Italy’s Cesare Prandelli has recently had to deal with a headache that most other international coaches would love to be confronted with: an embarrassment of attacking riches.
Just a few months ago, Giuseppe Rossi, Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy seemed certainties to travel to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Rossi, though, subsequently picked up another injury and is yet to return to action, while El Shaarawy has suffered from knocks and loss of form in a struggling AC Milan side, and Balotelli continues to blow hot and cold.
In addition, numerous past masters have begun knocking at a door that previously appeared closed to them. Luca Toni, who is now almost 37 years old, has 18 goals under his belt this season, Francesco Totti (37) has shown he has lost none of his vision and skill while hitting the back of the net seven times, Antonio Cassano (31) has notched 11, while Alberto Gilardino (also 31) has an impressive tally of 14 to his name.
However, Prandelli has always had a preference for up-and-coming stars, and now seems to be giving serious thought to taking Torino duo Alessio Cerci and Ciro Immobile to South America. The emergence of this pair of free-scoring forwards in an Italian league where foreign stars are often fielded ahead of home-grown talent can be largely attributed to their unconventional coach, Giampiero Ventura, who arrived at Torino – his 20th club – in 2011.
“Qualifying for Europe has never been our objective. What I really wanted was to work with a group of young players, supported by a handful of veterans, in order to build the foundations of a team that would last,” explained the wily 66-year-old, whose formation of choice is an ambitious 4-2-4.
When Cerci signed for I Granata in 2012, his career was at a low ebb. A product of Roma’s youth academy, the lively attacker had been handed a first-team debut under Fabio Capello in May 2004 at 16 years of age.
However, he was then loaned out for three successive seasons, to Brescia, Atalanta and Pisa, after which he made just nine more league appearances for Roma before being transferred to Fiorentina in August 2010.
Despite this blow to his self-confidence, Cerci continued to represent his country at youth level. The three years that followed, which were punctuated with injuries and disagreements with the Viola coaching staff and fans, would further test his resolve.
After coaxing him to Turin, Ventura not only offered a sympathetic ear and much-needed encouragement, but placed the skilful left-footer on the right-hand side of the attack, his favoured position.
Ciro Immobile’s story is not dissimilar. After only three appearances for Juventus in 2008, the clinical striker embarked on one-season loan stints at Siena, Grosseto and Pescara, where he worked with Zdenek Zeman, whose reputation was founded on youth development.
During that 2011/12 campaign, Immobile revelled under the Czech tactician’s tutelage, scoring 28 goals in 38 encounters, and propelling Pescara back to Serie A after a 20-year absence.
In January 2012, however, Juventus entered into a co-ownership agreement with Genoa, selling half of the Naples-born front man’s rights. “I don’t think that it’s all that healthy to impose yet another loan on a 22-year-old,” said Immobile at the time.
He would fail to make a significant impact with Genoa, notching just five goals in 33 matches. Hoping to return to La Vecchia Signora, the penalty-box specialist instead found himself pulling on the maroon jersey of their great rivals, Torino, who had acquired the half of his rights previously owned by Genoa.
Very quickly, the two players formed an understanding that would see them develop into the most prolific strike pairing in Serie A, producing 33 goals and 13 assists in total. Immobile currently sits atop the Italian scoring charts with 21 strikes - a haul that does not even include one penalty - while Cerci has scored 13 goals and set up 11.
“I just needed a bit of confidence and the chance to perform in a calm environment where my contribution was valued. But I’m not getting carried away; I’m still the same humble, focused guy I’ve always been,” explained Immobile, whose style of play has drawn comparisons with the great Paolo Rossi.
Cerci made his international debut in a 2-2 draw with Brazil on 21 March 2013, prior to competing for La Nazionale at the FIFA Confederations Cup later that year. His versatility – he is capable of performing as effectively out wide as he does through the middle – looks likely to ensure him of a place in his nation’s 23-man squad for Brazil 2014.
Immobile, meanwhile, was handed his first and thus far only cap almost a year later than his club team-mate during a friendly 1-0 defeat by Spain, and is considered to have an outside chance of making the final cut. “Prandelli knows that I’m a hard worker. If he decides to call on me, I’ll give my all for the team, just like I do for Torino,” he said.
“It would be wonderful for us both to go to Brazil,” added Cerci. “But our chances are dependent on our performances with Torino. We need to keep playing well until the end of the season.”
As the selection debate continues back home, supporters with long memories are quick to point out that Salvatore Schillaci had also made just one international appearance when he was called up for Italy 1990. And everyone knows how that particular story ended.