know how Italy fared.

Instead, the captain will want to replicate his performance at the 2006 tournament, when he let in just two goals, keeping five clean sheets. Known as “San Gigi”, it’s Buffon that will rescue Italy if the defense falls apart. While prone to occasional gaffs, he’s still one of the top goalkeepers in the world, and he’ll likely pull off at least one heroic save to prove it.

Prediction
Apparently people don’t like it when I joke about friendlies carrying great predictive value. But, while Italy have a strong squad, they’re not flashy, and they’re unlikely to make it past the quarterfinals. If they finish top of the group, they’ll most likely emerge from the Round of 16 to face Spain, where they’ll be outplayed as they were two years ago. If they finish second, I’m tipping Colombia to be the ones that send them home.

What we love about Watford

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This week at ProSoccerTalk we will be detailing what we love about each Premier League club competing in the 2019-20 season and next up is Watford.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Each day we will release details on why who adore each team in particular as we remind ourselves just how awesome the PL is as we await its return following the suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Time to take a closer look at the Hornets.


Troy Deeney: Troy Deeney is – and has been – the face of Watford since his move from Walsall in 2010. A move that came about after Deeney, a Birmingham native and Birmingham City supporter growing up, submitted a written transfer request to exit a then-League One side to make his way to the Championship. His first year at Vicarage, however, was rough. The striker managed to score only two goals in 36 league appearances, raising questions about whether or not Deeney was built survive outside England’s third division.

Since that trying first year with the Hornets, Deeney hasn’t looked back, making his way into the “Watford’s best players ever” conversation with a remarkable 129 goals in 388 appearances. Only club legends Luther Blissett – considered by many as the best Hornet ever – and John Barnes have more top-flight gals than Deeney himself. 

Historical, last-gasp win against Leicester City: May 2013, Vicarage Road. Leicester City’s Anthony Knockaert goes down in the box after minimal contact with a Watford defender. A penalty is called in the visitor’s favor. The aggregate stands at 2-2 as the clocks ticks the final seconds of a two-legged Championship play-off semifinal between the Hornets and the Foxes. Knockaert’s shot from the spot – directed right down the middle, with pace – is blocked. His second chance as well. Watford recover and immediately go back the other way.

 

Only seconds remain before the head official sends the match to penalty kicks, but Watford is looking for the final blow. Fernando Forestieri desperately sends a textbook cross inside the box. Jonathan Hogg meets the ball midair and heads it into an incoming Deeney, who seals a goal – and celebration – for the ages.

The Watford-Elton John connection: While Manchester City may have Oasis brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher rooting them on, Watford count on the support of multi-generational musician Elton John. A lifelong Hornet supporter, the English rock legend has done more than just “support” the club from the stands, though. 

In 1976, Elton John became Watford’s chairman and director. He eventually sold the club in 1987 before re-purchasing it a decade later from Jack Petchey. John no longer owns his childhood team, but he remains a part of the club as the honorary life-president.

Premier League Rivalries: North London derby

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One of England’s longest-running and most competitive encounters, the North London derby between Tottenham and Arsenal makes for one of greatest rivalries in Premier League.

The matchup dates back to the early 20th century and has added tons of thrilling chapters to its book of history. Since the start of the Premier League era, both clubs are constantly competing not only to outdo one another but to make a name for themselves at the top echelons of European football.

The North London derby is much more than two rivals facing off for 90 minutes, it’s the dichotomy between the two ways of living in modern-day north London.

Pro Soccer Talk’s Joe Prince-Wright dives into the derbies origin, its development and its actual reality.

The 2 Robbies Podcast: Adapting to life without football

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Robbie Earle & Robbie Mustoe touch base on how their each adapting to day-to-day life without any professional football action worldwide amid the coronavirus pandemic (0:40), how the game moves forward from here (4:50) and what certain players, coaches and teams have done to help out amid trying times (14:00). Plus, discussion on what they’ve been doing to stay active and healthy while living safely in isolation (23:00).

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

To listen to more lively conversations and passionate debate from Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe, subscribe to The 2 Robbies Podcast on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

And you can follow them on Twitter @The2RobbiesNBC here.

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]

What we love about Southampton

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This week at ProSoccerTalk we will be detailing what we love about each Premier League club competing in the 2019-20 season and next up it is Southampton.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Each day we will release details on why who adore each team in particular as we remind ourselves just how awesome the PL is as we await its return following the suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Time to focus on the Saints.


