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Italy continue to seek identity
Italy will embark on their second Confederations Cup campaign with a strong squad which is poised to qualify for their 19th World Cup, but Cesare Prandelli's quest for a near definitive starting XI is not over.
The 55-year-old Italian, who earned his spurs in a turbulent but largely successful five-year spell with Fiorentina, took over from Marcello Lippi in the wake of Italy's group stage exit from the 2010 World Cup.
Italy's disaster in South Africa marked the end for some of those who had worn the Azzurri shirt with pride, including defenders Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluca Zambrotta and midfielders Mauro Camoranesi and Gennaro Gattuso.
Prandelli's task has been integrating Italy's youth players with the more experienced squad members, and that has prompted tactical tinkering which has sparked some criticism.
Prandelli, however, said he will stick to his plan to make Italy great again.
"It's been said we'll make a lot of changes, but the most important thing is for us to play quality football," he said after a dire 2-2 draw against Bulgaria in Sofia at the start of World Cup qualifying last September.
"We are Italy and we must characterise something more than a simple tactical model. We have to rediscover our identity."
From the Lippi squad that secured Italy's fourth World Cup triumph in 2006 and the side he led through that disastrous 2010 campaign, there are now only a handful of real 'veterans' in the Italy camp.
Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo boast 128 and 99 caps for the Azzurri, with fellow Juventus teammates Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli on 58 and 42 respectively.
Daniele De Rossi of Roma is the elder statesman in midfield with 85 caps while Prandelli's most experienced stiker is Bologna's Alberto Gilardino, who has 18 goals in 51 appearances but has not played regularly in recent campaigns.
While Gilardino and De Rossi are among the 23-man travelling party, Prandelli is not afraid to leave experienced members out, and recall others, when adaptations are needed against certain opponents.
AC Milan's Riccardo Montolivo has cemented a midfield starting place just behind the two strikers with Emanuele Giaccherini and Claudio Marchisio also in the midfield mix.
Prandelli has also included Alberto Aquilani (Fiorentina), Antonio Candreva (Lazio), Alessandro Diamanti (Bologna) and Alessio Cerci (Torino) to his midfield.
After using Mario Balotelli and AC Milan teammate Stephan El Shaarawy to spearhead his attack in an early season friendly defeat to France, Prandelli employed Balotelli and Roma's Pablo Osvaldo at the head of a 4-3-1-2 formation for a more recent friendly which finished 2-2 against Brazil in Geneva.
"We were 2-0 down at half-time, we don't quite know how, but the important thing is we didn't lose our composure and we always looked to score," Prandelli said after the game.
Questions remain over Prandelli's penchant for tinkering but the coach has won respect and enjoyed wide support, notably among the critical Italian sports press, since he led a bedraggled Italy squad to the Euro 2012 final.
Although Balotelli scored two superb goals in the semi-final against favourites Germany, the Azzurri were humbled 4-0 by Spain in the title match.
Prandelli and his squad, however, won plaudits for their endeavours and Balotelli -- a player known for matching his on-field exploits with controversy off it -- is now one of the first names on the team sheet.
Yet the 22-year-old continues to court controversy and received a reminder of his duties after a needless sending-off during a scoreless draw in a World Cup qualifier away to the Czech Republic last Friday.
"Mario has to accept and learn to deal with certain situations," said Prandelli. "He suffered a lot of fouls but we're trying to make him understand he can't react to every provocation."
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