Cesare Prandelli has admitted there's apprehension within the Italy camp ahead of their opening UEFA EURO 2012 qualifier away to Estonia tomorrow. Gli Azzurri are trying to rebuild following a disastrous FIFA World Cup™ defence in which they failed to win a game en route to first-phase elimination.
Since then there have been changes afoot, with Prandelli succeeding Marcello Lippi at the reins and many of the old guard pushed out and replaced by younger players. But Italy have not won a game in this calendar year and failure to beat Estonia would mean equalling their worst-ever run of eight games without victory. The new coach has conceded that this has provoked nerves from his charges.
"Of course everyone's feeling fragile because there's an atmosphere of uncertainty and worry, so it's natural to feel fragile," Prandelli said. "Some of these players only started their journey with the national team five days ago, so it's natural to be nervous.
"But there's also another aspect which is letting them know that they're doing something important, and they're the protagonists. That's part of the work we do, it's not just on the pitch, we also work on their psychology."
On paper this should be an easy game for Italy against a team positioned 94th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. However, Prandelli stressed his side's hosts need to be taken seriously.
"It depends on how we play and what attitude we show," the 53-year-old said. "If we lose these games [against Estonia and at home to Faroe Islands on Tuesday] I wouldn't say it's a disaster, but it is what it is.
"We always have respect for our opponents. It's not just that everyone says every game is hard, they really are. It depends on what happens. After a match you can maybe say it was an easy game but when preparing for a match, definitely not.
"It's a qualification game on a small pitch. They're a good team, we've had a look at them, they've got some good players. The potential pitfalls are related to what attitude we show. We're all curious, we can't wait to get started. I've asked the lads to grow together as a team and their attitude has been exceptional."
Cassano the key
Prandelli has already selected his entire outfield team and is only undecided on his goalkeeper. Giampaolo Pazzini will play up front, flanked by Antonio Cassano on the left and Simone Pepe on the right. Captain Andrea Pirlo will be joined by Daniele De Rossi and Riccardo Montolivo in a three-man midfield.
Leonardo Bonucci will partner Giorgio Chiellini at the heart of the defence, with Cristian Molinaro and Mattia Cassani operating as full-backs. In goal it is a toss up between Palermo's Salvatore Sirigu, who made his debut under Prandelli in last month's 1-0 friendly defeat by Côte d'Ivoire in London, and Bologna's uncapped Emiliano Viviano.
Whatever his team, Prandelli believes one of the most important elements to Italy's success is getting the best out of Cassano. And the former Fiorentina coach believes he has the key to that.
"He's a lad who always needs affection, that's the key to the door with Antonio," Prandelli said of the Sampdoria forward. "If he feels someone is treating him sincerely with affection, he opens up completely. If he doesn't feel that affection, he turns in on himself."