Italy a threat despite aging players, mavericks
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's two most influential players have a combined age of over 70, their most prolific striker has been omitted over fitness concerns following injury, and other key players are prone to wild swings in temperament.
Meanwhile, an unproductive youth system is struggling to replenish the talent pool and, despite his best efforts to promote younger players, coach Cesare Prandelli, 56, could end up fielding a starting XI with an average age of around 30.
Domestic soccer is in seemingly perpetual decline, many stadiums are in a dilapidated state, match-fixing continues to raise its ugly head, and the world's top players have gone elsewhere.
Yet for all of Italian soccer's problems, the four-times world champions remain a World Cup threat, and there is a sneaking suspicion that Prandelli, one of the game's most likeable and eloquent coaches, will somehow come up with the right formula when it matters.
His first task is to steer them through a tough-looking first-round group against Uruguay, England and Costa Rica and make sure they do not suffer a repeat of their elimination at the first hurdle in South Africa in 2010, when they went home early following draws with Paraguay and New Zealand and a defeat to Slovakia.
In nearly four years since then, he has restored Italy's credibility and largely succeeded in removing the histrionics and negativity from their game.
Against the odds he led them to the final of Euro 2012 and they nearly upset Spain in the Confederations Cup semi-final last year before losing on penalties.
Helped by a code of ethics which he has applied implacably and led to Daniele De Rossi, Mario Balotelli and Dani Osvaldo being dropped at various stages, he has shown an uncanny knack for dealing with problem players.
Italy certainly have plenty of those.
Balotelli, who seems almost certain to lead the attack, has managed to curb the worst excesses he showed at Manchester City since joining AC Milan just over one year ago, but is still prone to mood swings and often acts as if he is carrying the world on his shoulders.
Argentina-born Osvaldo, who scored four goals in the qualifiers and has left a trail of training ground rows and other controversies behind him in his turbulent career, was ultimately left out. Yet this was due to a lack of form rather than misbehavior.
De Rossi, a superb all-round midfielder, also has a wild side which has earned him a hatful of red cards during his career for AS Roma and Italy. Meanwhile, forward Antonio Cassano embarrassed Italy at Euro 2012 when he said he hoped that there were no gay players in the squad.
Italy fielded 40 players in the World Cup qualifiers as Prandelli searched for some younger blood, yet his side in Brazil is likely to feature plenty of old faithfuls.
Gianluigi Buffon, 36, remains the undisputed first-choice goalkeeper and is set to play at his fourth World Cup while Andrea Pirlo, who will be 35, is still pulling the strings in midfield.
Pirlo, who like Buffon was in the 2006 World Cup-winning team, has helped Juventus dominate Serie A over the last three seasons and remains one of the world's great free-kick specialists.
Despite their age, both players would be welcome in almost any other national team.
Other regulars in the qualifying campaign, such as Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and De Rossi, are all approaching or past their 30th birthdays.
Balotelli should lead the attack, although the second striker, if there is one, is one of many cards that Prandelli is keeping close to his chest.
Fiorentina's Giuseppe Rossi would have been the obvious choice but the U.S.-born striker, who missed Euro 2012, was left out, having failed to convince Prandelli of his fitness after only recently returning to action from a new knee injury.
He was Serie A's leading scorer with 14 goals and had been enjoying a superb comeback season until he was struck down again in January.
On the plus side, forwards Ciro Immobile and Alessio Cerci have been scoring goals regularly this season for Torino while the volatile Cassano has enjoyed a resurgence with Parma, giving Prandelli plenty of alternatives.
Italy do not have a set formation but tend to tailor according to whom they are facing. They play a modern, dynamic game, with pressing and quick attacks.
The youth system has shown some signs of life recently with the emergence of players such as midfielder Marco Verratti and defender Matteo Darmian.
It could also be argued that the decline of Serie A is a blessing as it has given more chances for Italian players to play regular first-team soccer.
Italy emerged unbeaten from a tricky qualifying group which included Bulgaria, Denmark and Czech Republic.
They were also unbeaten in Euro 2012 qualifying and since Prandelli took over they have lost only two out of 31 competitive matches - the Euro 2012 final to Spain and a Confederations Cup group match against Brazil.
Prandelli has removed the chip from Italy's shoulder and has insisted there is no going back to the old ways of sitting back in defense and provoking the opposition.
For once, they may even have the neutrals on their side.