Italy have qualified for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with two games to spare. It was, on paper, a tough group with Czech Republic, Denmark and Bulgaria all in with a chance of qualification. The Azzuri are unbeaten after eight group games and will be expected to win their final games to head to the World Cup in bouyant mood.
On the way to qualification Italy have won six games and drawn two (against Bulgaria away in the opening game and in Prague against the Czech Republic).
The six wins have seen the Azzuri score 15 goals, conceding only five. Forward Mario Balotelli is the top scorer in this qualifying campaign with four goals, taking his total tally for the national team to 11 goals.
As with every World Cup Italy will be amongst the favourites to win the cup next year, and will be aiming to win the famous trophy for a fifth time, 80 years since they won their first World Cup in 1934 on home soil.
Italy have played more World Cup football than any other team . In the pre-war era, the Azzurri were almost untouchable as they won the 1934 trophy on their debut appearance and retained the title in 1938. Post-war the Superga air tragedy which claimed the lives of the famous Il Grande Torino side of 1949 and provided the majority of the Italian national side at that time, had a knock on affect for decades as Italy lost their way on the international stage and were repeatedly knocked out in the first round of the World Cup.
In 1978, a new generation, including legendary striker Paolo Rossi, emerged and, after reaching the semi-finals in Argentina, won the World Cup in Spain in 1982.
|Marco Tardelli celebrates after scoring in the 1982 World Cup final. Image courtesy of www.2uptop.com|
Recent success in the tournament has been mixed to say the least. Italy failed to get out of the group stages in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Emerging from the disgrace of the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal the Azzuri managed to restore the honour of Italian football by winning the 2006 World Cup in Germany, defeating France on penalities in Berlin.
It was a different story again in the 2002 World Cup. The team were progressing nicely through the tournament and came up against co hosts South Korea in the last 16. But they hadn't banked on a hugely controversial referee in Byron Moreno.
In that infamous match Moreno chalked off a perfectly valid Italian goal, as well as disallowing Damiano Tommasi's golden goal which would have seen them through the the Quarter Final. Francesco Totti was sent off for diving, replays showed he slipped. The Koreans, however, were awarded a controversial penalty when Moreno adjudged that Christian Panucci had tugged his opponents shirt. Italy eventually lost to a golden goal from Ahn Jung-Hwan in the 117th minute. The game finished 2-1 to the Koreans and the Azzuri were on their way home.
Then, in 2010, to further compound the Italians insistance of corrupt refereeing, Moreno was arrested at JFK Airport in New York with over 6lbs of heroin strapped to his body, worth approximately 535,000 euros. He was sentenced to two years in prison, and was released in 2012.
And what of the 'Class of 2014'? Can the current squad mount a serious challenge to win the World Cup?
|Azzuri - 2013. Image courtesy of en.jabetarea.com|
Manager Cesare Prandelli has a richly talented squad at his disposal with a wealth of experience in key positions. The main man for the Azzuri for many years now has been Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. A veteran with 136 caps, and a World Cup winner in 2006, Buffon will be hoping to end his international career on a high.
The heartbeat of the team is controlled by the mercurial Juventus midfielder Andrea Pirlo, still going strong for both club and country at the age of 34. He is suitably supported by Roma's Daniele De Rossi. Add to that the quality of players like Riccardo Montolivo (Milan), Thiago Motta (Paris St Germain) and Emanuele Giaccherini (Sunderland) and the midfield is a very strong area for the Azzuri.
The defence is also vastly experienced with Juventus duo Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Christian Maggio (Napoli) leading the line giving confidence and experience to Andrea Ranocchia (Inter) and Angelo Ogbonna (Juventus) to name but a few.
Goals win matches though and, in attack, the Azzuri can boast a formidable front line. Star man is, of course, Milan's Mario Balotelli. His goals in the latter end of the qualifying campaign secured Italy's passage to Brazil. Prandelli can also look to Alberto Gilardino (Genoa) and Pablo Osvaldo (Southampton) for goals.
Italy are currently ranked as sixth favourites to lift their fifth World Cup, with odds of 20/1 with some bookmakers. If I was a betting man, I would stick a couple of quid on that...
Follow me on Twitter @insearchofluca