Cesare Prandelli is running out of time. The World Cup kicks off in exactly four months less a day, with teams obliged to register their 23-man squads even sooner, on 2 June. For some nations that might be straightforward, with only one or two fringe players’ places yet to be determined. But for the Italy manager, there are going to be some extremely difficult decisions to make.
The Azzurri, after all, fielded 40 different players over the course of their qualifying campaign, and that figure does not include unused squad members. Nobody featured in all 10 Group B games, Andrea Pirlo leading the way with nine appearances, while Gigi Buffon and Leonardo Bonucci had eight each. Those players aside, Prandelli showed himself willing to chop and change, responding to injuries at times, but also to his own assessments of which individuals were showing the best form.
This flexibility proved an asset, Italy qualifying with two games to spare for the first time in the nation’s history. But as the finals approach, fans are beginning to ask whether Prandelli knows his own strongest XI, and whether or not it might include yet more untested players.
In particular, there has been much speculation about the make-up of Italy’s attack. Prandelli has spoken since day one about his desire to build a team around Mario Balotelli and Giuseppe Rossi, and yet that pair have only been able to play together a handful of times, injuries and suspensions denying their partnership the chance it needed to get off the ground.
Instead, the manager has been forced to constantly reshuffle his forward line, using 10 different attackers during qualifying. Balotelli was Italy’s leading scorer with five goals, and yet only played in five games – finding himself excluded at different times due to disciplinary issues and lack of playing time at Manchester City. Pablo Osvaldo, with seven appearances, was a more consistent feature of Prandelli’s side.
But the latter player’s chances of starring in Brazil have since been damaged by a disappointing six-month spell at Southampton. After scoring 16 goals in 29 games for Roma last year, he managed just three in 13 for the Saints before moving to Juventus on loan last month. He played well on his debut for the Bianconeri at the weekend, but may still find his playing time restricted on a team who already have Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente ahead of him.
Right now, then, the only certainty for Prandelli would appear to be Balotelli – although even his nine league goals this season are offset by eight accompanying yellow cards. Rossi, if fit, will also find his way to Brazil, but after suffering yet another knee injury – expected to keep him out until April – he cannot afford any set-backs in his rehabilitation schedule.
Otherwise, squad places for attackers are very much up for grabs. Prandelli will have the option of calling on other forwards that he used throughout the qualifying campaign, such as Alberto Gilardino, Mattia Destro, Lorenzo Insigne and Giampaolo Pazzini. But increasingly he is also coming under pressure from the public to consider players whom he has not used before – the likes of Luca Toni, Domenico Berardi or Ciro Immobile.
The first of those, in particular, has been gaining vocal support. The newspaper Corriere della Sera published a feature on its website this Tuesday, pointing out that it had been 1,696 days since Toni last played for Italy but arguing that “it is time to run to his services once more”.
The World Cup winner is, at 36 years old, enjoying a career renaissance, scoring 11 goals to drive newly-promoted Hellas Verona into the race for a European berth. He also has the highest average match rating (7.5) with Corriere out of any potential Italy striker. “When things are going like this for a player,” added the paper, “he can put his ID card back in the drawer.”
Berardi and Immobile are at the other end of the scale – 19 and 23 years old respectively, and each without a senior cap to their name. The former won international headlines with his four-goal performance against Milan last month, and his 12 league strikes overall represent more than half of Sassuolo’s total output this season.
But Prandelli speaks about him only in measured tones. “Berardi? After a long ban, he needs to go through the Under-21s first, just like everyone else,” said the Italy manager – referencing the one-year suspension from the national team set-up that the striker was given after failing to answer a call-up to the Under-19 team last year. “If he does well there, as well as in the league, with continuity, then he will get a look as well. We shall see.”
Immobile might be another matter. Prandelli confirmed to reporters this week that he has been keeping an eye on the Torino striker, and that he was “following him closely for Brazil, too”. “Immobile has not surprised me,” continued the manager. “He is a modern, complete attacker. He has a great generousness to him, too. And he is continuing to get better as a goalscorer.”
Recently it has seemed as though Immobile is becoming more effective by the week. He has struck seven times in his last seven games, despite not taking penalties for his team. Indeed, remove spot-kicks from the equation, and the Torino player’s 12 goals overall would be enough to make him the top scorer in Serie A.
Perhaps we, like Prandelli, ought not to be shocked. Immobile has always been a natural goalscorer, dating back to his time growing up in Naples as part of the Sorrento youth team. In 2007-08, his final year with that club’s Under-17 side, he found the net 30 times – enough to earn himself a move to Juventus. He continued to dominate in the Old Lady’s youth set-up, leading her to back-to-back Viareggio tournament triumphs, and scoring a record-equalling 14 times along the way.
Immobile was briefly anointed as the heir to Juve’s attack, the symbolism not lost on fans as he was introduced as a substitute for Alessandro Del Piero on each of his league and Champions League debuts. But he was not yet ready for such a stage. He slogged through unsatisfying loan moves to Siena and Grosseto before exploding at Pescara in 2011-12. Inspired by Zdenek Zeman’s attack-minded schemes, he scored 28 times as the Delfini raced to a Serie B title.
Instead of accompanying Pescara into the top-flight, he returned to Juventus and was swiftly sold on co-ownership to Genoa. There he would struggle, scoring only five times for his new club. There were mitigating circumstances here – most notably in the fact that he had often been made to play out wide in order to accommodate the more experienced Gilardino – but it was to Immobile’s credit that he never really sought to make excuses.
After returning to Juventus again last summer, and this time being sold on co-ownership to Torino, Immobile was asked what he thought had gone wrong in Genoa. “Players often look for alibis – it’s easy to give the blame to others,” he told the newspaper La Repubblica. “I messed up, even if the atmosphere was not ideal for me.”
He has found a happier home in Turin, where Giampiero Ventura has not only stationed Immobile in his preferred position as the leading man in a 3-5-1-1, but also afforded him time to settle. The striker did not score his first goal until October. Since then, he has not stopped.
So effective has his partnership with Alessio Cerci been, that fans have begun to compare the pair to Francesco Graziani and Paolo Pulici – the ‘goal twins’ who led Torino to its most recent Scudetto in 1976. Immobile, a player well-versed in his footballing history, is making every effort to justify that comparison. “I read that Pulici would have 1,500 shots on goal every week,” he said last month. “In my opinion, training that hard is essential.”
Immobile also had his own footballing idols before joining Torino, though, citing the former Cesena and Brescia forward Dario Hubner as a player he tried to style himself after, and Mario Gomez as a more current role model. Just like both of those players he is tall and powerful, but refuses to limit himself to sniffing out chances inside the box. Prandelli’s praise for Immobile’s “modern” approach was a reference, in part, to his willingness to drop back, fight for possession and help to launch counter-attacks.
It is still far too early to anoint Immobile as the coming star of the national team, having, as he does, just half a season of high-quality top-flight performances under his belt. Plenty of great lower-league goalscorers have been and gone down the years without ever making much impact at the highest level.
But Immobile has done enough to deserve the consideration that he is receiving. There are very few sure things up front for Prandelli, and yet plenty of interesting options. Immobile might just be the most intriguing.