An amazing academy: From Gareth Bale, Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott and Luke Shaw in recent years to Alan Shearer and Matt Le Tissier in the past, Southampton have always had a reputation of being eager to play youngsters and that helps massively with recruiting the best young players from around the UK and Europe. Their training facility in the New Forest national park is geared around developing young talent and if you are a fan of Southampton you’ve seen some of the best young talents in recent history pass through the club. The odd player like Le Tissier or James Ward-Prowse will stick around for their entire careers but one of the things we love most about Southampton is how often new players come through their academy. This season their most recent win against Aston Villa saw five academy products involved for Saints and one for Aston Villa, as they continue to develop top young talent which provides the club with players they don’t have to pay for, plus they can sell them on for huge profits. Will Smallbone, Michael Obafemi and Jake Vokins are the latest youngsters who will break through in the coming months. And so the conveyor belt continues.

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Becoming the best feeder club in the Premier League: A feeder club, selling club, call it what you want, but there’s no doubt Southampton have become the top team to develop promising talent and then sell players on for huge profits. Sadio Mane, Virgil van Dijk and Morgan Schneiderlin were bought by Saints, improved at St Mary’s and then sold on for huge profits to the Premier League’s big boys. Southampton’s fans obviously do not enjoy seeing their best players sold each season but it provides them with valuable income to compete with the top 10 teams. Due to their huge overhaul in 2014 when Mauricio Pochettino left for Tottenham and Shaw, Calum Chambers, Lallana and Dejan Lovren followed him, new manager Ronald Koeman was able to lead Saints to seventh and sixth place finishes in back-to-back seasons. With four-straight top eight finishes from 2014 to 2017 with Europa League appearances and cup runrs, Southampton became the model of consistency despite losing their best players and managers. We have to give a special mention Pochettino and Koeman who both moved on to bigger jobs but owe Saints a lot for allowing them to thrive in the Premier League since their return to the big time in 2012. Moussa Djenepo, Jan Bednarek and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg are the latest examples of players bought for relatively small sums from Europe and developed into Premier League regulars at Saints. Southampton are a family club and their is a close connection between the fans and players, which allows them to develop away from the spotlight of some of England’s bigger cities.

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Danny Ings: The local lad played for Bournemouth, Burnley and Liverpool before returning home to play for his hometown team and boy has he made up for lost time. Ings, 27, didn’t get into Saints’ famed academy as a youngster and took a long, tough, winding round to get back to St Mary’s. After several injury-plagued seasons at Liverpool he is now fully fit and this season he’s been a revelation with 18 goals in all competitions for Saints. He is the reason they are clear of relegation trouble up until this point in the season. Everybody loves Ings. Jurgen Klopp and every single Liverpool fan adores him and there’s not a neutral out there who isn’t happy to see him scoring goals and playing with a smile on his face. Ings is on the verge of the England squad and he leaves everything out on the pitch each time he plays. He is wearing the number nine shirt and scoring goals for his hometown team and he grew up in a house just three miles from St Mary’s stadium. Ings is home and Southampton are so glad their $22.5 million signing from Liverpool is feeling comfortable and, most importantly, scoring goals.

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‘Klopp of the Alps’ has a clear plan: It is safe to say Ralph Hasenhuttl has a clear playing philosophy and plan for Southampton and now he has been in charge for 18 months you can see things starting to come together. Southampton have one of the youngest teams in the Premier League so there’s still a lot of mistakes in their play, especially defensively, and Hasenhuttl has been hamstring by his predecessors making several mistakes in the transfer market with pretty much all of the $100 million they received from Liverpool for Virgil van Dijk in January 2018 now spent on players who are out on loan. The so-called ‘Klopp of the Alps’ is expected to sign a new long-term contract at Saints in the coming months and he loves giving young players a chance to shine, just like he did at RB Leipzig before he arrived in the Premier League. Hasenhuttl loves young, hungry players who are brave, press high and excite the fans. After Leicester smacked Southampton 9-0 earlier this season, Hasenhuttl went back to basics and Saints have been superb in recent months with wins against Chelsea, Leicester and Tottenham some of the highlights. Hasenhuttl completed his coaching badges in Germany at the same time as Klopp and their playing philosophy is eerily similar. The Klopp of the Alps looks set to stabilize Saints after recent relegation scraps and if he is ever handed money to spend, he could certainly push them back into the top 10.

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